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Focusing on national politics and America's long road to civil war, this dissertation presents a history of the "free land" idea that culminated with the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. Using primary sources such as the published papers of notable political figures and records of congressional debates, this work presents the full political history of homesteading from before the Revolutionary War to its ultimate approval during the Civil War.
Politicians debated how best to use and distribute public lands for decades before the Civil War. While many took inspiration from Thomas Jefferson and called for the government to provide small tracts of land to settlers for free, others remained convinced that sales of public lands should be used to grow the national treasury. Beginning with the Missouri Compromise in 1820, debates about land distribution reflected the nation's growing sectional tensions. Southerners came to gradually oppose any form of free land distribution as threatening to the expansion and survival of slavery.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, advocates of free land distribution were among the earliest adherents to the new Republican Party. The homesteading idea was critical to providing cohesion within the new party at a time when many Republicans held differing opinions on how best to confront the South on slavery expansion.
This dissertation argues that the homesteading idea was a much more important national political issue than historians have heretofore expressed. It was a critical element to debates about the expansion of slavery into the West decades before the Civil War and, therefore, stands as an important issue that contributed more to the coming of that conflict than most historians have recognized.
By tracing the idea's earliest expressions by Jefferson to its ultimate approval by a Republican-dominated Congress and president during the Civil War, this work provides a comprehensive history of the Homestead Act's genesis, development, and impact on a century of American politics and life.