After the American Civil War broke out in 1861, due to differences between the Northern United States of America (then led by Abraham Lincoln) and the Southern Confederate States, several political strategies were developed by both sides of the conflict. In the case of the North, one of the manoeuvres taken with a view to victory in the war and the consequent possibility of reunification of the country was the promulgation of the Homestead Act.
The Homestead Act, or Land Law, was passed by U.S. congressmen and promulgated by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.
That was one year after the Civil War began.
The purpose of this law was to promote a distribution of land for those who had the prospect of establishing themselves as settlers and small farmers in the lands of the western United States.
The proposal of this law, however, goes back to the previous decade, that is, to the elderly of 1850.
Let’s see more about this landmark event in U.S. history whose effects have reverberated to this day.
Expansion to the West and Manifest Destiny
A great debate has taken place in Congress and in the American press. Should Americans continue to advance until they reach the Pacific?
Once Louisiana was occupied, the territories that had been Spain and now belonged to Mexico remained. Should the Americans go to war with the inhabitants of Texas?
There was also a dispute with the United States and Britain over Oregon, as the borders between Canada (under British administration) and the United States had not yet been established. Would the Americans be able to conflict with Britain over the territory of Oregon?
In the midst of this discussion, journalist John Louis O’Sullivan summarizes his opinion on the occupation of these territories:
And this claim is given to us by the right of our Manifest Destiny to expand and possess the entire continent that Providence has given us for the development of the great experience of Freedom.
O’Sullivan believed that Americans were destined to build a great nation in that territory and that it was God’s will.
Several people agreed with this proposal, especially the churches that began to organize missions to educate the indigenous people in the customs of whites.
Criticism of manifest destiny
The expression “Manifest Destiny”, however, was harshly criticized by northern state politicians.
They said the term would serve to justify the expansion of slavery in the states that were created as the territories of the West were incorporated into the U.S. federal government.
Nevertheless, O’Sullivan’s words would be recovered later and used to substantiate the atrocities committed against the indigenous people.
They were also used to support the United States’ expansionist policy toward Central America and the Caribbean.
Even today it is possible to find traces of the “Manifest Destiny” in U.S. politics.
For example, when American presidents attribute themselves to the role of guardians of democracy and world freedom.
The background to the Homestead Act
In 1819, in retribution for taking over the claims of U.S. citizens, worth $5 million, the United States received from Spain not only Florida but the rights of Spain over the territory of Oregon in the Far West.
Meanwhile, this region in the Far West had become a field of great activity in the fur trade and would assume a much higher importance than the value of hides.
Starting in 1820, government land could be acquired for about $1.25 a half hectare.
Except for the migration to Texas, then under the jurisdiction of Mexico, the western advance of the agricultural frontier only passed beyond Missouri after 1840.
By 1850, the U.S. Congress was still made up of both North and South, and a land law that favored the mode of settlement work was not interesting to the large landowners of the South.
Since the latter were slaves and viewed the land law with concern.
The free work in agricultural colonies (colonato) consisted of a model of agrarian economy that rivaled the slave estates.
The concern on the part of farmers in the South of the USA caused the Homestead bill to be postponed. This project was only approved after the secession between the two regions.
After the Homestead Law of 1852, it was enough to take possession of the land and make improvements to it. In addition, the tools for working the land were easily accessible.
It was a time when, in an expression by John Soule and popularized by journalist Horace Greeley, young people could “go west and grow with the country.
Homestead act of 1862
The Homestead Act was first proposed in the 1850s, yet Southern congressmen feared that occupation of the West by small farmers could create an agricultural alternative to the Southern slave system.
In 1858, an agrarian reform bill was defeated by only one vote in the Senate, and in 1859, a bill was passed in both houses but vetoed by President James Buchanan.
The approval of this law was high on President Lincoln’s agenda, who succeeded Buchanan.
The absence of Southern congressmen by virtue of the Secession removed much of the parliamentary opposition to the law. President Lincoln enacted the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. By the end of the Civil War some 15,000 requests for land had been made.
As a milestone in the history of the occupation of the American West by settlers from all parts of the country and the world.
President Abraham Lincoln passed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. It is a program designed to grant public land to small farmers at low cost.
What did the homestead act of 1862 offer western settlers
The law granted 160 acres – 650,000 square meters – to every applicant, as long as he was head of household and was 21 or older.
Then guaranteed to stay and work the land for at least five years, paying a small administration fee.
If the settlers wanted to obtain the title to the property first, they could only do so after 6 months and paying $1.25 per acre (approximately 4,000 square meters).
In this way, a model based on the small property, the planting of various types of food.
And the raising of cattle and birds of different sizes, allied with family labor, solved the American agrarian question.
What happened after the homestead act of 1862
With the law in force, the myth of the “American dream” developed in the USA, which triggered the so-called March to the West.
This “dream” was to occupy the western region of the country and seek prosperity there through work and entrepreneurship.
About 600,000 settlers settled in this region of the United States between the 1860s and 1890s.
However, one of the main problems these settlers had to face was the direct confrontation with numerous indigenous tribes.
These confrontations became, on many occasions, absolutely bloody, only being attenuated with the enactment of another law:
- The Dawes Act, which granted citizenship to indigenous people.
This process of the “March to the West” also created the imaginary of the Western (Far West).
That was explored in the 20th century by American cinema.
To the North, the Land Law and the “march to the West” were of great interest.
Since much of the manufacturing and industry developed in the Northern States depended on raw materials that started to be supplied by those who occupied the West region.
Therefore the ambiance of the wars, which only ended in 1865, the economic relations with the South were practically aborted.
In order to bring development to this new space, the East Coast economy carried out actions for the integration of farms and new cities that emerged.
Many kilometers of railroads were built to ensure the prosperity of the new enterprises.
In addition to giving dynamism to the economy, the Homestead Act was of fundamental importance for the consolidation of agrarian policy in the United States.
Instead of favoring the formation of a small elite of landowners linked to the export of agricultural products – as was happening with the export of cotton to the United Kingdom – the measure taken boosted the modernization process, guaranteed food security and created surpluses for the export of several items, a crucial factor for the transformation of the United States into a great economic power.
Although countless orders continued to be made as early as the 20th century, the mechanization of U.S. agriculture in the 1930s and 1940s led to the replacement of small individual farms by a small number of much larger ones.
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