The Myth of the Garden and Reform of the Land System

Although the myth of the garden had exerted a conservative influence on the slavery controversy, it had fostered a humanitarian concern for the white laborer and landless farmer, and had, through the idealism of the homestead principle, contributed to the Republican victory of 1860. But as the forces of big business consolidated their control of the party during and after the war, crusaders like Julian were brushed aside. The new leaders of the party evidently cared nothing for the dream of

 an agrarian utopia.     The ghosts of
outmoded idealisms, however, are not easily laid.  As they lose their pertinence
to a
changed social setting, they often become bad influences by lending themselves to the uses of men who wish merely to confuse issues. The myth of the garden suffered this fate. By the 1870's it could already be invoked to prevent reform of the land system. Julian's article in the Atlantic in March, 1879 was timed to support a greatly needed revision of the laws governing the public domain that was being urged by men sharing the high purposes of the original proponents of homestead legislation. But the image of the garden, with the quality of timelessness which is characteristic of myth, failed to reflect the new conditions and now served to hinder these purposes instead of
furthering them.         The effort to revise the land laws was dictated by the
low rainfall of the Far West. When advocates
of the Homestead Act proposed to settle farmers on the public domain, they were assuming that an indefinitely large quantity of fertile land lay waiting beyond 196 VIRGIN LAND t

he frontier. This was the meaning which the notion of free land had had throughout the hundred years since the first wedge of settlement entered the Mississippi Valley; it was the intellectual basis of the myth of the garden. But if a barrier of aridity limited the quantity of available land, the myth and the agrarian program intended to realize it would have to undergo drastic revision. Agricultural settlement in areas of insufficient rainfall could bring nothing but suffering on a vast scale, waste, and eventual defeat. As the frontier moved out over the plains a remarkable man named John Wesley Powell, director of the federal Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, came before the public with a warning that the old methods of agricultural settlement could no longer be relied on.1 The hundred and sixty acre homestead was entirely inadequate to support a family in subhumid regions. On the high plains, cattle or sheep grazing would be the dominant type of land utilization. The homestead unit must therefore be greatly enlarged--perhaps to 2560 acres or even more.2 This, however, was only one aspect of Powell's proposals. Coördinated scientific surveys of the public domain would be necessary to ascertain what were the economic potentialities of the areas still unoccupied. It could no longer be taken for granted that substantially all the trans-Mississippi had uniform fertility and was therefore open to agricultural settlement of the familiar type. Scientific surveys would in turn involve reorganization of the various offices and bureaus having to do with the public lands.3 Powell did not say so in set terms, but everyone understood that such a reorganization would provide opportunity for a house-cleaning of the notoriously corrupt and inefficient General Land Office.

Powell first announced his conclusions about the public lands and hinted at his program of reform in a hearing before the House Committee on Public Lands in 1874. "All of the region of country west of the 100th or 99th meridian," he declared, "except a little in California, Oregon, and Washington Territory, is arid, and no part of that country can be cultivated, with the exceptions I have mentioned; no part of it can be redeemed for agriculture, except by irrigation." He urged scientific classification of the remaining public lands on the basis of their economic potentialities.4 But the LAND SYSTEM REFORM 197 atmosphere of Washington under the Grant administration was not propitious for reforming crusades, and for several years Powell was unable to make progress toward securing action on his proposals. With the inauguration of Hayes in 1877, however, the situation changed. Carl Schurz became Secretary of the Interior with what he believed was a mandate to clean up the department which included the Land Office. Seizing the opportunity, Powell submitted to Schurz on April 1, 1878, his celebrated Report on the Lands of the Arid Region. In May of that year yet another unexpected event occurred with the death of Joseph Henry president of the National Academy of Sciences. O. C. Marsh, the Yale geologist, vice-president of the Academy, succeeded automatically to the presidency.5 Marsh was sympathetic with Powell's program and familiar with the work of the various scientific surveys of the public lands that had been operating for more than a decade.

On June 20, 1878, Representative Abram Hewitt of New York, who was to prove the most effective Congressional leader of the effort to enact Powell's program, secured passage of a resolution asking the Academy to investigate the problem of the surveys and recommend a plan of reorganization.6 This was understood to involve a study of the whole problem of the public lands. A committee of the Academy presented a report restating all the main features of Powell's program, and it was sent to Congress at the opening of the session in December. The legislative battle which followed was highly confused. At least three distinct issues were involved: (1) the question whether the remaining portions of the public domain were in fact sufficiently arid to require a revision of the land laws; (2) a bitter, half-personal rivalry among sci- entists in the employ of the government for control of the surveys of the public domain; and (3) the problem of corruption and lax enforcement in the General Land Office.

But two main political groupings appeared with approximately opposite views on all three of these questions, which were after all closely related to one another. The general optimism of the West, together with the economic interests of land speculators and others who stood to profit from continued settlement of the plains, was challenged by Powell's claim that the agricultural


frontier was approaching a natural barrier. Speculators and monopolists who had established comfortable working arrangements with accommodating officials of the Land Office were aware that any far-reaching change in the administration of the public lands would disturb illegal practices which had been highly profitable for them. Among the scientists of the government surveys, the Western group found a loyal spokesman in Ferdinand V. Hayden, a professional rival of Powell, who was determined to resist reorganization or consolidation of the surveys if possible, and if the change could not be prevented, to dominate the new organization. Hayden realized that his best strategy lay in opposing consolidation outright, for control of any new organization would be determined by presidential appointment, and Hayes was evidently sympathetic with the associates of Schurz.

The Western group controlled the House Committee on Public Lands so that when the recommendations of the Academy were referred to that committee they were simply allowed to die. But Powell had found a powerful ally in Representative John D. C. Atkins of Tennessee, Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations. When legislation embodying the proposed reforms was drawn up under the supervision of Hewitt, Powell, and Schurz, Atkins conceived the ingenious though unparliamentary maneuver of attaching it to the Judicial Appropriation Bill and the Sundry Civil Expenses Bill. The measures came on the floor of the House late in the session amid a press of other business, but they gave rise to prolonged debate. Supporting the proposed reforms were Atkins, Hewitt, James A. Garfield, and Peter D. Wigginton of California. The leading spokesmen for the hostile Western group were Delegate Martin Maginnis of Montana; Representatives Dudley C. Haskell of Kansas, Thomas M. Patterson of Colorado, and Horace F. Page of California; and in the Senate, Aaron A. Sargent, regarded as Collis P. Huntington's representative in Congress. It may be said briefly that the proposed legislation was passed in the House, defeated in the Senate, and sent to conference. All change in the land system was prevented but Hewitt was able to secure two concessions--the consolidation of the existing surveys in a single United States Geological Survey which Powell eventually headed, and the authorization of a Public Land LAND SYSTEM REFORM 199 Commission to make an investigation.7 The proposals of this Commission were in turn killed in the next Congress.8

When the Powell program in the form endorsed by the Academy first came upon the floor of the House in the winter of 1878-1879, it was attacked from many angles. It was described as an effort of "new-fledged collegiates" and "scientific lobbyists" to shut off the development of the West and create sinecures for themselves on the federal payroll.9 It was falsely represented as threatening the system whereby lands were set aside for the support of public schools.10 But the most telling argument against Powell's proposals was their violation of the myth of the garden. Our agricultural lands . . . are limited [Representative Patterson declared], and the number of our population following agricultural pursuits must also be limited. But to have that number as great as possible, to swell it to its maximum, the plan of disposing of the public lands in small tracts . . . must be steadily adhered to. The enlarged homestead grants proposed for the arid plains would destroy the time-honored ideal of a society of yeoman subsistence farmers. Under Powell's program, asserted Patterson with a fantastic distortion of its provisions, the plains would in a few years be filled with baronial estates, with an aristocratic and wealthy few, each owning lands sufficient for a European principality, to the exclusion of that hardy and industrious people who, by tilling their own farms, by owning the small tracts upon which they live, not only produce material wealth but give to the nation the sturdy yeomanry that must be its bulwark in the hour of its supremest danger.11

Congressmen from the Western states all but unanimously sided with Patterson. Haskell pointed out that, with only two exceptions, all representatives from the nineteen states and territories containing public lands were opposed to any change in the existing land system. Those who favored it were mainly "from the New England States, from New York, from the older-settled portions of the country."12 Yet not only Julian's and Henry George's contemporary exposés, but a mass of historical evidence accumulated since that time substantiates Julian's characterization of the land system in the 1870's as a cruel mockery, humane in its pretensions but in practice a speculator's dream. Were the Western representatives ignorant of these facts at a time when Easterners


like Hewitt and Atkins understood them? Or, if they did understand how completely the land system had failed to foster the yeoman ideal cherished by its authors, are we to accuse them of deliberately cynical misrepresentation?

One can hardly believe that any Western Congressman was unaware how the land system operated. Yet it is also unlikely that all of them were simply tools of the speculative interests which were profiting from the operation of the system. Some outright corruption certainly existed. But the unimpaired survival of the dream of a yeoman society, with its idealism only slightly tarnished as yet by the sordid collapse of the homestead system, threw over the facts an imaginative veil which furnished the pretext for a sincere, if shallow, opposition to so drastic a reforming program as Powell's. He was asking a great deal. He was demanding that the West should submit to rational and scientific revision of its central myth, and indeed that the nation at large should yield one of the principal underpinnings of its faith in progress, in the mission of America, in manifest destiny. This demand was too stringent; the myth could not be transformed so easily. And so long as it survived in its increasing irrelevance to the facts, it could be manipulated by cynical men for selfish purposes.

Fill in your name and email address here