When it comes to the Lincoln Administration, our attention is naturally focused on the Civil War. It is easy as a result to lose sight of the numerous other government actions and initiatives of that administration that were not directly related to fighting that conflict. The Homestead Act was not a war measure, but it would have had difficulty getting through Congress except for the Civil War. Since the Mexican War there had been a strong movement in the North for Congress to pass legislation granting federal land in the West to settlers who would occupy and improve it. Southern slaveholders, seeing that such legislation would quickly lead to many new free states in the West, blocked such legislation from 1848 to the onset of the War. This conflict over public lands in the West dramatically increased the furor over slavery. The Free Soil Party, one of the ancestor parties of the Republican Party, was founded in 1848 in the North precisely over this issue.
Plank 13 in the Republican Party platform of 1860 called for a Homestead act:
13. That we protest against any sale or alienation to others of the Public Lands held by actual settlers, and against any view of the Free Homestead policy which regards the settlers as paupers or suppliants for public bounty; and we demand the passage by Congress of the complete and satisfactory Homestead Measure which has already passed the House.
With the absence of almost all members of Congress from the slaveholding South due to the War, the Homestead Act, authored by Representative Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, rapidly made its way through Congress in 1862, passing by overwhelming margins in both the Republican dominated House and Senate.
The act was straight-forward: anyone who was the head of a family, or above twenty-one years of age, and who had not borne arms against the United States, or given aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and who was an American citizen or intended to become an American citizen, could file an application for appropriated public lands, up to 160 acres, west of the Mississippi. The applicant then had to live on the land for five years and give evidence of improvements made on the land during this period. Assuming this was done, an application for title could then be made for the land.
By 1900 approximately 80 million acres of land had been granted to settlers in the West under the terms of the act. Few campaign promises have been kept more resoundingly than the Republican promise for a Homestead act in 1860. Here is the text of the Act: (more…)