Politicians had debated whether to give free land to settlers since before the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787. Southerners had generally opposed free land grants because they would expand the farm base and undercut the value of goods harvested on southern farms. Northerners, particularly Republicans, favored land grants because they encouraged immigration and westward expansion. Now that southern opposition in Congress was gone, the Republican majority approved “An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.” President Abraham Lincoln signed this bill into law on May 20.
The law allowed U.S. citizens or immigrants, male or female, who were at least 21 years old to claim 160 acres if they pledged to live on it, improve upon it, and cultivate it for at least five years. The claimants could be under 21 if they were heads of households or had served at least two weeks in the military. The available land ranged from Michigan to the Dakota Territory (present-day North and South Dakota, and most of Montana and Wyoming).
Confederates or northerners who had “given aid or comfort” to the Confederacy were not eligible to claim a homestead. Some argued that southerners should be included because the land being given away had been secured, at least partly, by southern efforts. Others saw it as a missed opportunity to encourage soldiers to desert the Confederate army in exchange for free land.
The claimants, or homesteaders, had to pay an $18 filing fee, or $10 to temporarily hold a plot. They were allowed to sell the land at $1.25 per acre if they fulfilled a six-month residency that included making some improvements. The terms would go into effect on January 1, 1863.
The Homestead Act fulfilled a key plank in the Republican Party’s platform, and it was strongly supported by Lincoln. It also received some support from key Democrats such as Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who saw it as a way for poor southern whites to escape from the rigid class structure in the South. Horace Greeley, prominent editor of the New York Tribune, praised the measure because he believed it would “give every poor man a home.”
Opponents argued that giving land away deprived the Federal Treasury of what could have been a large source of revenue to pay for the war. Republicans opted to make up for the revenue shortfall by raising taxes and import tariffs. Anti-war politicians contended that the law aimed to entice immigrants into coming to the U.S. primarily so they could be unwittingly recruited into military service.
Within two years, homesteaders had claimed 1,261,000 acres under this law. This increased to three million acres by the war’s end, and 80 million acres claimed by nearly 600,000 homesteaders overall. This led to the agricultural and industrial development of future states west of the Mississippi River, and it helped encourage the great westward expansion (and large-scale immigration) after the war.
However, the remaining 420 of the 500 million acres given away went to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumbermen, and railroad tycoons. Most urban laborers lacked the agricultural knowledge or the money to either pay the $10 temporary hold fee or buy farm equipment. Long-term military enlistees who wanted to claim homesteads found out after being discharged that the best land was already gone.
The children of homesteaders often claimed plots of their own and connected them to create large plantation-like farms like those in the South, at the expense of the small farmers. Ignorance of the landscape on the Great Plains also hindered settlement, as it was later discovered that at least 1,500 acres were often needed to successfully farm the arid region. This brought much poverty to the West, which in turn caused long-term political instability.
In the short-term, the Homestead Act increased the popularity of Lincoln and the Republicans, which had waned due to military setbacks and questionable war policies.
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