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Homestead laws.

The treaty of 1783 declared the territory of the United States to extend westward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi. A large part of this land was claimed by certain of the States, who contended that their original grants gave them the territory inland to the western boundary of the country. But when the Confederation was formed it was decided to cede all this territory to Congress, and this was accordingly done. There were numbers of claims on these lands, and Congress created eight boards of commissioners to examine into and settle these. But land not claimed was to be disposed of without delay, and Congress in 1785 drew up an ordinance directing the Secretary of War to draw by lot certain townships in the surveyed portion for bounties to the soldiers of the Continental army, and the remainder was to be drawn by lot in the name of the Western States, to be sold by the officers of the treasury at public sale for not less than $1 per acre. This message, however, was a failure, and it was intimated that the States which had any lands of their own to dispose of took pains to make it inoperative.

Meanwhile, settlers began to make entries on public lands without authority, and the government was obliged to resort to force to drive them off. A company of United States troops was kept going up and down the Ohio River from the Pennsylvania line to Cincinnati from 1784 to 1786, burning all the cabins and laying down and burning the fences of these “squatters.” Often this operation had to be repeated several times to drive away the determined pioneers. In 1787 the price of public land was reduced to 66 2/3 cents per acre, and during the next year the regulation for drawing the land by States was repeated, and the Treasury Department, which then had charge of the sale of public lands, was empowered to sell them in any part of the United States at pleasure. The low price attracted settlers, and large tracts for settlement were purchased by associations of colonists; but the States had also much land for sale, and they eagerly pushed these in the market, underbidding the government to check Western immigration, and the Spaniards holding land in Illinois offered farms without charge to actual settlers.

After the meeting of the first Congress under the Constitution the matter was referred to Hamilton, who, in July, 1790, submitted to the House of Representatives a plan for the disposal of the public territory. Congress, however, was very slow to act in the matter, and neither adopted Hamilton's plan nor framed any other. In 1796 the present system of surveying lands was in substance adopted, and provision was made for the public sale of lands in sections one mile square, at a price not less than $2 per acre. In 1800 land offices and land registers were established, and important changes were made in the provisions of the land laws that governed the terms of payment. The lands were to be sold for not less than $2 per acre, but only a fourth part of the purchase money was required at the time, and the payment of the balance was to be spread over three years. In case full payment was not made within one year after the last instalment had become due, the lands were to be sold, or to revert to the United States.

The natural result of the scheme was the piling up of an enormous debt, which the government never could collect, and from 1809 to 1824 hardly a year passed without the passage of a “relief act” by Congress to suspend or mitigate the operations of the law in particular instances or to relieve settlers from their indebtedness. In 1820 a law was passed abolishing the credit system and authorizing the selling of land in half-quarter sections, and making the minimum price $1.25 per acre. This caused great dissatisfaction on the part of the States, since as all lands were at the same minimum price the best lands were taken up first and large tracts of inferior lands were left, which bore no share, as public lands, of State or local taxation. In 1824 Benton introduced into Congress a bill for granting pre-emption rights to actual settlers and for graduating the price of lands, but it was rejected. The States were now becoming very eager to effect internal improvements, and regarding the existence of large tracts of public land within their limits as a [412] hinderance, begun to clamor for the restoration of these lands.

Schemes without number were now concocted for the disposal of the public lands, and in the session of 1827-28 Congress actually gave away to States and individuals—largely on the plea of internal improvements—no less than 2,300,000 acres of public land, and the suggestion was seriously made to restore all the public lands in the States to the State governments. This was strongly opposed, however, and many warm debates were carried on in Congress for several years on the public land question. These were in a measure checked by the fever for speculation in public lands which raged from 1834 till it precipitated the crash of 1837, but were renewed with even greater ardor when the proposition came up to have the general government assume the debts of the States which had lost heavily in the speculative era.

The plan to give the public lands to the States was again thrust forward and was advocated by President Tyler in his first message, but though a number of bills were brought before Congress proposing such a distribution, none actually became laws, except one providing for a gift of land to new States, which was passed in 1841, as part of the first pre-emption law. The cession of public lands to railroads on a large scale was begun in 1850, and has since led to the disposal of a very large proportion of the public lands. About 1852 a homestead law, which was warmly advocated by the Free-soil Democracy, became a national question. Several bills passed one House of Congress but failed in the other. In 1860 a homestead bill actually passed, but was vetoed by President Buchanan on the plea that its provisions were not fair to all classes concerned. It was not until 1862 that the homestead law, as we have it to-day, was adopted. See exemptions from taxation.

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