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

II

The Early Nineteenth-Century Land Program

NOT UNTIL after 1799 was there a voice in Congress from the public land area. When the second stage of territorial government was inaugurated in the Northwest Territory, William Henry Harrison was sent by that territory to speak -- but was not allowed to vote -- for the desires of the frontier people. The West wanted a policy that would enable the settler to purchase land on which to live and earn his livelihood, and this meant smaller lots and easier payment terms. In addition, the settlers wanted to buy at a point close to the land that was to be sold, but often the land the pioneers wished to purchase was several days' journey from Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the only land offices at the time. This meant a long and expensive trip to see the land and select a tract, another long journey to reach the land office where the auction was to be held, and the return journeys. Albert Gallatin once more advocated land for the homemaker and aided Harrison in securing passage of a bill favorable to the settlers. The resultant land law of 1800, sometimes called the: Harrison Land Law, contained all of the above points: (1) a man could purchase as little as a half section instead of 610 acres; (2) three additional land offices were established in the vicinity of the tracts to be sold; and (3) a liberal system of credit was set up. The credit feature, which proved to be unwise, allowed an individual to pay 25 per cent forty days after his purchase, 25 per cent in two years, 25 per cent in three years, and the final 25 per cent in four years -- at a 6 per cent rate of interest. The auction feature was retained and also the minimum price of two dollars per acre. A cash discount of 8 per cent was allowed but this was less important than the credit feature. A pre-emption provision was urged by a Tennesseean but without avail.

As early as 1803, Congress received a grist of petitions for specific changes in the land laws, such as the abolition of credit sales, a decrease in prices, and the reduction of the minimum purchase from 320 to 160 acres. Albert Gallatin, now the Secretary of the Treasury, recommended cutting the

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