By Niles Anderegg
In our tours of President Lincoln’s Cottage we spend some time talking about Lincoln’s belief in what historian Gabor Boritt has called “the Right to Rise.” The idea here is that every person, employing his own talents and hard work, could rise up the economic ladder. This belief was fundamental to Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and it also had a great impact on his economic policy and, in particular, a piece of legislation he championed: the Homestead Act.
The Homestead Act allowed citizens to claim up to 160 acres of public land; in return, the claimant had to work the land for 5 years. The idea behind this legislation was that the nation would benefit more by giving people the chance to acquire their own land and grow crops than could be gained from the direct revenue that would result from the sale of public lands.
Lincoln, being from and representing the West, saw the value of encouraging people to make their living from the land, especially the vast amount of good land in the West, which included the rich soil of the Great Plains. Lincoln saw the Homestead Act as giving people an opportunity to improve their economic condition while at the same time providing an economic benefit to the nation as a whole by growing valuable agricultural products.
Another indication of the importance of this legislation to Lincoln is how he described the Homestead Act. In his 1863 message to Congress, Lincoln put the act in historical perspective. He argued that the settlement and cultivation of public land was one of the most important issues that the nation had faced up to that time, and he went further by claiming that the Homestead Act was the government’s “most signal and beneficent illustration” of federal land policy. Lincoln viewed the Homestead Act as a major accomplishment of his administration. While the act was beneficial to many groups of people, notably to new immigrants, it must be acknowledged that the act has been regarded with criticism based on its negative impact on indigenous peoples including further encroachment on their lands, as well as issues of fraud and abuse of the system.
The homesteading issue was a significant part of Lincoln’s 1860 campaign both in the Republican nominating contest and in the general election. Lincoln sincerely believed in the economic value the Homestead Act could have for the nation, but at the same time he understood that there was a political reason for enacting this law: it addressed one of the main issues–the need for free land–for the people of the Old Northwest (states such as Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), a region that would prove crucial to Lincoln’s election. What is more, these were the voters who were unlikely to be moved either way by the slavery issue. As one early 20th century historian put it, “there were men in the free states who cared not whether slavery was voted ‘up or down.'” By pushing for the Homestead Act, Lincoln could insure the votes of an otherwise undecided bloc of voters.
The reasons for Lincoln to support of the Homestead Act vary from political considerations to economic interests, but most importantly Lincoln believed that the Homestead Act was about what this nation should be. America, in Lincoln’s understanding, should be a place where people are given the opportunity to make their place in the world, what Lincoln called an “open field” where through hard work and intelligence each individual had the ability to rise up the ladder of society.