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.
By Dr. Charles M. Hubbard
The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War reminds us of the enormity of the secession crisis that confronted the nation in April of 1861. On April 12 the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. President Abraham Lincoln was confronted with gravest decision any president is required to make—how to respond to an attack on the country. Lincoln made the fateful decision to use military force to suppress the rebellion. His decision eventually escalated into a bloody and prolonged Civil War. At the time many of Lincoln’s critics accused him of maneuvering the rebels and manipulating the circumstances to force Jefferson Davis and the Confederates into firing the first shot. Lincoln had made his position on secession clear in his first inaugural address when he pledged to protect the government: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”
The same charge of deliberately leading the country into war is sometimes leveled at Franklin D Roosevelt. In Roosevelt’s case the question was how to respond to the aggressive military tactics of the Empire of Japan. In an effort to force Japan to refrain from further aggression in Asia, Roosevelt placed an embargo on military supplies and moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. These actions form the basis of the charges that Roosevelt forced Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Franklin Roosevelt wanted war. Both presidents responded to unprovoked attacks on the country. Their critics continue to argue that a more passive response to the events preceding the outbreak of hostilities could have avoided the two deadliest wars in American history, but Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were astute politicians and understood that Americans would support a forceful response to any threat to the security and preservation of the nation.
The two wars were different—one was a Civil War between Americans and the other a world war involving people all over the globe—but the decisions of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt significantly changed the world in which we live. In 1864 Lincoln wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” The same could be said of Roosevelt. The events and circumstances left little choice for either President and both decided to take the nation into armed conflict.
—Charles Hubbard is Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy