Chapter 18


Failure of the Agrarian Utopia

Horace Greeley celebrated the passage of the Homestead Act 1862 as one of the most beneficent and vital reforms ever attempted in America or elsewhere, and in the twenty years following its passage the garden of the world became an article of Republican faith. Greeley was confident that millions of underprivileged city dwellers would leave their urban despair for the fair climes and unlimited opportunity of the West, ending the problem of unemployment. But the Homestead Act achieved almost none of the results it had predicted. Massive land grants to railways and speculators' evasions of restrictions on the purchase of government lands prevented the system from benefitting individual farmers; indeed, the railways sold more land (at an average price of five dollars an acre) than was ever distributed under the Homestead Act. The introduction of steam-driven tractors and threshing machines to the wheat regions of the Northwest pretty much wiped out the region's small subsistence farmers. By 1900 more than thirty-five percent of all American farmers had become tenants and many others carried heavy mortgages.

Theorists skeptical of the Homestead Act, such as the San Francisco printer Henry George, presciently warned of the ways in which land laws would promote concentrated holdings. The land speculator and railroad monopolist, expressions of larger Industrial Revolution forces such as the machine and big business influence in Congress, thwarted the Homestead Act's efforts to establish the 'garden of the world.' Earnest land reformers like George Julian repeatedly invoked the agrarian utopia but could offer no policy of resistance to the forces that were destroying it. Western farmers, who had been assured that responsible government policy would see to their preservation, saw the abyss between agrarian theory and their own actual circumstances broaden. The resulting disillusionment fueled the agrarian revolt of the late 19th-century.

After the Civil War, Republican policy became increasingly preoccupied with safeguarding the interests of the nouveau riche in the cities of the East. The speculator, the tycoon, the banker and the merchant became the focal figures in the national eye. The Western farmer was placed at the mercy of the railways and steamship lines and the grain markets of Europe and the East. The obvious contrast between longtime agrarian aspirations and the actual lives of farmers inspired the work of writers like Hamlin Garland and Edwin Markham, who rendered in grimly realistic terms the poverty-stricken and brutalized existence of the once-exalted yeoman.

Chapter 19