The Agrarian Utopia in Politics: The Homestead Act

During the crisis that preceded the Civil War the ideal of a yeoman society in the West exerted a powerful, perhaps even a decisive influence on the course of American history by shaping the policy of the Republican party.

The Republican platform of 1860, on which Abraham Lincoln was elected president, was a more cautious document than the platform on which Fremont had been defeated four years earlier. The abolitionist fervor of 1856 was cooling. The platform of 1860 opposed extension of slavery into the territories and criticized the proslavery Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court, but it declared against any interference with slavery in states where it already existed. The position with regard to slavery, in fact, had been weakened to such a degree that it was quite unsatisfactory to radical abolitionists.l

These changes were in large part concessions to Western opinion, especially that of the southern Ohio Valley as contrasted with the northern lake region, to which much New England radicalism had been transplanted. Horace Greeley, who played a dominant role in writing the platform, had doubted in 1859 whether the Republicans could get a hundred electoral votes on a square slavery issue.2 Everyone knew that the party could not succeed unless it carried the formerly Democratic Northwest. And in the Northwest, among recent German immigrants as well as among the descendants of pioneer settlers, the most important issue was the Homestead Bill, which had been vetoed by Democratic Presi-


dent Buchanan in 1858. "This Homestead measure overshadows everything with us, and throughout the West," wrote a Minnesota politician in 1860.3

The Republicans had been relatively slow to take up the issue of "land for the landless." It is true that when the future leaders of the party first turned their attention to the West they had translated their repudiation of slavery on abstract moral grounds into the slightly more concrete doctrine of "free soil." But this doctrine was not associated in their minds with agrarian tradition. They had related it to the older themes of the American empire and the passage to India. Such, for example, was the basis on which William H. Seward of New York demanded the admission of California in 1850.

The Atlantic States [he declared, in the accents of Benton and Gilpin],
through their commercial, social, and political affinities and sympa-
thies, are steadily renovating the Governments and the social constitu-
tions of Europe and Africa. The Pacific States must necessarily per-
form the same sublime and beneficent functions in Asia. If, then, the
American people shall remain an undivided nation, the ripening civili-
zation of the West, after a separation growing wider and wider for
four thousand years, will, in its circuit of the world, meet again and
mingle with the declining civilization of the East on our own free soil,
and a new and more perfect civilization will arise to bless the earth,
under the sway of our own cherished and beneficent democratic insti-

Speakers attacking Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854 still linked the issue of free soil with the passage to India. Edward Everett of Massachusetts pointed out that the proposed territories beyond the Missouri

occupy a most important position in the geography of this continent.
They stand where Persia, Media, and Assyria stood in the continent
of Asia, destined to hold the balance of power to be the centres of
influence to the East and to the West.... The commerce of the
world, eastward from Asia, and westward from Europe, is destined to
pass through the gates of the Rocky Mountains over the iron pathways
which we are even now about to lay down through those Territories.
Cities of unsurpassed magnitude and importance are destined to crown
the banks of their noble rivers.5

Such a strategic area, he believed, must not be allowed to come under the domination of the slave power. Predicting that within


two decades a million freemen from Asia would be pouring into the trans-Mississippi every year, Seward declared in 1854 that the territories must be kept open for them.6

These arguments, like the freesoil doctrine itself, were essentially negative with regard to the internal development of the West. The position was simply that slavery must be kept out of areas where it was not already established. There was some positive meaning in the notion that the way must be kept clear for Asiatic trade and immigration, but it was not a very compelling argument because the theme of the passage to India had lost much of its fascination after the acquisition of Oregon and California. The position of Seward and Everett in 1854 was weak also because it emphasized maritime trade according to the assumptions of an archaic mercantilism instead of invoking the agrarian calculus that had been the basis of Western social thought for almost half a century. Seward showed an even more striking failure to understand the attitude of the West when he said that Douglas's squatter sovereignty doctrine made "the interested cupidity of the pioneer" the arbiter of national policy.7 This unflattering description of the Western yeoman and of the land-hunger which Douglas meant to gratify in his Kansas-Nebraska bill was a condemnation of the very impulses which advocates of homestead legislation proposed to foster. If the Republican Party was to challenge the Democratic Douglas's hold on the Northwest, it would have to develop a critique of squatter sovereignty in Western terms.

Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio moved toward this strategic goal when he declared that Douglas's doctrine invited the Western yeoman to occupy the territories beyond the Missouri in company with slaves from the South.

Gentlemen know that the high-minded free man of the North, although
not blessed with property, has nevertheless a soul, and that he cannot
stoop to labor side by side with your miserable serf. He has never
done it--he never will do it. It was an unlucky word from the gentle-
man from Kentucky when he said, if he cannot labor in that way, let
him go somewhere else. Is that the democracy of the Chairman of the
Committee on Territories [Douglas]? Let him tell the yeomanry of
Illinois--the hard-fisted laboring man of that great State--that this
is the principle upon which he acts; that this Territory is to be covered
over with slaves and with masters, and that his proud constituency


are to go out there and work side by side, degrading themselves by
working upon a level with your miserable slaves.8

The anti-Negro feeling of such remarks was hardly compatible with the moral principles of abolitionism, and Senator Archibald Dixon of Kentucky tried to impale Wade on the horns of a dilemma by asking him whether the Negro slave was not equal to the white farmer.9 But the farmers of the Northwest were not as a group pro-Negro. Freesoil for them meant keeping Negroes, whether slave or free, out of the territories altogether. It did not imply a humanitarian regard for the oppressed black man. Merely criticizing Douglas was still not formulating a positive program for the territories. Although individuals like Galusha A. Grow who were prominent in the formation of the Republican party had taken up the homestead principle before 1856, and although homestead bills had been twice passed by the House, the Republican platform of that year was silent on the subject. "Free soil, free labor, and Fremont" was conceived as an anti- slavery slogan rather than as a program for the West. But between 1856 and 1860 the homestead principle with its utopian blueprint for developing the trans-Mississippi region became official Republican doctrine. This change represented a victory for the conservative wing of the party. It was a bid for votes that could not be attracted to the antislavery cause. The platform of 1860, demanding free homesteads for actual settlers, showed that the Republicans meant to capture the myth of the garden and the symbol of the hardy yeoman, and thus to command the imaginations of Northwestern farmers. It was to this end also, in large part, that they abandoned the stern moral condemnation of slavery in general that had characterized the original policy of thee party, and merely opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. Although John R. Commons went too far in saying, "Only because slavery could not live on one hundred and sixty acre farms did the Republican party come into conflict with slavery," his over statement contains more than a half-truth.10

The basic demand for more liberal treatment of settlers on the public domain, of which the Homestead Act was the ultimate expression, had originated in slave states of the Southwest. During the 1820's and 1830's its principal spokesmen were Benton and


James A. Walker of Mississippi; in the 1840's they were joined by Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. All these men were Democrats and all were, in varying degrees, proslavery, although Benton eventually opposed slavery extension. As late as the session of 1852-1853 the issue regarding homestead legislation was drawn not between proslavery and antislavery groups, but between West and Northeast--between Western Democrats and Eastern Whig capitalists. It was only after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when the Republican party cohered about aggressive free soil principles, that Southern opinion became unified in opposition to the homestead policy. The Southwest, motivated by fear of the Republican party, now abandoned alliance with the Northwest and joined the Southeast in opposing the Homestead Bill; in 1859 thirty Southwestern Congressmen voted against the measure.1l A realignment of forces also took place in the Northeast, which down to 1854 had been almost evenly divided on the homestead proposal but in 1859 voted seventy to one in favor of it.12 The Republican party had established a working coalition between Northeast and Northwest, and a clear North-South cleavage had replaced the equally clear East-West cleavage of prior decades

The intellectual framework of the Republican hornestead program, the theory that rationalized the almost instinctive land hunger of the West, was the National Reform doctrine propounded by George Henry Evans and his followers. As a leader in the New York Workingmen's party and an associate of Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright, Evans represented the Eastern labor movement and currents of international radicalism. His contention was that free land in the West would attract unemployed or underpaid laborers from industrial cities and thus "prevent such a surplus of workmen in factories as would place the whole body (as now) at the mercy of the factory owners.''l3 National Reform influenced Republican theory through such leaders as Greeley, who had been converted to Evans's program in 1846, and Galusha Grow.14

Aside from its theory about free land and the labor surplus National Reform relied heavily on the idea that the only valid title to land was that of the man who applied his own physical labor to its cultivation. Derived from John Locke and the conception of


natural rights, and carefully expounded by Jefferson,l5 this argument offered strong intellectual support to the defense of free labor against the slavery system, and gave defenders of the home stead principle a basis for denying that their proposal called for donations of land as outright charity.16 The settler who perfected his title by five years' cultivation of the soil had paid for his land in the only currency which theorists of this school regarded as valid. A corollary of the National Reform platform was a stout resistance to land monopoly by speculators, whose titles were quite invalid from the standpoint of the labor theory of property. Attacks on land monopoly touched an ancient bitterness in the West. The practical expression of the anti-monopoly creed was the proposal, often made but always voted down, to limit the total holdings which any one person might accumulate.17 The principle should have dictated also a repeal of all existing provisions through which public land might be acquired by any means except actual settlement. But this likewise proved politically impossible, and the Homestead Bill was enacted in 1862 without the repeal of the preemption provision or other procedures for what amounted to the sale of public land.18

Opposition to slavery, the safety valve theory, and the labor theory of property were still but subsidiary parts of the case for the Homestead Bill as it was presented to Western voters. These arguments, although likely to appear in any speech favoring the bill, were largely Eastern in origin. The strongest appeal of the homestead system to the West, an appeal which touched the deepest levels of American experience in the nineteenth century, lay in the belief that it would enact by statute the fee-simple empire, the agrarian utopia of hardy and virtuous yeomen which had haunted the imaginations of writers about the West since the time of Crevecoeur. This theme Western representatives in the 1850's developed with a rhetoric which overlays but cannot entirely smother a real conviction. Besides Andrew Johnson, the pioneer agitator, the leading spokesmen for what was already becoming the older West were Representatives George W. Julian and Cyrus L. Dunham, of Indiana; and Galusha A. Grow, whose constituency in the upcountry of northern Pennsylvania had strong ties with the Ohio Valley. These men were intellectual heirs of Thomas


Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, whom they quoted as conclusive authorities on the nature of the American tradition. Grow had an especially close tie with the Jackson tradition through intimate association with the aging Benton during his first term in Congress.19

In view of the wide currency of the ideal of the yeoman society the question of these men's immediate sources is hard to settle, if indeed it is important. We need merely note that the time-honored themes of the agrarian tradition functioned with unimpaired vigor for such a man as Representative Julian in his speeches in favor of offering free land to settlers.

The life of a farmer [Julian declared in 1851] is peculiarly favorable
to virtue; and both individuals and communities are generally happy
in proportion as they are virtuous. His manners are simple, and his
nature unsophisticated. If not oppressed by other interests, he generally
possesses an abundance without the drawback of luxury. His life does
not impose excessive toil, and yet it discourages idleness. The farmer
lives in rustic plenty, remote from the contagion of popular vices, and
enjoys, in their greatest fruition, the blessings of health and content-
ment.... The pleasures and virtues of rural life have been the theme
of poets and philosophers in all ages. The tillage of the soil was the
primeval employment of m