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The First Activist Congress

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LincolnObservers who marvel at the far-reaching nature of the legislation passed by the 111th Congress that met from January 2009 to December 2010 may be even more amazed at the groundbreaking actions of the 37th Congress. 

That group of representatives met in four separate sessions from March 1861 to March 1863, and passed several acts that profoundly changed the federal government’s involvement in many aspects of the nation’s business.The 35th and 36th Congresses had passed 129 and 157 public acts and resolutions, respectively. The 37th Congress passed 428, while its successor extended or passed another 411. Many related not to contingencies of the ongoing Civil War, but to unfinished Republican Party business left over from prewar legislative sessions. Without representatives from 11 states that had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America (CSA), the 37th Congress passed landmark legislation such as the Revenue Act, Legal Tender Act, Homestead Act, Morrill Act, National Banking Act, and Pacific Railway Act, creating what historian Leonard Curry has labeled “a blueprint for modern America” that is still visible some 150 years later.


Congress began authorizing the sale of public lands as a revenue-raising measure in 1796. For the next 30 years, settlers, authors, congressmen, and emigrant societies called for the free distribution of public land to individuals and families who would establish homesteads. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson suggested the federal government no longer needed to rely on the sale of federal lands to generate revenue; indeed, he believed they should be sold at greatly reduced prices or given free to the states.



(click to enlarge)

The first page of the Homestead Act.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Interest in homesteading grew steadily, prompting political leaders to consider the new idea of giving away federal lands to individuals who would promise to occupy and develop them. From 1841 to 1854, Congress passed laws giving squatters or settlers free land in Florida, Oregon, and New Mexico; the laws required settlers to live on the land, fence-in much of it and bear arms to defend it. From 1844 to 1846, congressmen from four different states introduced different versions of a homesteading bill. None could generate enough interest to be brought to the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate for a vote. In 1850, the five-man Senate Committee on Public Lands announced its opposition to homesteading, and its preference for continuing to raise revenue by selling public lands. Southern legislators approved of that decision; they had long been opposed to a homestead law, fearing that men who received free land as they settled the West would not be slaveholders and would oppose the extension of slavery to that territory.

Congressmen from both parties put homesteading on the back burner throughout much of 1850, as they argued over the extension of slavery and debated the set of bills that made up the Compromise of 1850. Later, the supporters of homesteading renewed their cause. In May 1852, the House approved a homestead bill by a vote of 107 to 56, split largely along sectional lines; the Senate took no action. That pattern of voting (large margins of approval in the House and no action in the Senate) was repeated in 1854, 1856 and 1859; nearly all Southern congressmen continued to vote against the bills.

In 1860, the House and Senate again considered homestead legislation, but did so in an atmosphere of unusual political dissonance. The argument over the extension of slavery into the territories had reached a critical stage. Republicans in both houses of Congress displayed heretofore unseen flexibility in approving compromise homestead legislation that incorporated many Southern-initiated elements they had refused to accept in previous years. In May, the House and Senate passed the same bill by large majorities; in June, Democratic President James Buchanan vetoed it. He called the bill unconstitutional (Congress had no power to give away land), unjust (it would devalue lands in older states), and discriminatory (unmarried citizens were not eligible for land grants but married immigrants were eligible). It was easy for contemporary political opponents to regard that action as one intended mainly to protect the political power of the slavocracy; if the President approved the bill, the anticipated influx of population in the Western territories would eventually reduce the importance of Southern legislators’ votes in the House and the Senate.

The Republican Party made the passage of a homestead bill an important plank in its 1860 platform. In May 1862, both houses of Congress passed the Homestead Act after minimal debate, surprising no one. Soon after, President Abraham Lincoln signed it. The Act granted 160 acres of nonoccupied and surveyed public land to individuals who promised to live on it for five years; those paying $1.25 per acre (for 160 acres) or $2.50 per acre (for 80 acres or less) could receive their title earlier. The Homestead Act had its critics, but it had its intended effect; individuals claimed and settled 285 million acres.

Museum of American Finance

–Michael A. Matorelli

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Financial History a publication of the Museum of American Finance. Click here to download the rest of the article.

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