Our Land Policy
THROUGH all the vicissitudes of American politics, from the close of the revolutionary conflict to the present time, the land question has ranked among the first in magnitude and absorbing interest. It entered into the formation of the government, and was vitally connected with the success of its early administration. It has been the bone of contention in every dismal phase of our Indian policy from the beginning. It was one of the cardinal issues which divided the whig and democratic parties, till the former ceased to exist. It kindled the jealousy of the South, which found such eloquent expression through Mr. Hayne, of South Carolina, in the memorable senate debate of 1830, in which Mr. Webster carried off the honors; and moreover it was complicated with the great question of internal improvements by the general government, which so long agitated the country as a party issue. Our preëmption and homestead laws, our system of land grants to railway companies, our land bounties for military service, our grants of land for various educational purposes, our swamp-land legislation, our laws governing the disposition of mineral lands and the transfer of Indian reservations by treaty, are all so many phases of the great problem. Only a small proportion of agricultural land yet remains to be disposed of by the government; but it has to deal with its vast magazines of mineral wealth, its extensive coal and timber lands, its vast areas of grazing and desert lands, and its swamp lands, aggregating, with the remnant of agricultural lands, more than eleven hundred million acres, exclusive of Alaska. The classification and disposal of these immense interests will call for a new land policy, and a statesmanship quite as comprehensive and far-seeing as that which wrestled with the question in the beginning, and finally found expression in the preëmption and homestead laws, affecting lands fit only for tillage.
The action of the government in dealing with the public domain forms a curious chapter in the history of politics, and affords an instructive study. The early land policy of the United States had its birth in a great financial exigency, and was cradled in the poverty which a long war had entailed upon the colonies. They emerged from the struggle for independence under the burden of an appalling debt. The system of import duties was not then developed, and was impossible under the articles of confederation. As the only available source of revenue, all eyes were turned to the public lands, which from time to time became the property of the nation by cessions of the several States which claimed them. Their financial value of course depended on emigration and settlement, and these encountered serious obstacles in the imperfect execution of the British treaty, the unfriendly disposition of the Northwestern Indians, and the troubles with Spain concerning the navigation of the Mississippi. It is perfectly obvious that under such circumstances emigration needed a powerful stimulus. If the government had then been out of debt, and had offered the pioneer a home in the West on the simple conditions of occupancy and improvement, instead of imposing upon him a tax of so much per acre for the privilege of subduing the wilderness and making it productive, our land policy would have been established on a far better foundation, and the march of American civilization incalculably advanced.
But the growing need of money rendered this impossible, and the future interests of the nation had to be subordinated to the existing emergency. Several large sales were made by special contract prior to the adoption of the constitution. The first was of a tract on Lake Erie, west of New York, north of Pennsylvania, and east of Ohio, which was included in the cessions made by New York and Massachusetts. It contained 202,187 acres, and sold for $157,640, or about seventy-eight cents per acre. Another sale was that made to the Ohio Company, of a tract on the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, containing 964,285 acres, at two thirds of a dollar per acre. This company was represented by Manassah Cutler and Winthrop Sargent, and it opened the way for the settlement of Ohio, then a wilderness, inhabited only by savages. It was the desire to find a market for these lands, and the apprehension that the introduction of slave labor into the Northwest Territory would seriously hinder this object, that paved the way for the passage of the famous ordinance of 1787, which was secured by the remarkable industry, perseverance, and diplomacy of Mr. Cutler, the real author of that ordinance, as recently shown by authentic facts. Another sale was made, also in Ohio, to John Cloves Symmes, of the territory between the Great and the Little Miami River, containing one million acres, but it was afterwards reduced to 248,540, which also sold for two thirds of a dollar per acre. On this land the first successful attempt was made to settle the country northwest of the Ohio. On the 20th of May, 1785, an ordinance was passed for ascertaining the mode of disposing of the public lands in the Western Territories, being the first general act on the subject, and embodying some of the principal features of the present system. Under this ordinance, sales were made at New York in 1787, and at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1796, aggregating 121,540 acres, for $201,992, or an average of about $1.60 per acre. By act of Congress of the 18th of May, 1796, the price of lands northwest of the Ohio was fixed at not less than two dollars per acre; but on the 10th of May, 1800, a general act was passed, more definitely laying the foundations of our land policy, which was modified in 1820 by substituting cash sales for credit, and reducing the price from $2.00 to $1.25 per acre.
So completely was the policy of settlement subordinated to that of revenue that by act of Congress of March 3, 1807, it was provided that settlers on the public lands might be removed by the marshal of the territory, with the aid of any required military force, and fined for their illegal occupancy one hundred dollars, and imprisoned for not longer than six months. The harshness of this law was so felt, however, that its enforcement was not generally demanded, while numerous acts of Congress, applicable to particular States and Territories, from time to time provided for preëption rights in particular cases and on special conditions, notwithstanding the act mentioned. This legislation in the interest of intruding settlers finally proceeded so far that the anomaly was presented of rewarding those whose punishment was provided for by an existing law as trespassers, by giving them the exclusive right to preëmpt the public lands. At length, on the 29th of May, 1830, the first preëption law was enacted, granting to every settler who was in possession at the date of the law, and had cultivated any portion of the land, a quantity not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres. This was limited to one year, but by various subsequent acts, reaching to June 1, 1840, preëption privileges were extended to a later date and a larger class of persons. Finally, on the 4th of September, 1841, our general preëption law was passed, superseding all previous enactments on the subject, which had been retrospective in their bearing, and definitely providing for the right of preëption as to all future settlers on the public domain. Our land policy was thus completely revolutionized. The settler was no longer a trespasser, who was to be visited with penalties, but acted under the shield of the government. It invited him to make his settlement, and offered him a home on certain prescribed conditions as to occupancy, improvement, notice of intention, and payment; and its faith was understood to be plighted that he should be protected at every stage of the proceedings, and receive a patent for his land upon their completion.
But our land policy was still exceedingly imperfect. The financial necessity which shaped it in the beginning had long ceased to exist, while politicians and parties were wrangling over the proper disposition of the surplus revenue which had resulted from the policy of sale; but the policy still continued. The pioneer, who braved the hardships and privations incident to a home in the wilderness for the bona fide purpose of making it a subject of taxation and a source of wealth, was obliged to pay the government a dollar and a quarter per acre for its permission to do so. And this was not his greatest hardship. He was balked and thwarted at every turn by the land speculator, who was licensed by the government to prey upon him and the public domain. While the settler was invited to select a home upon it, and protected in the consummation of his title, the speculator was tempted to cripple and circumvent him by purchasing large bodies of choice lands, which he could hold back from settlement with a view to an advanced price, thus forcing the pioneer still further into the wilderness, and compelling him, by his toils and privations, to augment the wealth of the man who had done nothing to earn it. Every new farm snatched from the frontier added to the wealth and strength of the nation, while the monopoly of millions of acres which were withheld from cultivation was a positive public curse. It has been computed that in the year 1835 alone about 8,000,000 acres of the public domain passed into the hands of non-resident speculators. The money thus invested was withdrawn from praiseworthy enterprises and the ordinary uses of commerce, and sunk in the forests of the West, which were allowed to yield no return. Great stretches of these wild lands thus intervened between settlements which were afterwards made under the preëption law, since the pioneer could not pay the speculator his price, and was thus debarred from the lands which should have been dedicated to his use, and compelled to accept those inferior in quality. According to an estimate of the commissioner of the general land office, made a few years ago, more than 30,000,000 acres of the aggregate amount sold since the formation of the government, had not been reduced to occupancy as farms; and this, of course, is only a fraction of the grand aggregate which from time to time must have passed under the dominion of monopolists, and was afterwards gradually reduced to cultivation by paying the price which was exacted. The government thus became the plunderer of the people. It went into partnership with the speculator in cheating the pioneer and producer, while robbing the national treasury. By dooming vast tracts of fertile land to barrenness it created a fatal hindrance to agricultural wealth, and to commerce and manufactures, which draw their life from the soil. It turned a deaf ear to the men who were encountering savages and wild beasts in subduing the wilderness, coining it into wealth, and speeding the advance of civilization, while partially befriending them under the short-sighted and halfway policy of the act of 1841.
But the evils of land speculation and monopoly made less impression upon the country than the tariff upon settlers under the preëption law. These settlers were generally poor men, and the payment of a dollar and a quarter per acre was felt to be a serious hardship. This feeling gradually extended throughout the West, and as early as the year 1832 President Jackson recommended the policy of making the public domain practically free to actual settlers, in limited quantities. Had this policy then been adopted, coupled with adequate guards against the greed of speculators, many thousands of landless men who have since gone down to their graves in the weary conflict with poverty and toil, would have been cheered and blessed with independent homes on the public domain. Wealth, greatly augmented, quarried from the mountains and wrung from the forests and prairies of the West, would have poured into the federal coffers. The question of slavery in our national Territories would probably have found a peaceable solution in the steady advance and sure empire of free labor, while slavery in its strongholds, girdled by free institutions, might have been content to die a natural death.
But our politicians were not ready for so radical a reform. It was espoused, however, by some prominent agitators in the State of New York, who organized a land reform party, and had a considerable following, which was increased from year to year. The demand of “ land for the landless ” gradually grew louder and louder, till it commanded the attention of whig and democratic politicians in different sections of the country. It became quite evident that the old controversy respecting the distribution of the proceeds of the public lands was to be superseded by this new issue. It was adopted as a part of the creed of the voting abolitionists, and incorporated in the platform of the Free Democracy, at its national convention in Buffalo, in 1848. It had a few advocates in the Congress of 1849-50, in which the first homestead bill was reported in the house of representatives by Andrew Johnson; and although it was branded as “ demagogism,” “agrarianism,” and “socialism,” and was scarcely less odious, North and South, than “ abolitionism ” itself, it steadily grew into popular favor. Repeated efforts were made to carry the measure during the administrations of Pierce and Buchanan, and it finally prevailed in both houses near the close of the thirty - sixth Congress; but it was vetoed by Mr. Buchanan. At last, on the 20th day of May, 1862, the homestead bill reported by the house committee on public lands became a law; and it has probably done more to make the American name honored and beloved among civilized nations than any single act of legislation since the formation of the government. It is at once an enduring monument of legislative wisdom and beneficence, and a crown of unfading honor to the men who originated it, and persistently battled for it till their labors were crowned with success.
Our land policy, however, needed still further and more radical reforms. The homestead law was a great advance upon the preëmption act of 1841, but it did not completely emancipate the public domain. In looking to its settlement and tillage as the true source of revenue, and in providing homes for the landless poor, it was worthy of all commendation; but it contained no prohibition against that cruel commerce in land which had already desolated large portions of the West, and was then in the full sweep of its baleful ascendency. All that was necessary to make the law a measure of complete relief was a simple provision that no more lands winch were fit for agriculture should be disposed of, except as provided for under its provisions, and those of the act of 1841. This would have destroyed land speculation, root and branch; indeed, one member of the house of representatives labored for years to procure such an enactment, and finally carried it through that body near the close of the forty-first Congress. The effort, however, has not been renewed since; and the only legislation which ever perfectly guarded the rights of the settlers against the mischiefs of speculation and monopoly was the Southern homestead law of June 21, 1866, which has recently been repealed, greatly to the satisfaction of the speculators, who are now lying in wait to appropriate the lands thus exposed to the old-time system of spoliation. At the date of this enactment there were, in the five States of the South to which it applied, about 46,000,000 acres of land which would be liable to sale in large bodies as soon as the work of Southern reconstruction should restore the machinery of the land department. About 52,000,000 acres of unimproved land had already fallen into the clutches of speculators, while more than two thirds of the people were landless; and if the towns and cities of those States were excluded, more than nine tenths of their population were without homes of their own. In view of these facts the passage of the act referred to was as obviously proper and necessary as its late repeal is surprising.
We have already referred to the mischiefs of land speculation in the States of the Northwest, where it has been an irreparable blight to their prosperity. It has wrought upon the country generally evils more enduring and wide - spread than those of war, pestilence, or famine. In many quarters its ravages have increased since the enactment of the homestead law, which probably gave the speculator a new incentive to diligence. In California two men acquired a frontage on the San Joaquin River of forty miles in extent, while sundry other speculators became the owners of a half million acres each. We are assured by very well-informed men in that State that but for the evil of land speculation, reënforced by railway monopoly, her present population would have been doubled. The homestead act furnished no adequate remedy for this mischief. The right of the settler to land, free of cost, was of less consequence than the reservation of the public domain for his exclusive use, unobstructed in the right of selection. That Congress should have remained blind to these frightful abuses through all the long years of their mad ascendency seems now a very surprising fact; but it forms a part of the strange history of our land policy, and illustrates the tardy progress of legislative reforms. It took more than three quarters of a century to inaugurate the homestead policy, while Congress, to this day, has allowed the work of speculation to have free course, with the slight exception referred to in the act relative to Southern lands.
But our subject invites us to follow it still further. The halting policy of the government and its indifference to the rights of settlers afford other striking illustrations. One of these is supplied by our land-grant policy. We believe the first grant of land ever made by Congress, in alternate sections, for any work of internal improvement, was in the year 1827, to aid in the construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal. Two additional grants were subsequently made in aid of this work, the last of which was for 800,000 acres, which could be located in a body, and selected within thirty or forty miles of the line of the canal. But the land-grant system, as we have recently known it, was fully launched only in 1850, in the grant then made in alternate sections, in aid of the Illinois Central Railway. The theory of this system is that the government will be fully compensated for the odd-numbered sections granted by the enhanced price of the even - numbered sections which are reserved; but this does not cure the vicious principle of monopoly involved. No time is fixed within which the lands shall be sold by the company having charge of them, which may avail itself of other resources, and hold them for twenty or forty years for a rise in price, as was done in the grant mentioned. There is no provision, as there should be, that the odd-numbered sections shall be sold to actual settlers only, in quantities not greater than one hundred and sixty acres to a single purchaser, and for a reasonable maximum price per acre, so as to secure the settlement of the lands while aiding in the building of the road. The principle of alternate sections has also frequently been disregarded, and in several instances the even-numbered sections have been granted after the oddnumbered ones have been exhausted. It must be remembered, too, that the policy of fixed lateral limits, and of alternate sections in place, has not been adhered to. By widening the belt within which the lands are to be selected to the extent of twenty, and even forty or fifty, miles, and allowing floats or scrip beyond this margin, in lieu of lands not found within it, the whole policy of compensation to the government has been overthrown, and the grants have become a practical bounty to railroad corporations at the expense of actual settlers, and to the great detriment of the country. The preëmptor and homestead settler are driven further back in the interest of monopolists, who have grown rich by withholding their lands from sale till a handsome price could be had through the settlement and improvement of adjoining lands. They have been obliged to surrender the advantages of roads, mills, schools, churches, and such other blessings as characterize a wellordered community, for the imaginary compensation of a railroad forty or fifty miles distant.
This policy hinders the increase of national wealth, by preventing the cultivation of vast districts of fertile land which should be left free to settlers. It is a wicked compact between the government, on the one hand, and land speculators, on the other, executed at the nation’s expense, and in cruel mockery of the whole spirit and policy of the preëmption and homestead laws. Under this loose and unguarded system Congress has surrendered more than 200,000,000 acres in aid of railways and other works of internal improvement, constituting an area about equal to that of the original thirteen States of the Union. The public lands belong to the people; but Congress has abdicated the people’s sovereignty over a territory large enough for an empire in the interest of great corporations, and without any conditions or restrictions securing the rights of settlers. The original Northern Pacific Railroad bill alone granted 47,000,000 acres, and a supplementary act increased the grant 11,000,000, —making a total of 58,000,000 acres to one great corporation; and every proposition looking to the rights of actual settlers, or in any way restrictive of the powers of the corporation, was successively voted down by strong majorities, while even the right of other roads to connect with this line was impudently denied. And this system of grants took on its most extravagant features simultaneously with the passage of the homestead law, and as if systematically planned to defeat its operation. That the railroads we really needed could have been constructed by the aid of land grants carefully guarding the rights of settlers in the manner we have indicated, there can be little doubt; and the refusal of Congress to provide such guards furnishes a remarkable practical commentary upon the homestead law, and upon the boasted devotion of its champions to the welfare of the homeless poor.
The action of Congress in dealing with swamp and overflowed lands may fairly be classed with the profligate legislation to which we have just referred. The formidable lobby which pressed the passage of the act of September 8, 1850, granting such lands to the States in which they were situated, urged that they were of little value, and that the general government could not afford the expense of reclaiming them. But the truth is that to a very large extent they are the richest lands in the nation, while the cost of their reclamation was no greater than that of utilizing agricultural lands. It was likewise urged that the States could better be trusted with the work than the general government; but time has fully demonstrated the contrary, and very sadly to the nation’s cost. The well-understood machinery of the general land office, available to individual energy and enterprise, afforded the best and only means of solving the swampland problem. No legislation could well have been more disastrous to the country; and if the act of 1850 was not specially framed in the interest of organized thieving and plunder, then its entire administration is so wholly out of joint with the law itself that an honest man is hopelessly puzzled in the attempt to account for it. In failing to give any definition of the phrase “ swamp and overflowed land,” the act supplied a perpetual temptation to mercenary men and corrupt officials to pervert it to base ends. Instead of submitting the character of the land in dispute to the register and receiver of the local land office, and investing them with the power to compel the attendance of witnesses, it left the question to be decided by the surveyorgeneral, who has no judicial power, and is generally engrossed, and often overwhelmed, with his own proper duties. His office may be hundreds of miles from the lands in controversy, thus causing great and needless expense to the settlers, who are required to attend with their witnesses at the hearing, which is frequently appointed at a season of the year rendering it a great hardship, if not an impossibility. Although the surveyorgeneral is an officer of the United States, it practically happens that local and state influences completely override the rights of the general government. Lands are surveyed and their character settled soon after some unusual overflow, or in a season of great rain, or large bodies are declared swamp because small portions of them only are really so. By such methods the most frightful abuses are the order of the day, working the most shameful injustice to honest settlers, and fatally obstructing the settlement and development of the country. One hundred thousand acres in one land district, and situated in different localities near the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, some five or six thousand feet above the level of the sea, have been claimed by speculators as swamp, while it was shown by the sworn statements of many of the settlers on these lands that they actually required irrigation to make them desirable in the raising of either hay or grain. Many of these settlers, who have resided upon these mountain lands for years, received their patents, and made lasting improvements in the most perfect good faith, have been brought face to face with claimants under the swampland act, who have ejected them from their homes without even the shadow of a right. More than 68,000,000 acres in all have been selected as swamp, and over 48,000,000 patented, a very large proportion of which is dry land, and among the very best which the government owned. The work of spoliation is still in progress, and nothing can arrest it but an act of Congress so defining swamp and overflowed land as to make impossible the outrages to which we have referred, and which have often been so cunningly planned and so infernally prosecuted as to make quite respectable the average performances of professional pickpockets and thieves.
Not less subservient to the interests of monopolists has been the action of the government in dealing with our Indian reservations. According to the early policy of the government, when an Indian tribe desired to dispose of its lands, they were conveyed directly to the United States, and thus made subject to the control of Congress like other public lands. But in the year 1861 a new policy was inaugurated, by which such reservations were disposed of to individual monopolists, or to railway corporations, in utter disregard of the rights of settlers under the preëmption and homestead laws, and of the constitution of the United States, which gives to Congress the sole power to dispose of and manage the public domain. We refer to a few examples. Under our treaties with the Delaware Indians, made in 1860 and 1861, some 234,000 acres of surplus Indian lands were sold to the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western Railway Company, instead of being opened to actual settlers as public lands. Under another treaty, concluded in 1866, the residue of these lands, amounting to over 92,000 acres, was sold to the Missouri River Railroad Company, thus creating another monopoly. By virtue of a treaty with the Sac and Fox Indians, concluded in the year 1859, the trustlands of these Indians, which amounted to 278,200 acres, were sold to thirty-six different purchasers, thus creating numerous though considerable monopolies. By virtue of a treaty concluded with the Kicknpoo Indians in 1862, the Atchison and Pike’s Peak Railroad Company, in the year 1865, became the purchaser of the lands of these Indians, amounting to 123,832 acres. By virtue of the first article of a treaty between the United States and the Great and Little Osage Indians, concluded in the year 1865, these Indians sold to the United States a tract of country embracing 1,996,800 acres; and under the second article of the treaty, they sold, in trust, the further quantity of 1,225,602 acres, making a total of 3,222,402 acres. This treaty, in strange disregard of the rights of settlers, provided that this vast area of land should not he subject to entry under the preemption and homestead laws, but should be sold to the highest bidder. Of course the land was disposed of accordingly, although thousands of settlers who went upon it before the treaty was proclaimed, many of them having made valuable improvements in good faith, were deprived of the rights which should have been secured to them as settlers on the public domain.
But a still more remarkable case is that of the Cherokee Neutral Lands in Kansas, consisting of a tract fifty miles long and twenty-five wide, and embracing 800,000 acres. By treaty with these Indians, concluded in 1866, the secretary of the interior was authorized to sell these lands in a body for a price not less than one dollar per acre in cash, except such tracts as were settled upon at the date of the treaty. Accordingly, in the following year, a contract was made for the sale of these lands to one James F. Joy, in the interest of the Kansas and Neosho Valley Railway Company, for the minimum price named; and the directors of the company resolved that such of the lands as were then occupied by bonafide settlers should be valued at from three to ten dollars per acre, and sold to said settlers at an average of six dollars per acre. Of course they should have had their lands at the government price, under the preëmption law. The treaty could easily have been so made as to provide for this, by conveying the lands directly to the United States, and thus subjecting them at once to our ordinary policy of settlement and sale. No man can approve the conduct of the government in refusing to do this, and thus joining hands with monopolists in squandering the public domain and conspiring against the productive industry of the country. At the date of this treaty more than one thousand families were on the land as actual settlers, and their number was increased within the following few years to 2500, or about 18,000 settlers in all. Probably two thirds of the heads of these families were honorably discharged soldiers, who made their settlements in the firm belief that they had the right to do so under the laws of Congress, but were all, by the terms of this treaty, at the mercy of Joy, as their potentate and king. Federal soldiers were called out to protect him in his scheme of spoliation against the men whose hard toil was adding to the public wealth, and whose valor helped save the nation in the battle for its life.
Some of the grants made by Congress for educational purposes have been equally vicious. The aggregate of these grants for common schools, universities, and agricultural colleges is about 80,-000,000 acres. No adequate conditions were prescribed to prevent the monopoly of this vast domain, nor the frightful maladministration of it by the States which has actually taken place. In some of them the school fund has totally disappeared. But by far the worst of these enactments is the agricultural college act of 1862. Its grant of 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative in Congress has been the source of large and mischievous monopolies of the public domain. The States having public lands within their borders have held back from sale the shares to which they were entitled, in order to a rise in price, thus obstructing the settlement of the country at the expense of the landless poor; while the States having no public lands have received scrip representing their proportions, which has been thrown upon the market, and generally sold at about fifty per cent. less than par. In some instances its price has gone far below this, and the entire college scrip of a State was at one time offered at thirtyseven and a half cents per acre. The act thus failed to supply a fund with which to build colleges, while it enabled speculators to appropriate great bodies of the public domain at a very low rate, as if its settlement and tillage were an unprofitable or unmanly employment, or a barbarian practice which it was the duty of the government to discourage. A company of speculators doing business in Cleveland, Ohio, and Wall Street, New York, a few years ago advertised that they had bought the college scrip of nine States which they mentioned, covering 2,482,000 acres. They held it for speculation, because the government had surrendered its jurisdiction over it on conditions which invited them to do so. In the State of California alone about 900,000 acres have been located with this scrip, and we remember the passage of an act, by the forty-first Congress, to perfect the title of a noted monopolist of that State to some 30,000 acres so located, which act, by way of legislative irony, was entitled “ A bill amendatory of an act to protect the rights of settlers upon the public lands of the United States.” Of the motives of the men who originated and carried the act of 1862, we have nothing to say; but the law itself was as mischievous as if it had been studiously planned as a conspiracy against the public welfare. No man can defend it; and it ought to have been entitled “ A bill to encourage the monopoly of the nation’s lands, to hinder the cause of productive wealth, and to multiply the hardships of our pioneers under the false pretense of aiding the cause of general education.” Kindred observations apply to our half-breed Indian scrip, covering nearly 321,000 acres, which was to be issued to the Sioux Indians in person, but by some black art has been located in violation of this requirement, while scrip covering over 77,000 acres has been issued to the Chippewa Indians.
Our system of military land bounties has proved a still greater obstacle to the settlement and improvement of the public domain. More than 73,000,000 acres in all have been appropriated for military and naval purposes, the effect of which has been far more ruinous to the prosperity of the country than beneficial to the soldier and seaman. The warrants originally issued for Mexican War bounty lands were to be located only by the soldier, but it was soon provided that he might locate them by an agent, and finally they were made assignable. According to a careful estimate made by the commissioner of the general land office, a few years ago, not one in five hundred of the warrants issued and placed in the hands of the soldiers or their heirs was ever located by them or for their use; and he estimated that not exceeding ten per cent. of them had been used by preemptors as assignees in payment for actual settlement, the remainder having gone into the clutches of the speculator.
While the soldier was cheated out of his warrant, or sold it at a very low rate, the public domain, which should have been free to him and to all other poor men, has been absorbed by monopolists, who have fixed upon it such a tariff as they could exact from those in search of homes. No one can compute the mischiefs inflicted by this system of Mexican bounties, which cover an aggregate of over 63,-000,000 acres, and the warrants for which at one time sold as low as thirty-five to forty cents per acre. While it was a mockery of the just claims of the soldier, it organized monopoly and plunder into an institution. It enabled the speculator to pick and cull the choice lands of the government, and to throw himself across the path of the pioneer in his search for a home under the invitation of the preemption law. It stimulated the cupidity of the capitalist, and paralyzed the arm of labor. What the soldier needed and deserved was a bounty in money, graded in amount by the time of service, and this the government should have given him; but if he wanted land, he should have had it on the easy conditions of occupancy and improvement.
But the extent to which the government has systematically nullified the operation of the preëmption and homestead laws has not yet been fully stated, and our task would be incomplete without some reference to a few of the cases in which the executive and judicial departments of the government have united with the legislative in acts positively unfriendly to the producing classes, and especially to that grand army of occupation, the pioneer settlers.
In the year 1862 the famous Spanish grant known as the Suscol Ranch, in California, became a part of the public unappropriated domain, by a decision of the supreme court of the United States declaring the grant invalid. Some hundreds of settlers thereon at once determined to assert their rights as preëmptors, and 189 of them proceeded to file their declarations, as shown by the records of the general land office, which decided a number of the cases in favor of the claimants. General Frisbie, a noted monopolist, who claimed title to the ranch under an act of Congress procured chiefly through his agency, prevailed on the secretary of the interior to ask the advice of the attorney - general on the question of law involved, which was the right of preëmption, the facts being admitted. The attorney-general gave his opinion to the effect that a settler under the preëmption law acquires no vested interest in the land he occupies by virtue of his settlement, and can acquire no such interest till he has taken all the legal steps necessary to perfect an entrance in the land office, being in the mean time a mere tenant at will, who may be ejected by the government at any moment in favor of another party, who may hold it, with all the improvements made upon it in good faith, with notice of all the facts, and discharged from all the equities of the preëmptor. This opinion being accepted as law by the interior department, Whitney, one of the preëmptors, prosecuted his claim against Frisbie in the supreme court of the District of Columbia, which sustained his preëmption as valid. But Frisbie thereupon appealed the case to the supreme court of the United States, which decided it in his favor, fully affirming the doctrine of the attorney-general, that settlers on the public land under the preëmption law, until they have complied with all the conditions of title, have no rights which the government is bound to respect. To the great surprise of the country, and in the face of judicial decisions which were well understood as affirming the contrary, it was thus finally determined that when the government invites settlers on to the public lands, and offers them homes on certain prescribed conditions with which they are willing and anxious to comply, it may violate its plighted faith; and we are sorry to say that the principle thus decided, through which nearly two hundred settlers were robbed of their homes, has received the sanction of the house of representatives, as shown by its recorded vote on the 7th of July, in the year 1866.
We refer to another notable case. In the year 1864 Congress granted to the State of California the famous Yosemite Valley, in perpetual reservation as a pleasure ground and spectacle of wonder. But it turned out that prior to the grant one J. M. Hutchings, an enterprising settler, had selected a home in the valley, under the preëmption law, built his cabin, planted orchards and vineyards, and expended some thousands of dollars in making himself comfortable, while braving great hardships and privations in this remote and inaccessible region. In order to protect him in his rights, the legislature of the State passed an act, subject to its ratification by Congress, reserving to him one hundred and sixty acres, including his improvements, and to the State the right to construct bridges, avenues, and paths over his preëmption, so that the public use of the valley could not be obstructed. A bill was introduced in the house of representatives of the forty-first Congress confirming this act, and redeeming the pledge of the nation, understood to be embodied in the preëmption law, that his home should be secured to him on compliance with its conditions. The simple, naked question presented was whether the government, which recognizes the sacredness of contracts, and will not allow their obligation to be impaired as between individuals, should maintain its own good faith. The house of representatives, upon the second day of July, 1870, answered this question in the negative. By its recorded vote of one hundred and seven against thirtyone, it declared that Hutchings should be driven from his home. He appealed to the courts of California, and from their adverse decision to the supreme court of the United States, which reaffirmed its ruling in the case of Whitney v. Frisbie, — a ruling branded in both houses of Congress at the time it was made as “the Dred Scott decision of the American pioneer.” Other great wrongs have been perpetrated under these and kindred judicial decisions, and a bill is now pending in Congress for the relief of several hundred bona-fide settlers in the Des Moines Valley in the State of Iowa, who are threatened with the loss of their homes and valuable improvements which they have peaceably enjoyed for many years, in the belief that they were perfectly secured by the laws of the United States.
Nor has the general government stood alone in the wholesale prostitution of the people’s heritage which we have attempted to depict. The States have coëerated vigorously, and with decided effect. Those of the South and West, through swamp - land rings and other forms of monopoly and plunder, have shown a remarkable capacity for ruinous maladministration. The State of California, which was admitted into the Union on the express condition that she should not interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within her borders, violated this injunction and defied Congress by setting up a land system of her own, which she administered in the most flagrant defiance of justice as well as law. The 500,000 acres given her by the general government for internal improvements she appropriated for educational purposes, issuing school warrants to settlers, who were allowed to go on the lands before they were surveyed and segregated. She ignored the swamp-land act of 1850 till the year 1861, when her legislature provided for the survey of her swamp lands, and according to such loose methods that many thousands of acres of dry land were included in her claim. Settlers under the preëption law, who could take only one hundred and sixty acres, and were required to live on it, were driven out of the rich valleys of the State by monopolists, who could obtain a State title for three hundred and twenty acres without occupancy; and, strangely enough, her delegation in Congress afterwards secured the passage of a law confirming this work of organized spoliation in the interest of private rapacity and in the name of state rights.
The older States have had no such temptation, but their legislation has frequently been hostile to small land owners, who are the natural defenders of the country. This has been strikingly illustrated in the State of Massachusetts, which systematically discourages her poor men from buying land. Mr. Brooks Adams, in a recent article in this magazine, shows that half the homes of laboring men in that State are mortgaged, and that through the tax on mortgages, which is a form of double taxation, the startling aggregate of $1,500,000 is taken from their pockets yearly, as a virtual confiscation of their earnings. Under the operation of this policy the owner of a house mortgaged for $1000 pays from six to seven times as much tax as the man who places his $1000 in a bank. The result is that the workingmen of the State are obliged to go without homes, or suffer their children to grow up in ignorance. These are remarkable facts, and they apply to other States besides Massachusetts. It is certainly the duty of the government to render the territory under its control as productive as possible, and to encourage the multiplication of small homesteads upon which the man who holds the plow is the owner of the soil. It is equally obvious that this policy supplies the strongest bond of union between the citizen and the State, and is absolutely necessary in a well-ordered commonwealth. By practically setting these principles at defiance, our land policy will have its enduring monument in the very curses which it plants in its footsteps and writes down upon the soil. It poisons our social life by checking the multiplication of American homes and the growth of the domestic virtues. It tends to aggregate our people in towns and cities, and render them mere consumers, instead of dispersing them over our territory, and tempting them to become the owners of land and the creators of wealth. It fosters the taste for artificial life and the excitements to be found in great centres of population, instead of holding up the truth that “ God made the country,” and intended it to be peopled and enjoyed. If our institutions are to be preserved, we must insist upon the policy of small farms, thrifty tillage, compact settlements, free schools, and equality of political rights, instead of large estates, slovenly agriculture, widely - scattered settlements, popular ignorance, and a pampered aristocracy lording it over the people. This is the overshadowing question of American politics, and it involves the gradual overruling, in some form, of the mischiefs of past legislation, and the reconstruction of generally received opinions respecting the right of property in land. If these opinions are absolutely final, and not merely provisional, the future has no remedy in store for the great curse which has “gnawed social order from the beginning of the world,” and sapped the foundation of every free government of the past. We have no scheme of “ agrarianism ” or “ communism ” to propose; but the unrestricted monopoly of the soil is as repugnant to republican government as slavery is to liberty; and we hold, therefore, that the right of individual property in land, according to some just method yet to be applied, must be subordinated to the natural rights of man and the public welfare. Whether this is to be accomplished by prescribing a fixed limit to the right of ownership, or by a graduated tax having reference to the quantity owned, or by Mr. Mill’s method of intercepting, by taxation, for the benefit of the state, the unearned increase in the value of land, through which millions of dollars annually pass from the landless to the land - holding class, or by some other policy not yet suggested, we do not pretend to decide; but that it must be done, if democratic institutions are to be permanently maintained, is as true as any of our fundamental political maxims.
We have already referred to the residue of our public lands, and to the new policy demanded by their peculiar character. What is wanted is a complete segregation and grouping of the whole into distinct classes, and their disposition according to the laws specially provided for each class. The land fit for farming should be disposed of under the preemption and homestead laws, and not otherwise. Coal lands should be disposed of under the laws applicable to them, which should be so framed as to prevent their appropriation as farming land. Swamp lands should be so carefully defined that dry lands can no longer be appropriated under that name. The laws governing the disposition of our mineral lands, covering an area of more than a million square miles, and the existing methods of survey which breed interminable litigation, should be radically amended. Our desert lands, estimated at two fifths of the public domain, and worthless for agriculture without irrigation, and the large areas valuable only for their timber, or fit only for grazing, should neither be surveyed nor parceled under the system applicable to the farming and forest lands of the old States, but in large divisions, so as to induce individuals or colonies of emigrants to appropriate them. This new policy, now earnestly recommended by high official and scientific authority, will necessitate a thorough knowledge of the geology and natural resources of the lands to be dealt with, in order to their proper classification, and their survey and sale under a system of triangulation in all cases where the old rectangular method is not adapted to the situation. Its success will require wise legislation and much administrative ability. The parceling and sale of farming lands is a very simple matter in comparison; but with the political reorganization recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, the selection of competent and trustworthy men for the service, and the scientific aids now abundantly available, a serious failure is not to be apprehended. It is difficult to believe, at all events, that the mistakes and blunders which have so grievously marred and wasted the public domain in the past will be repeated; while the proposed codification of the various laws relating to its disposition, which should include the principal opinions and rulings of the land department, will bring within the reach of the people much needed information which is now inaccessible if not past finding out.
George W. Julian.