Friday, August 12, 2011
You Can, But You Can’t!
The last blog I posted hopefully brought some clarity to the issue relating to the untrue(ish) statement that African Americans were not allowed to homestead. Another claim that is made when speaking of the Homestead Act, is that immigrants were allowed to come to the United States and claim 160 acres of land as long as they declared their intention to become citizens. Is this true? It has to be right? It is written in the Homestead Act. Again I use the same quote from my last blog article, it reads:
“That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall… be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands.”
It is interesting to read this as it does say ANY person who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become a citizen. But, what many people skim over is what follows that seemingly sweeping statement, when it says “as required by the naturalization laws of the United States”. Yes, immigrants could come into the country and claim land under the Homestead Act of 1862, but we have to understand the naturalization laws of the United States examine what period of time in history we are referring to in order to understand who could and who could not become citizens, thus making them eligible to homestead.
First, could Asians homestead? What about people from India? Could all WHITE Europeans homestead? In order to find these answers one must not look at just the history of homesteading, instead a broader scope of American history must be examined. These answers can be found in the complicated history of immigration. The early years of homesteading were, as we know was exclusive to white men and women, because they were the only people that could be considered for citizenship, a necessary criteria to homestead. But the Civil Rights act of 1866 and the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 was designed to prevent excluding people from citizenship based on race or color. But, if the United States could prevent people from entering the country then this would not be an issue. So, in 1870 Congress passed the Naturalization Act. The Act limited citizenship “white persons and persons of African descent”. This effectively barred Asians from becoming citizens of the United States, thus making it impossible for them to homestead. The relationship between Asians and the United States concerning immigration is filled with prejudice and discrimination. In 1882 Congress was more forthright about their disposition when they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It wouldn’t be until 1942, a full 60 years, before Congress abolished the Chinese Exclusion Act. By the end of the 1940’s all restrictions preventing Asians from obtaining U.S. citizenship were abolished. This, in effect, gave Asians the opportunity to homestead.
What about people from India? This was a bit more tricky because India was an Asian sub-continent and anthropologists considered them to be of the same race as white people. Few had obtained citizenship, but in 1923 in the landmark case U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court ruled that people from India were not allowed to become citizens. The court conceded that they are “Caucasians” but that they are not “white”, arguing that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.” Obviously, this would have made it impossible for people from India to homestead. It would be 23 years before the United States would allow people from India the opportunity to become citizens.
And finally, could all white Europeans become U.S. citizens thus being allowed to claim land under the Homestead Act? The simple answer is no! This time the exclusion had nothing to do with race, instead it centered on political ideology. History books write about the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. began the decades long Cold War, but this was a continuation of a fear that had begun much earlier. Political ideology like communism, socialism, anarchism and Marxism were seen as threats to the United States going back to the 19th century. After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by a Polish anarchist, Congress passed the Anarchist Exclusion Act, preventing people with “radical” political ideology from becoming U.S. citizens. The Act would be expanded in 1918 in the wake of a successful socialist revolution in Russia. The legislation would remain largely in effect for the rest of the Homesteading Era! It was expanded in 1950 with the passage of the Internal Security Act and would not be repealed until 1971.
So, what does all this mean to the Homestead Act of 1862? I think here it is important to note that the Homestead Act did not exclude any population, however, it deferred to the naturalization laws of the United States. What was unique about the Homestead Act was its inclusive nature. Because it deferred to other laws like naturalization, the Homestead Act was quite adaptable to fluctuating shifts in social, legal, and political ideology. And it was this adaptability that made the Homestead Act relevant for 123 years.
University of Huston Department of History, “Digital History,” University of Huston, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/immigration_chron.cfm (accessed July 26, 2011).
 Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, “Aspiration, Acculturation, and Impact: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930,” Harvard University Library, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration (accessed July26, 2011).
http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5076/, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Certificate From The Circuit Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit., No. 202. Argued January 11, 12, 1923.—Decided February 19, 1923, United States Reports, v. 261, The Supreme Court, October Term, 1922, 204–215.