“An allusion has been made to the Homestead Law. I think it worthy of consideration, and that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefitting his condition.” Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1861, replying to comments made by Frederick Oberkline, chairman of a committee representing eighteen German industrial associations that called in a body to pay their respects as Lincoln’s “Inaugural” Train stopped in Cincinnati, Ohio
In 1862 Congress passed what is known as the Homestead Act, which opened up federal land west of the Mississippi River to any applicant who wished to own and farm it. Initially blocked by Southern Democrats who wanted lands for slave owners to purchase, once they were gone due the Civil War, a Republican Congress passed the bill and it was signed into law by President Lincoln. To get free 160 acres of land to settle on and farm, the law required merely three steps: file an application, live on and improve the land, and then file for a title deed. Anyone could apply for this land grant, including freed slaves, as long as they had not ever taken up arms against the government. You merely had to be at least 21 years old or the head of a family, live on the land for five years, and show evidence that you had improved it.
Iowa was a part of this new drive to settle the West. In fact, if you own property here, you can probably look at your own abstract documents and trace your home’s history all the way back to the Homestead Act. The land on which my own home rests was granted to its first owner by the United States on October 24, 1863. Iowa is the only state left that still has its property owners keep and maintain the abstracts of the entire chain of title to their land all the way back to this initial land grant. Go pull out your abstract and look it up – it is fascinating to take that walk through time.
It is in this way that we as a nation proved how different from Europe we really were. Unlike the feudalism of the Old World, in which few owned the land, and the rest were serfs upon it, our nation was built on the idea that individuals have a right to own property and that happiness and prosperity was limited to only the sweat of one’s brow and the amount of risk individuals wished to put forth. Except for in slave states, no one was required to labor and toil for the benefit of another who was unwilling to do the same. Everyone carried the burden of their own work and enjoyed the fruits of their own labor.
The rules were simple back then: accept the free land, be a good steward of the land, and you get to own the land. Yet, as I look at our government today, there seems to be a concerted effort underway to make it more complex, because some believe that life now is far more complex. Yet, by 1862, our young nation had already gone through so many things in its short existence, all of which history had no precedent. We had fought two wars against the greatest military in the world and won (the Revolutionary War & the War of 1812). We created a brand new county where one never existed, and settled our land in such a way that no one had ever done before. We were also in the midst of bloody civil war. How is life today any more complex than back then? Our resources may be different, but people are the same. Do we not see injustice today as they did back then? Do we also not see the greatness of humankind shine through when the going gets tough? The blessing of being a people who breathe free is that we have the ability to not only repent and learn from our mistakes, but we can move on and be the better for it.
The simple truth is that our government has not grown complex and bureaucratic because life is more complex, but because people have never lost their desire for power. Unlike the Homestead Act, which used the principles of liberty to help meet the nation’s goal of settling the West, our modern day government is practicing a sort of bureaucratic feudalism, in which we are the serfs, and must obey centralized departments who make rules to expand their power over our lives and our stuff. Yet, like feudal Europe, we are slowly discovering that no matter how efficient or excellent a government tries to be, it will always fail. I am not surprised; for the simple truth is that nothing will ever be able to replace the efficiency or excellence of a people who are in control of their own piece of the American dream.
Governments are better when they are smaller. They can protect liberty best when focused more on goals and less on rules, which allows the individual ingenuity of their people to spring forth. Did you know that in the first 75 years of our nation, absolutely NO administrative rulemaking was done? No bureaucracy, yet still we grew and prospered. What would happen if we were to return to this principle of a simple government, where elected leaders were not afraid to act on good principles and conviction, instead of the consolidation of power? Would we not see the return of each American’s ability to truly pursue their own happiness, without having to get permission from government?