The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview

XX

A House Divided Against Itself

LONG BEFORE ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S famous statement, on the eve of the Civil War, that the United States was a house divided against itself, the nation had been divided, with East and West forming the two sections. By the time the public domain was established following the Revolutionary War the eastern seaboard had become more conservative in its thinking and sought to control the frontier. The western edge of settlement where land was available was always more radical in its outlook than the older, longer-settled portion. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of land, with its boundless natural resources, which lay at the western edge of settlement awaiting exploitation by the enterprising, had a tremendous molding influence upon the American character and sense of nationality. The settler living in that environment of plenty thought of these resources as one would think of air or the wilderness streams.

Fortunately, the two sections were fluid and were able to accommodate each other, avoiding the conflict that threatened to rend the country asunder during the Civil War. As the squatter line moved on, the new settlers gradually became old settlers and their attitude and thinking became more eastern, and yet they retained a measure of the western outlook. This fluidity preserved the equilibrium between the two sections and prevented the breakup of the Union which had been feared by farseeing men in the early days of the republic. The Midwest or land which had so recently been frontier was an ameliorating influence between East and frontier, and indeed held the balance of power in Congress, which slowly responded to the desires of the frontier.

The eastern viewpoint toward the frontier is voiced in a speech in the Senate in 1838. In 1807 the East had passed the Intrusion Law which forbade squatting on the public domain, and for years that section had been trying to keep the door closed against unauthorized occupancy of the land; but the West with the aid of its Midwest friends, who not so long

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