Friday, May 20, 2011

1862: An important legislative year

In 1862 the 37th Congress was in session, the union had dissolved into a bitter civil war, and the future of the United States was uncertain at best.  President Lincoln issued a proclamation in January of that year authorizing “unified aggressive action against the Confederacy.”  The number of casualties rose exponentially as battle after bloody battle began to take its toll on both Union and Confederate armies.  Chaos had engulfed the nation.  Surprisingly, in the midst of such dire circumstances, the 37th Congress and President Lincoln continued working on legislation for expanding the country westward.  Three of the top one hundred documents in the history of the United States were passed and signed in 1862, and they became the framework by which the U.S. would expand its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean.

The first act passed was the Homestead Act.  The legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862.  The Homestead Act was signed as Union troops were rushing to Washington D.C. to protect the nation’s capital city from Confederate forces.  The Homestead Act provided for 160 acres of public land, most of which was located west of the Missouri River, to individuals willing to build a home and live on it for five years.  During those five years you had to “improve” the land.  After five years, and meeting the requirements, the government turned over title of the land to the homesteader.  The Homestead Act spearheaded a wave of human migration unlike any other in history.
The second act passed was the Pacific Railway Act, signed on July 1, 1862.  The provisions in this legislation authorized a transcontinental railroad to run from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California down to Oakland, California.  For the first time, the United States had a plan and authorization to connect the East with the West.  The railroad was completed seven years later.  The railroad drastically reduced the amount of time it took to travel across country.  People and commodities could now be transported quickly over long distances, making such ventures as homesteading more economically viable.
The third act in this series was the Morrill Act.  The Morrill Act was signed on July 2, 1862 and provided for public lands to be sold by individual states to raise funds to build agricultural and mechanical colleges.  The Morrill Act had a twofold effect on the development of the West.  First, most of the public lands given to states were in western territories.  Each state was given 30,000 acres of public land for each congressional representative.  For example, if the state had two senators and one representative, for a total of three, then they would receive 90,000 acres of public land to sell.  The state was then to build a public college from the funds they generated from the land transactions.  Second, the colleges were to promote the agricultural and mechanical arts.  The research and curriculum advanced by these colleges enhanced agricultural and industrial practices. 
 Each piece of legislation contributed to the westward expansion of the United States in different ways, taken as a whole, they provided the land, education, and transportation to support western development Congress was seeking.  In the end, these three pieces of legislation did transform the United States, and as the sesquicentennial of these Acts approaches, many are looking back in an effort to understand the impact that this legislation had on the country.  Some speculate that 1862 was the most important legislative year in U.S. history… what do you think?  

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