Chapter 19

The Myth of the Garden and Reform of the Land System

By the 1870s, the increasing influence of big business interests in politics made it clear that the myth of the garden's static conception of the West failed to adequately reflect new conditions and had outlived its usefulness as an idealism. Indeed, it could even be invoked to hinder reform of the exploitative land system. Increasing agricultural settling in areas of low rainfall prompted Jon Wesley Powell, director of the federal Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, to warn the public that much of the region west of the 100th meridian was arid and that old methods of farming could no longer be relied on. In 1874 Powell argued for scientific surveys of the public lands to determine the economic potentialities of areas as yet unoccupied, and urged the reorganization of the corrupt and inefficient General Lands Office.

In 1878, Representative Abram Hewitt secured passage of a Congressional resolution which asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into the problems Powell had raised and to recommend a plan of action. The Academy's subsequent report inspired a confused legislative battle which pitted Western interests--whose optimism toward development was challenged by Powell's announcement that the frontier was obstructed by a natural barrier--against those who wished to reform the land laws and restructure the ways of doing business in the West. The proposed legislation was passed in the House and defeated in the Senate, after which it was sent to committee. No reform was enacted, although Hewitt was able to consolidate the existing land surveys into a single United States Geological Survey and obtain authorization for a Public Land Commission investigation.

When the Powell program was debated in the next Congressional session, it was attacked as an effort by academics and scientific lobbyists to shut off Western development and secure themselves places on the federal payroll. But more earnest protest came from the Powell plan's proposed rational revision of the myth of the garden; Representatives Thomas Patterson of Colorado and Dudley Haskell of Kansas both opposed the enlarged homestead grants proposed for the arid plains as detrimental to the ideal of yeoman subsistence farming. None of the representatives from the nineteen states and territories containing public lands voted for reform of the existing system. Subsequent historical evidence has verified that Henry George and George Julian were accurate in their indictments of the land system as serving speculators' interests rather than those of the farmers. The opposition of Western Congressmen to land reform might be attributed to ignorance of the way in which the system operated or subservience to speculative interests, but a more convincing explanation is that the imaginative veil of the myth of the garden obscured the collapse of the homestead system and provoked hostility toward disinterested analysis of this central article of the national faith.

Chapter 20