The Homestead Act of 1862
“Go West, young man, go forth into the Country.” Horace Greeley's words must rank among the most famous, and by now the most hackneyed, in American history. When written they were not merely an exhortation to the adventurous, they summed up one of the nation's first ideas for public assistance. It was the idea embodied in the Homestead Act of 1862, one of the United States' most celebrated pieces of legislation.
By the time of the act's repeal, in 1976, over 500,000 Americans had settled on over 80 million acres of public land under its provisions. It is central to the history of the American West. But its importance stretches further. Support for the act was an essential cement for the emerging Republican party in the 1850s, and the politics of its passage have been credited by both contemporaries and historians for the election of Abraham Lincoln.
The origins of the Homestead Act reach back to the Jacksonian era. Cheap public land always had a natural constituency: residents on the western frontier and all Americans who endorsed the Jeffersonian ideal of a country of sturdy yeomen working their own farms. America's original policy had been to offer its public lands for sale. But many farmers, and even state legislatures, began petitioning for “preemption,” the right to occupy the land first and pay for it later. Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri senator and ally of Andrew Jackson, led the federal fight for such a policy, and finally obtained the Petition Act of 1841. This allowed a squatter (one who occupied a piece of land without having purchased it) to purchase the occupied land at the minimum government price. The politics