Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Homestead Act of 1862


The Homestead Act, a pivotal law which allowed for the disposal of western land, was enacted on May 20, 1862.  Coming during the Civil War, the Republican-controlled Congress was able to pursue a goal that had been thwarted by southern members, who were now gone.  This was part of a series of sweeping legislation which grew the federal government’s reach.

The law was shepherded through by one-term Speaker of the House Galusha Grow, who became known as the “Father of the Homestead Act.”  Grow represented a district in northeastern Pennsylvania and succeeded David Wilmot, the author of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery on lands acquired during the Mexican War.  Land was a major focus of the national government during the antebellum period in economic terms, on the expansion of slavery, and its impact  on the political calculus.

I have a foxed copy of a book which would have been used by potential homesteaders in the immediate aftermath of the 1862 law.  How to Get a Farm, and Where to Find One provides 345 pages of guidance on how to navigate through the world of acquiring a farm. 

The author, James Miller, warns about legislation such as the Morrill Act, which provided for land-grant colleges, have a harmful potential, quoting one member of Congress:  “Every day witnesses the birth of new projects, by which our public lands may be frittered away, and the beneficent policy of the Homestead Law mutilated and destroyed.”  Fortunately, Miller says, there are strategies “to obtain the greatest number of acres for the smallest amount of money.”

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