Free land! May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act remade America

May 20, 2014

A family off to find and settle their homestead, 1886. Photo from the National Archives

A family off to find and settle their homestead, 1886. Photo from the National Archives

History and demographics of the United States were forever changed when the Homestead Act became law early in the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, on May 20, 1862.

With Congress paralyzed and unable to act to do even minor good things now, it’s astonishing to think how the Congress of 1862 could do so much to open the American west, in the middle of the American Civil War.  Perhaps Congress was able to act because legislators from the South were absent, and did not oppose progress.

In any case, the Homestead Act encouraged Americans who lacked property to strike out for the western territories and states, to make a new life, to found new towns, cities and farms, and fulfill what some call the nation’s “manifest destiny.”

The bill that became the Homestead Act, H.R. 125, in the 37th Congress, 1862. Image from the U.S. National Archives

The bill that became the Homestead Act, H.R. 125, in the 37th Congress, 1862. Image from the U.S. National Archives

Here’s the history from the National Archives:

The notion that the United States government should give free land titles to settlers to encourage westward expansion became popular in the 1850s. During that time the U.S. House of Representatives passed numerous homestead bills but southern opposition in the Senate prevented enactment. In 1860, during the 36th Congress, the Senate narrowly passed a homestead act but President James Buchanan vetoed it and the Senate failed its override attempt.

When the 37th Congress convened for its brief summer session in 1861, now without members from seceded states, it was preoccupied with Civil War-related legislation. The House took up briefly the homestead issue in December but postponed further consideration of it until the following February. The House finally passed the Homestead Act on February 28, 1862 by the large margin of 107 to 16. The act worked its way through the Senate until May 6, 1862 when it passed easily by a vote of 33 to 7. After a few minor changes in conference committee—which both houses agreed to without controversy—Congress sent the final legislation to President Abraham Lincoln who signed the act into law on May 20, 1862.

The Homestead Act encouraged western migration by providing settlers with 160 acres of land in exchange for a nominal filing fee. Among its provisions was a five-year requirement of continuous residence before receiving the title to the land and the settlers had to be, or in the process of becoming, U.S. citizens. Through 1986, when the last claim was made in Alaska, the Homestead Act distributed 270 million acres of land in the United States making it arguably one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history.

More:

Much of this post has appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub before; the Homestead Act deserves commemoration.


Presidents Day 2014: Fly your flag today

February 17, 2014

Come on, you didn’t really need me to remind you, did you? It’s Presidents’ Day on most calendars, though the official U.S. holiday is Washington’s Birthday.

You’re already flying your flag today, right?  Let’s recapitulate from last year

Dr. Bumsted reminds us we need to emphasize that the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday, not a day to honor presidents generically.  See the explanation from the U.S. National Archives.

Presidents Day is February 17, 2014 — fly your U.S. flag today.

National Park Service photo, Lincoln Memorial through flags at Washington Monument

The Lincoln Memorial, seen through flags posted at the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.; National Park Service Photo via About.com

Oddly enough, some controversy arises from time to time over how to honor President Washington and President Lincoln, and other presidents.  Sometimes the controversy simmers over how to honor great Americans — if Lincoln deserves a day, why not FDR?  Why not Jefferson? — and sometimes the controversy covers more mundane ground — should the federal government give workers a day off?  Should it be on a Monday or Friday to create a three-day weekend to boost tourism?  About.com explains the history of the controversy:

Presidents’ Day is intended (for some) to honor all the American presidents, but most significantly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. According to the Gregorian or “New Style” calendar that is most commonly used today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. But according to the Julian or “Old Style” calendar that was used in England until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. Back in the 1790s, Americans were split – some celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

When Abraham Lincoln became president and helped reshape our country, it was believed he, too, should have a special day of recognition. Tricky thing was that Lincoln’s birthday fell on February 12th. Prior to 1968, having two presidential birthdays so close together didn’t seem to bother anyone. February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

In 1968, things changed when the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays. They voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington’s Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971, and as a result, Washington’s Birthday holiday was changed to the third Monday in February. But not all Americans were happy with the new law. There was some concern that Washington’s identity would be lost since the third Monday in February would never fall on his actual birthday. There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday “Presidents’ Day”, but the idea didn’t go anywhere since some believed not all presidents deserved a special recognition. [Take THAT you Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore fans!]

Even though Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Some states, like California, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday “President’s Day.” From that point forward, the term “Presidents’ Day” became a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or week-long sales.

In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington’s Birthday be “officially” called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.

Today, President’s Day is well accepted and celebrated. Some communities still observe the original holidays of Washington and Lincoln, and many parks actually stage reenactments and pageants in their honor. The National Park Service also features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, as well as other important leaders.

Fly your flag, read some history, enjoy the day.

More, Resources, and Related Articles:

English: Air Force One, the typical air transp...

President’s airplane, Air Force 1, flying over Mount Rushmore National Monument, in South Dakota – Image via Wikipedia; notice, contrary to Tea Party fears, the bust of Obama is not yet up on Rushmore (and also note there remains no room for another bust).

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  This event occurs every year.


Lincoln and Darwin, born hours apart, February 12, 1809

February 12, 2014

Is it an unprecedented coincidence?  205 years ago today, just minutes apart according to unconfirmed accounts, Abraham Lincoln was born in a rude log cabin on Nolin Creek, in Kentucky, and Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family at the family home  in Shrewsbury, England.

Gutzon Borglums 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol - AOC photo

Gutzon Borglum’s 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol – Architect of the Capitol photo

Lincoln would become one of our most endeared presidents, though endearment would come after his assassination.  Lincoln’s bust rides the crest of Mt. Rushmore (next to two slaveholders), with George Washington, the Father of His Country, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt, the man who made the modern presidency, and the only man ever to have won both a Congressional Medal of Honor and a Nobel Prize, the only president to have won the Medal of Honor.  In his effort to keep the Union together, Lincoln freed the slaves of the states in rebellion during the civil war, becoming an icon to freedom and human rights for all history.  Upon his death the entire nation mourned; his funeral procession from Washington, D.C., to his tomb in Springfield, Illinois, stopped twelve times along the way for full funeral services.  Lying in state in the Illinois House of Representatives, beneath a two-times lifesize portrait of George Washington, a banner proclaimed, “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.”

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London - NHM photo

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London – NHM photo

Darwin would become one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He would be credited with discovering the theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection.  His meticulous footnoting and careful observations formed the data for ground-breaking papers in geology (the creation of coral atolls), zoology (barnacles, and the expression of emotions in animals and man), botany (climbing vines and insectivorous plants), ecology (worms and leaf mould), and travel (the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle).  At his death he was honored with a state funeral, attended by the great scientists and statesmen of London in his day.  Hymns were specially written for the occasion.  Darwin is interred in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton, England’s other great scientist, who knocked God out of the heavens.

Lincoln would be known as the man who saved the Union of the United States and set the standard for civil and human rights, vindicating the religious beliefs of many and challenging the beliefs of many more.  Darwin’s theory would become one of the greatest ideas of western civilization, changing forever all the sciences, and especially agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest of biology, while also provoking crises in religious sects.

Lincoln, the politician known for freeing the slaves, also was the first U.S. president to formally consult with scientists, calling on the National Science Foundation (whose creation he oversaw) to advise his administration.  Darwin, the scientist, advocated that his family put the weight of its fortune behind the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  Each held an interest in the other’s disciplines.

Both men were catapulted to fame in 1858. Lincoln’s notoriety came from a series of debates on the nation’s dealing with slavery, in his losing campaign against Stephen A. Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.  On the fame of that campaign, he won the nomination to the presidency of the fledgling Republican Party in 1860.  Darwin was spurred to publicly reveal his ideas about the power of natural and sexual selection as the force behind evolution, in a paper co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace, presented to the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858.   On the strength of that paper, barely noticed at the time, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in November 1859.

The two men might have got along well, but they never met.

What unusual coincidences.

Go celebrate human rights, good science, and the stories about these men.

A school kid could do much worse than to study the history of these two great men.  In fact, we study them far too little, it seems to me.

Resources:

Charles Darwin:

Abraham Lincoln:

More:

Anybody know what hour of the day either of these men was born?

This is mostly an encore post.

Yes, you may fly your flag today for Lincoln’s birthday; the official holiday, Washington’s Birthday, is next Monday, February 17th — and yes, it’s usually called “President’s Day” by merchants and calendar makers.


President Lincoln and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Oval Office

August 28, 2013

I remember, just a year ago, when the GOP candidate for president promised to make this photo impossible, replacing King with an Englishman.

150 years later, 50 years later, change gotta come, still.

A better version of the photo:

Painting of Abraham Lincoln, bust of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., together in the Oval Office, White House. (Pete Souza photo?)

Painting of Abraham Lincoln, bust of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., together in the Oval Office, White House. (Pete Souza photo?) Photo published on August 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Oval office, Martin Luther King, March on Washington, Abraham Lincoln

More:


Presidents and umbrellas, continued: Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

May 20, 2013

This is just so odd that it merits our attention, so long as we’re talking about presidents and umbrellas.

In 1864, John Wilkes Booth wrote to President Abraham Lincoln asking for money to purchase an umbrella.

Yes, Booth, the man who would eventually assassinate that same Abraham Lincoln.

Page 1 of John Wilkes Booth's 1864 letter to President Abraham Lincoln

Page 1 of John Wilkes Booth’s 1864 letter to President Abraham Lincoln

Booth to Lincoln, page 2

Booth to Lincoln, page 2

Booth to Lincoln, page 3

Booth to Lincoln, page 3

Booth to Lincoln, page 4

Booth to Lincoln, page 4

Booth to Lincoln, page 5

Booth to Lincoln, page 5

Booth to Lincoln, page 6

Booth to Lincoln, page 6

The letter is in the collection of Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress, described as “John Wilkes to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, November 17, 1864 (Congratulations; request that Lincoln send him money to buy an umbrella).”

I have found no official transcript of the letter.

Of all the richochets of umbrellas in the history of the American presidency, this must be the strangest.

More:


Former President Millard Fillmore writes to open door to President Abraham Lincoln

May 4, 2013

An encore post:

May 4, 1861:  Millard Fillmore wrote:

May 4, 1861, letter from Fillmore to Lincoln, introducing a friend - Library of Congress

May 4, 1861, letter from Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Transcription of the letter:

From Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, May 4, 1861

Buffalo May 4, 1861.

July 9: Vice President Millard Fillmore become...

Vice President Millard Fillmore became President upon the death of President Zachary Taylor, in July 1850. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Dear Sir,

The bearer, Dr. Martin Mayer, a Stranger to me, has asked of me a letter of Introduction to your Excellency, and produced such high proofs of character, that I do not feel at liberty to refuse it; and therefore while I decline any interference, in any appointment he may desire, (which is my uniform practice) I desire simple to ask that he may be heard.

Respectfully yours

Millard Fillmore

One must wonder whether this letter convinced President Lincoln to meet with Dr. Mayer, and what the conversation was if they did.  Surely there is some record of who met with Lincoln, no?

Update:  Be sure to see the comments of J. A. Higginbotham, below; he’s found a book that refers to the career of Dr. Mayer during the Civil War and after.  Heckuva a sleuthing job.

More:


Free land! May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act

April 30, 2013

A family off to find and settle their homestead, 1886. Photo from the National Archives

A family off to find and settle their homestead, 1886. Photo from the National Archives

History and demographics of the United States were forever changed when the Homestead Act became law early in the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, on May 20, 1862.

The bill that became the Homestead Act, H.R. 125, in the 37th Congress, 1862. Image from the U.S. National Archives

The bill that became the Homestead Act, H.R. 125, in the 37th Congress, 1862. Image from the U.S. National Archives

Here’s the history from the National Archives:

The notion that the United States government should give free land titles to settlers to encourage westward expansion became popular in the 1850s. During that time the U.S. House of Representatives passed numerous homestead bills but southern opposition in the Senate prevented enactment. In 1860, during the 36th Congress, the Senate narrowly passed a homestead act but President James Buchanan vetoed it and the Senate failed its override attempt.

When the 37th Congress convened for its brief summer session in 1861, now without members from seceded states, it was preoccupied with Civil War-related legislation. The House took up briefly the homestead issue in December but postponed further consideration of it until the following February. The House finally passed the Homestead Act on February 28, 1862 by the large margin of 107 to 16. The act worked its way through the Senate until May 6, 1862 when it passed easily by a vote of 33 to 7. After a few minor changes in conference committee—which both houses agreed to without controversy—Congress sent the final legislation to President Abraham Lincoln who signed the act into law on May 20, 1862.

The Homestead Act encouraged western migration by providing settlers with 160 acres of land in exchange for a nominal filing fee. Among its provisions was a five-year requirement of continuous residence before receiving the title to the land and the settlers had to be, or in the process of becoming, U.S. citizens. Through 1986, when the last claim was made in Alaska, the Homestead Act distributed 270 million acres of land in the United States making it arguably one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history.

More:


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