Chapter 15

The Agrarian Utopia in Politics: The Homestead Act

In their platform of 1860, the Republican party de-emphasized abolitionism and opposed the extension of slavery into the Western territories. These were important concessions to Western opinion, as it was common knowledge that the party could not carry the election unless it garnered the votes of the formerly Democratic Northwest. Perhaps most significant to citizens of the West was the Homestead bill, inspired by the Republican doctrine of "free soil." William H. Seward and Edward Everett had declared in 1854 that slavery must be kept out of areas where it was not already established, in order to keep land in the strategic western territories--"free soil"--available for the millions of freemen from Asia who would enter the U. S. as it expanded its empire toward India.

The Republican position, as manifested in Everett and Seward, drew on the assumptions of maritime trade and 17th-century mercanitilism rather than the established Western agrarian calculus, and posed no threat to Democrat Douglas's popular support of "squatter sovereignty" in the settlement of the Northwest. In 1860, the homestead principle--which demanded free homesteads for actual settlers--became official Republican doctrine, a victory for the conservative wing of the party insofar as it celebrated the myth of the garden and the ideal of the yeoman farmer while opposing the expansion of slavery into the west (without actually criticizing slavery as it already existed).

The Homestead Act's demand for more generous treatment of Western settlers had originated in the slave states of the Southwest, and as late as the session of 1852-53 the debate over its content was not between proslavery and antislavery groups but between agrarian Western Democrats and Eastern capitalists. Senator Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, however, centered Republicans around "free-soil" interests and unified Southern opposition to the homestead policy. The Republican party ultimately organized an alliance of the Northeast and Northwest against the South, a markedly different coalition that the East-West cleavage of prior decades.

George Henry Evans, a leader in the radical New York Workingmen's party, contended in his National Reform doctrine that free land in the West would encourage unemployed or underpaid laborers to leave industrial cities, eliminating the surplus of workingmen and helping to free the urban economy from the iron grip of the factory owners. This conception, which came to be called the "safety valve" theory, owes much to the labor theory of property espoused by Locke and Jefferson, in which the man who works the land earns ownership of it. Along with opposition to the expansion of slavery, Evans' "safety valve" proposal formed a crucial part of the case for the Homestead Bill as it was presented to Western voters. But the Homestead Bill's strongest appeal to Western voters lay in its exaltation of the yeoman farmer and his fee-simple empire, the mythical entities which had meant so much to Crevecoeur, Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, whom supporters of the Homestead Bill invoked as authorities on the architecture of American development. Republicans such as George W. Julian, Cyrus L. Dunham, and Galusha A. Grow seized on these symbols in the 1850s and appealed to the imaginations of masses of voters; laboring farmers were increasingly viewed as honorable and independent rather than lower-class, and for this reason the free-soilers' vision of the agricultural utopia's classless society--landed property cultivated by freemen--had no place for the Negro.

Chapter 16