Lincoln and the Homestead Act

This is the anniversary of one of the more important achievements of Lincoln’s presidency.  On May 20, 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which allowed settlers to claim up to 160 acres of land in the American West.  After improving their claims, paying a small fee, and residing on their land for five years, these settlers received clear title to these farms; farmers could also claim title after only six months by paying $1.25 per acre.

At first glance, the Homestead Act seems to have little to do with the most notable concern of Lincoln’s administration, which was bringing the Civil War to a successful end.  In reality, however, the issues of secession and western settlement were closely linked.  It was the debate over whether slavery could be prohibited in the new lands opening up in the West that brought about the confrontation between North and South.  The new Republican Party, of which Lincoln became a member, was a coalition of groups that opposed the spread of slavery beyond the limits set by the compromises of the early and mid-1800’s.  The election of a Republican to the presidency in 1860 was therefore a threat to the institution’s expansion—and one thing about which opponents and proponents of slavery agreed was that the institution needed to expand in order to survive.  The West was central to the controversy that brought about the Civil War.

The secession of the South was a crisis for opponents of slavery, but it was also an opportunity for those who wanted a West for free white farmers instead of slave owners.  With the South out of the way, free-soil politicians were free to establish western settlement in the way they had always wanted, as a haven for free white labor instead of territory in which slavery could expand further.  The Homestead Act represented the kind of western settlement which Republicans like Lincoln had advocated in the 1850’s, a frontier which did not include the peculiar institution.  It helped set the stage for the explosive growth of the West once victory in the war had been secured.

In that sense, secession was a strategic blunder by proponents of slavery.  By removing themselves from the theater of national politics, the secessionists allowed free-soil politicians to establish a West that fit their vision of America’s future—the same vision for which Lincoln argued when he walked onto the national stage in his debates with Douglas.

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