Study Guide

Homestead Act Historical Context

By Congress

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Historical Context

War: What Is It Good For? (Answer: Ending Slavery)

Oh, you know, this little doc just popped up in a sort of uneventful period in US history…when it was fighting the bloodiest battle ever in its own backyard.

No big deal.

No one looks at 1862 terribly fondly. Civil War had broken out in the U.S. between the Union (North) and the Confederacy (South) the year before. And reasons why this whole shebang went down are vast, myriad, and too complicated to get into here. We'd be here until spiders made us a fancy cobweb wig. Instead, we’d recommend you take a peek at our in-depth look at the war that made swathes of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard into a bloodbath.

So, in the midst of this insanely destructive war, President Lincoln and Congress took time to sign the Homestead Act into law. Hey, there was only a wide-ranging field of battle encompassing the whole country. No real reason to put off opening the western territories to settlers for free.

Not quite what you’d prioritize, right?

To figure out why this all went down when it did (and the way it did), let’s take a look at the history of the western territories and the Antebellum squabble over all those amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesty.

Land was a super-heated issue between states that allowed slavery and those that didn’t. Too many free states meant pro-slavery states would lose their power to block abolitionist legislation in Congress. Too many slave states meant abolitionists would find their agendas set back by more federal mandates like the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision.

Congress didn’t really know what to do to soothe tensions. A great example of legal fence-sitting is the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which Missouri was admitted as a slave state at the same time as Maine became a free state, plus slavery was limited to any new states south of latitude 36o 30’ (the northern border of Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma). In other words, Congress just slapped a Band-Aid on the issue.

This was the minefield that Andrew Johnson’s first Homestead Act was presented in.

Yeah; timing wasn't his strong suit.

Competing For Those Sod Huts

The act was knocked down three times because of Southern pro-slavery Democrats afraid of expanding free states into the West. First up at bat was the Democratic-controlled Congress that defeated the Homestead Act. This was followed by a strikeout with the bases loaded in the form of a tie-breaking "nay" vote from Democratic VP Breckenridge. Rounding out the top of the third inning with a homerun was a veto from Democratic President Buchanan.

(Fun fact: Breckenridge is the only U.S. Senator, but second former VP, accused of treason after he joined the Confederacy as a general.)

It wasn’t just wanting to maintain the status quo of free vs. slave states that was causing all the fuss. The South was dependent on agriculture, specifically slave-powered agriculture. Opening up the western territories to small yeoman farmers was problematic in that it gave a huge propaganda boost to abolition. The American spirit of adventure and individualism was set against the picture of unhappy slaves on Southern plantations. That's some stark juxtaposition right there.

The question of slavery in territories and new states was just as bloody as the Civil War would eventually be.

Bleeding Kansas is a perfect example. Abolitionists like John Brown of Harpers Ferry infamy and pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" fought violent battles in the field and in the voting halls in order to determine whether Kansas entered the Union as a free or slave state, as per the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Kansas going down as a free state was pretty much one of the last straws for the South. (Source)

Of course, once the South seceded, well, it was fair game for claiming all that land as free territory for the Union. As a bonus, the overcrowded, dirty, dangerous slums in the industrial cities of the North were meant to get a break as denizens streamed westward, making it easier for the remaining workers to find jobs and keep themselves fed. It didn’t quite work out that way; most city-dwellers didn’t have the first clue about farming. Quite a few of the homesteaders were actually already farmers from nearby who wanted a fresh start.

Can’t argue with the results, though. Thirty states had homestead claims. Many of those only became states because they were settled through the Homestead Act. Ten percent of federal land was claimed for homesteads. By 1986 and the end of the Homestead Act, some 270 million acres of land had been settled through homesteads.

In the words of Cole Porter, just "give [them] land, lots of land, under starry skies above."

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