The door- opener to America
At the end of this year in which election results reinserted immigration into the political conversation, remember that 2012 is the 150th anniversary of “the first comprehensive immigration law.” This is how the Homestead Act of 1862 is described by Blake Bell, historian at the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice, Neb., one of the National Park Service's many educational jewels that make the NPS one of just two government institutions (the other is the U.S. Marine Band) that should be exempt from any budget cuts, for all eternity.
What today is called the Great Plains was at that time identified on maps as the Great American Desert. Under the act, $18 in fees entitled homesteaders to farm 160 acres to which they would acquire title for no further cost after five years. Or after six months if they paid $1.25 an acre. The act was intended to attract immigrants who would put down roots. For this purpose it provided all requirements for citizenship.
The Naturalization Law of 1802 required immigrants to receive certificates proving that they had declared upon arrival their intention to become citizens. After five years, an immigrant could take the certificate and two witnesses to a courthouse and be naturalized. This law addressed the worry that Europe was deliberately exporting the wretched refuse of its teeming shores — people of (in a Kentucky congressman's words) “the most turbulent and factious tempers,” accustomed to monarchies and sorely in need of Americanization.
By 1850, the United States had acquired vast quantities of land. Most of it was uninhabited, unless you counted, as few did, Indians. In 1862, with many citizens fighting, noncitizens were needed to (in an Illinois congressman's words) “go upon these wild lands” to increase the nation's wealth.
Bell calls the Homestead Act “an accommodating immigration law” because its requirement that the land be farmed for five years was the amount of time required to become a citizen, and because it began the assimilation of immigrants into American law.
The spirit of the act was optimistic. As The New York Times said, it would attract “the common people of Europe” who are free from the prejudices of “the aristocratic and snobocratic classes.”
Under the Homestead Act more than 270 million acres were privatized. The truth-tellers at the National Archives say most homesteaders came from near their homesteads — Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, etc. Furthermore, speculators, railroads and other sharpies snapped up most of the land: Of 500 million acres dispersed by 1904, only 80 million went to homesteaders. Small farmers settled more land under the act in the 20th century than in the 19th.
Still, Bell rightly notes that the act was an immigration law in effect as well as intent. By 1870, the foreign-born population of Wyoming and Montana was 39 percent; of Dakota Territory's, 34 percent; of Nebraska's, 25 percent. And the peak years of national immigration, 1905-14, were the peak years of homestead claims.
Skeptics will say that the Homestead Act, which welcomed immigrants to a sparsely populated continent, is irrelevant to today. Skeptics should consider not only that immigration is still an entrepreneurial act but also that as the entitlement state buckles beneath the weight of an aging population, America's workforce needs replenishing.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Foreign influx in Allegheny County at ‘tipping point’
- TSA finds .380-caliber handgun in carry-on bag at Pittsburgh International Airport
- Rostraver youth pastor accused of sexual contact with teen girl
- Steelers WR Wheaton wants to produce after injury-plagued rookie year
- Steelers hope group of low-budget cornerbacks can deliver
- GM Colbert expects Roethlisberger to end career with Steelers
- Pittsburgh crime down overall in 2013 but rapes, homicides increased
- Roethlisberger ‘prays’ he can stay with Steelers when deal expires
- Judge won’t dismiss charges of assaulting Pittsburgh police officer
- Construction of $500M power plant in South Huntingdon stalled
- Inside the ropes: Roethlisberger may have his big receiver