Failure of the Agrarian Utopia

During the twenty years following the passage of the Homestead Act, the image of the garden in the West, which had triumphed over the image of the desert, became an article of national, or at any rate Republican, faith. It is likely that most Americans would have said during the 1880's that the Homestead Act had triumphantly borne out the predictions of the 1860's. These predictions had been glowing in the extreme. When the Act passed the Senate in May, 1862 Greeley congratulated the country on the consummation of one of the most beneficent and vital reforms ever attempted in any age or clime. The homestead system, he said, would greatly lessen the number of paupers and idlers and increase the proportion of "working, independent, self-subsisting farmers in the land evermore." 1 It marked a new era in the history of labor. Greeley was confident that hundreds of thousands, ultimately millions of dwellers in the city slums would go West to hew out homes for their children. There could never again be serious unemployment in the United States.2 John W. Forney of the Philadelphia Press asserted that toiling millions of freemen could now gain a manly livelihood in the fertile West, where they would make the wilderness blossom as the rose.3 With unconscious irony William Cullen Bryant declared in the New York Evening Post that speculators in the public domain had lost their vocation.4 Five years later Greeley was still saying to the unemployed city laborer:

if you strike off into the broad, free West, and make yourself a farm
from Uncle Sam's generous domain, you will crowd nobody, starve


nobody, and . . . neither you nor your children need everrnore beg
for Something to Do.5

Yet the Homestead Act almost wholly failed to have the results that had been predicted. It did not lead to the settlement of large numbers of farmers on lands which they themselves owned and tilled. Vast land grants to railways, failure to repeal the existing laws that played into the hands of speculators by allowing purchase of government lands, and cynical evasion of the law determined the actual working of the public land system. Between the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and 1890, only 372,659 entries were perfected. At most, two millions of persons comprising the families of actual settlers could have benefited from the operation of the Act, during a period when the population of the nation increased by about thirty-two millions, and that of the Western states within which most of the homesteading took place, by more than ten millions.6 Railways alone, for example, sold more land at an average price of five dollars an acre than was conveyed under the Homestead Act. When the mechanical revolution introduced steam-driven tractors and threshing machines to the wheat regions of the Northwest, the pattern of small freehold subsistence farms was in danger of being wiped out.7 The most telling index of this change is the ratio of tenancy. Eighteen per cent of the farms in Nebraska were operated by tenants in 1880, the first year for which records are available; in 1890 the figure had risen to twenty four per cent.8 By 1900 more than thirty-five per cent of all American farmers had become tenants, and the ratio was increasing rapidly.9 Many farms technically listed as cultivated by their owners were so heavily mortgaged that the ostensible owner was hardly his own master.

Some of these disappointments had been prophesied by supporters of the homestead principle in the event that no restraints on speculators were written into the law.10 National Reformers in particular had demanded that homesteads granted to settlers should be made inalienable and that individual holdings of land should be limited by statute.ll But even these theorists could hardly have foreseen the extent to which the land laws would promote concentration of holdings. As early as 1871 an obscure


San Francisco printer named Henry George noted that the effect of the public land system was to encourage monopoly.

Already the custom of renting land [he declared] is unmistakably gain-
ing ground, and the concentration of landownership seems to be going on
in our older States almost as fast as the monopolization of new land
goes on in the younger ones. And at last the steam plow and the steam
wagon have appeared to develope, perhaps, in agriculture the same
tendencies to concentration which the power loom and the trip ham-
mer have developed in manufacturing.
We are not only putting large bodies of our new lands in the hands
of the few; but we are doing our best to keep them there, and to cause
the absorption of small farms into large estates.... Concentration is
the law of the time. The great city is swallowing up the little towns; the
great merchant is driving his poorer rivals out of business; a thousand
little dealers become the clerks and shopmen of the proprietor of the
marble-fronted palace; a thousand master workmen, the employees of
one rich manufacturer, and the gigantic corporations, the alarming
product of the new social forces which Watt and Stephenson introduced
to the world, are themselves being welded into still more titanic cor-
porations.... Of the political tendency of our land policy, it is hardly
necessary to speak. To say that the land of a country shall be owned by
a small class, is to say that that class shall rule it; to say-- which is the
same thing-- that the people of a country shall consist of the very rich
and the very poor, is to say that republicanism is impossible. Its forms
may be preserved; but the real government which clothes itself with
these forms, as if in mockery, will be many degrees worse than an
avowed and intelligent despotism.l2

The failure of the homestead system has been analyzed frequently since George's day, but subsequent scholarship has done little more than add detail to the picture he drew. The agrarian utopia in the garden of the world was destroyed, or rather aborted, by the land speculator and the railroad monopolist. These were in turn but expressions of the larger forces at work in American society after the Civil War the machine, the devices of corporation finance, and the power of big business over Congress. The Homestead Act failed because it was incongruous with the Industrial Revolution.

The impotence of the land reformers in their struggle against these new forces was due at least in part to the fact that their social theory offered them no aid in analyzing the actual situation and displaying the real issues. The advocates of the homestead


principle, especially its Western supporters like Julian and Dunham, were employing ideas that had little relevance to the conditions of Western agriculture or American society in general in the late nineteenth century.

The theoretical weakness of these well-meaning men is evident in an article on "Our Land Policy" which Julian wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1879. He confesses that land speculation has probably increased rather than diminished during the seventeen years since the passage of the Homestead Act, and his denunciation of the public land system, especially the railroad land grants, is unsparing: he calls it a cruel mockery, a wicked compact between the government and land speculators, a policy which serves only the interest of great corporations.13 Furthermore, he sees that proper administration of the public domain is not a minor matter, but the overshadowing question of American politics. Yet Julian has no remedy to urge, no proposal for containing the speculators and the corporations. All he can do is to restate the agrarian dream, denouncing monopoly in land because it

tends to aggregate our people in towns and cities, and render them mere
consumers, instead of dispersing them over our territory, and tempting
them to become the owners of land and the creators of wealth. It fosters
the taste for artificial life and the excitements to be found in great
centres of population, instead of holding up the truth that "God made
the country," and intended it to be peopled and enjoyed. If our insti-
tutions are to be preserved, we must insist upon the policy of small farms,
thrifty tillage, compact settlements, free schools, and equality of politi-
cal rights, instead of large estates, slovenly agriculture, widely-scattered
settlements, popular ignorance, and a pampered aristocracy lording it
over the people.14

The myth of the garden of the world is still so vivid for Julian that he seems to think it can be realized by incantation.

The yawning gap between agrarian theory and the actual circumstances of the West after the Civil War must have contributed greatly to the disillusionment which comes out in the farmers' crusades of the last quarter of the century. The Western farmer had been told that he was not a peasant but a peer of the realm; that his contribution to society was basic, all others derivative and even parasitic in comparison; that cities were sores on the body politic, and the merchants and bankers and factory owners who


lived in them, together with their unfortunate employees, wicked and decadent. He had been told that he was compensated for any austerity in his mode of life by being sheltered against the temptations of luxury and vice, and against the ups and downs of the market. His outstanding characteristic, according to the conventional notion, was his independence, which was understood to be at once economic self-sufficiency and integrity of character. For all these reasons, the farmer had been assured, correct political theory required the government to make a particular effort to guard his interests.

But after the Civil War Republican policy obviously favored the city against the country, the banker and the merchant against the farmer, the speculator against the settler. Whatever may have been the theoretical advantages of the simplicity of rural existence, the ostentatious luxury of the newly rich in the growing cities was paraded in the press with a kind of prurient fascination as evidence of what a free society might achieve by way of the good life. And the Western farmer found that instead of being independent, he was at the mercy not only of the Chicago and New York and Liverpool grain pits, but also of the railways and elevator companies and steamship lines upon which he must rely to get his crop to market. Even the nature that had formerly hovered over the garden of the world as a benign presence, a goddess of fertility and a dispensatrix of inexhaustible bounty, seemed on the high plains to become periodically an avenging deity who sent scourges of drouth, sandstorms, and grasshoppers upon suffering humanity. The scope of this contrast between image and fact, the ideal and the actual, the hope and the consummation, defines the bitterness of the agrarian revolt that made itself felt with increasing force from the 1870's onward. Hamlin Garland declared in 1892 that the high-sounding clich‚s had done serious mischief by masking the plight of the poverty-stricken Western farmer. Speaking through the character Radbourn in his powerful story "Lucretia Burns," he wrote: "Writers and orators have lied so long about 'the idyllic' in farm life, and said so much about the 'independent American farmer,' that he himself has remained blind to the fact that he's one of the hardest working and poorest-paid men in America.14 The farmers of the Northwest


live in hovels; their wives fill the insane asylums. Both men and women work like fiends, yet their reward is only "a hole to hibernate in and to sleep and eat in in summer. A dreary present and a well-nigh hopeless future."15 To the same period belongs the sensational vogue of "The Man with the Hoe," by Edwin Markham, of Oregon and California, who assimilated the American farmer to the downtrodden and brutalized peasant of Europe from whom agrarian theorists had so carefully distinguished him earlier in the century. In Markham's poem, as in Garland's fiction, the once proud yeoman has become but a laborer in the field, a symbol of

humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited. . .16

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