The Free-Soil Movement

by Wendy McElroy

In 1837, in order to encourage a westward migration of the poor and unemployed from the industrial East, the journalist Horace Greeley proclaimed "Go West, young man, go forth into the Country." The vast public lands in the West were seen as a safety valve for the increasing labor unrest of Eastern cities. Twenty-five years later, in 1862, a Congress embroiled in Civil War would pass the Homestead Act and thus open up public land in the West to private ownership. Essentially, any adult citizen or adult who had filed for citizenship could claim title to 160 acres of federal public land after farming it for a defined period and paying nominal fees.

The Homestead Act was the culmination of decades of bitter controversy and constant agitation over free-soil. Few issues in American history illustrate so clearly the power of a grassroots movement that expresses the will of common people. If one man can be deemed responsible for the impact of the homestead movement, that man was George Henry Evans (1805 -1856). In his essay "George Henry Evans and the Origins of American Individualist-Anarchism," historian Ken Gregg, Jr. described the success of the free-soil movement. "When Evans began his crusade in 1829, he had the support of his friends and only a few New York. By 1850, his efforts had sown their seed. Of the over 2,000 papers that were published in the United States, at least 600 of these supported land reform. By the time of Evans' death on Feb. 2, 1856, the National Reform Association [founded by Evans] was a force to be reckoned with."

Ultimately, however, the homesteading movement serves not only as an inspiring example of grassroots activism but also as a caution against the pitfalls attendant to using government to promote liberty.

George Henry Evans: Land Reformer

George Henry Evans seemed uniquely suited to champion a grassroots movement. Born to working class parents in England, as a teenager he emigrated to America where he apprenticed to a printing shop in Ithaca, New York. Thus, Evans established himself in a trade well known for expressing reform views. He became a political radical as a result of the intense upheaval of the 1819 depression and the years of general economic misery that followed. In this reaction, he was not alone. In the 1820s, for the first time in American history, economically ravaged working people began to organize into separate political parties that expressed their own goals. The populist issues championed by the "Workies" included universal male suffrage, public education, protection from debt and the limitation of working hours. However, the one issue that dominated was homesteading, or "free-soil."

In 1828, the Philadelphia Workers' Party -- in which Josiah Warren (the father of individualist anarchism) was active -- won twenty local offices. In 1829, in New York City, a carpenter became the first candidate of Workingmen's Party and was elected as an assemblyman. Also in 1829, Evans established the "Working Man's Advocate" (1829-45) that served as the organ of the Workingmen’s Party. It was the first labor newspaper in America. In the early 1830’s, the New York party split into two factions -- one under the influence of the communistic Thomas Skidmore, the other under the more moderate communitarian Robert Dale Owen whom Evans and many contemporary libertarians admired.

Through the "Working Man's Advocate" (WMA), Evans' voice assumed real power. In his "Working Men's Declaration of Independence" (1829), published in the WMA, Evans gave a sense of the wider platform of labor reform. He wrote, "We hold these truths to be self evident..." Among the self evident truths were: the levying of taxes was "based on erroneous principles" and oppressed the working class; jury and military duty unjustly fell more heavily upon workers; laws favoring corporations exploited workers; and, the current laws on credit exploited them. Evans declared that working people should adopt all constitutional means to achieve equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some of his positions were less than libertarian, however. For example, he advocated public schools and a "transitional" state guardianship of children. Fortunately, in the one area upon which he focused, Evans took a generally libertarian approach: namely, free-soil.

Specifically, what was his approach? In one of the several periodicals he published, "The Radical," Evans later wrote (April 1841), "Land is not the produce of labor; Property is any thing produced by labor. Therefore, I say, land is not property. A monopoly of land deprives some of their just and natural means of acquiring property; with equal rights (including the right of land) guaranteed, an accumulation of property in the hands of individuals could not prevent others from acquiring property, as it now can; nor do I think there could be any excessive accumulation as there now is."

Evans believed that title to land could be validly acquired only through applying labor (e.g. cultivation) or adding improvements (e.g. a house) to it. The early British classical liberal John Locke argued similarly for the ownership of property based upon "mixing your labor with the land." Since it was not possible to separate labor or improvements from the land itself, this formed the justification for land ownership. In considering the practical aspects of land ownership, Evans -- along with many other land reformers -- estimated that 160 acres could supply the needs of a family. It was also the size of farm that a family could be reasonably expected to use and occupy. And, as long as the farm was being used, Evans advocated the inalienability of land tenure, e.g. it could not be seized for debt.

Even as free-soil captured the imagination of working class people, further division in the Workingmen’s Party blunted its influence. By the 1832 election, most members had distanced themselves from the Party and voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Jackson. The Workies hoped that that anti-monopoly stance of Jackson and the Democratic Party would result in the removal of privileges for business, especially for banks. Their hopes were dashed. The situation was particularly bad in New York City where the "Tammany Democrats" were renowned for corruption. As the 1836 election drew near, Workies and a radical anti-Jackson faction within the Democrats determined to seize control of the Democratic nominating convention. On October 19, 1835, the protesters attended a meeting in Tammany Hall and shouted down the nominees. Before they could organize a counter-meeting, however, the Democratic leadership turned off the gaslights and everyone sat in darkness. That is, until protesters lit the new fanged self-igniting matches, brand-named LocoFocos, and continued the meeting by candlelight. (The anti-Jacksonian Democrats, who later formed the Equal Rights Party, became known as LocoFocos.) The radicals nominated their own slate of office-seekers who run against the regular Democratic candidates in New York City, receiving a significant minority portion of the vote.

When the Panic of 1837 unemployed an estimated 30% of American workers, the labor movement was devastated. Poverty-stricken, Evans moved to a farm in New Jersey from which he published the "Radical," aimed largely at the land and labor reformers he had left behind. Thus, he kept the reform community connected. In 1844, he returned to the metropolis, with a renewed conviction that grassroots action -- particularly in the form of electoral politics -- could achieve free-soil goals. He revived the "Working Man's Advocate" and formed the National Reform Association in order to focus on the concerns of Workies on the local, state and national level.

Evans immediately began a public inquiry into the cause of the misery of the working man. A report published in the Working Man's Advocate (July 1844) rendered his conclusions. He wrote, "We are the inhabitants of a country which for boundless extent of territory, fertility of soil, and exhaustless resources of mineral wealth, stands unequalled by any nation, either of ancient or modern times...And, yet, we allow those elements to lie dormant, that labor which ought to be employed in calling forth the fruitfulness of Nature, is to be found seeking employment in the barren lanes of a city, of course, seeking it in vain." The report denied the authority of Congress either to withhold land from citizens or to grant it to well-connected speculators. Such privileged speculators, he claimed, "lay our children under tribute to their children." They practice "a cruel and cowardly fraud upon posterity." His solution? To "establish the right of the people to the soil; to be used by them in their own day, and their posterity."

Thereafter, Evans used the free-soil issue to gain a foothold in national politics by promoting the homesteading ideal. One of National Reform's slogans became "Vote yourself a farm." In the 1848-49 session of Congress, reformers managed to get a Homestead Bill onto the floor but it was ultimately killed. Free-soilers simply encountered too much opposition from the pro-slavery South that correctly viewed the Bill as an attack on its "peculiar institution." After all, if ownership derived from mixing your labor with the land, then the slaves were the ones with valid title to many plantations. Moreover, the extension of slavery into territories that were expected to apply for statehood raised questions of the balance of power within the Senate. New states would either be free or slave: the South believed its political survival depended on those states being the latter.

Disillusioned by being constantly blocked by Southern voices, members of National Reform began to drift into the wider anti-slavery movement. This anti-slavery stance should not be confused with a pro-black rights attitude. Many of free-soilers merely wished to keep slaves (or free blacks, for that matter) out of new states. In the Working Man's Advocate, Evans had a telling exchange with the anti-slavery Gerrit Smith. Although he had been an early and vocal advocate of abolitionism, Evans now stated (1844), "I was formerly, like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery. This was before I saw that there was white slavery. Since I saw this, I have materially changed my views as to the manner of abolishing negro slavery. I see now clearly, I think, that to give the landless black the privilege of changing masters now possessed by the landless white would hardly be a benefit to him in exchange for his surety of support in sickness and old age, although he is in a favorable climate. If the southern form of slavery existed at the north, I should say the black would be a great loser in such a change." For many free-soilers, the anti-slavery movement was merely a powerful voice that advanced their goal: the homesteading of the West by yeoman farmers. Like most successful grassroots movements, free-soil focused on one issue around which it forged alliances.

Discouraged by the de facto dissolution of National Reform, Evans returned to his farm in New Jersey. But the free-soil issue would soon be galvanized by a newly emerging political force in America -- the Republican Party.

The Wider Politics of Homesteading

The key issue around which the free-soil debate revolved was slavery. Specifically, the question was whether slavery would be extended into the territories that were expected to seek statehood.

Both anti-slavery farmers and slave-owners had been migrating into the territories for years. Each group was eager to acquire the political clout that came from having a State constitution that favored their position on slavery. If the new territories were admitted as "free" rather than "slave," that would increase the representation of Northern interests within the Senate where a delicate balance prevailed. If the North came to dominate in the Senate, then it was not merely slavery that would come under attack. The tariffs favored by the industrial Yankees would severely damage the Southern agricultural economy. The South could not permit more free states into the Union.

When the United States acquired vast new territories as a result of the Mexican War (e.g. California and New Mexico), free-soilers became ever more fearful of the extension of slavery. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced the Wilmot Proviso into Congress, which sought to prohibit the westward spread of slaves. The failure of the Wilmot Proviso led to the establishment of the Free-Soil Party, which boasted the slogan, "free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men". The Party argued that all men had a natural right to land, which should be granted free of charge. Its Presidential candidate (1848), Martin Van Buren, received ten percent of the popular vote and the Party elected one Senator and over a dozen Congressmen. (In the next election (1852), however, the Free Soil Party's popularity fell off steeply although it managed to maintain enough of a presence in the House of Representatives to act as a swing vote.)

The discovery of gold in California (1848), with a corresponding rush of settlers into the area, made the issue of extending slavery more pressing. Ten years later, gold would be discovered in Colorado and Nevada as well, thus ratcheting up the pressure. It is no exaggeration to say that miners opened up the West and built the raw communities that would evolve into permanent towns. Before such areas could organize for admission into the Union, however, both the North and the South wanted to establish whether the applicants would be "free" or "slave" states. The debate was one of the bitterest ones in American history.

Textbooks refer to the temporary resolution of this debate as the Compromise of 1850, which was actually a series of acts passed by Congress in that year. Key provisions of the Compromise included: California was admitted as a free state; New Mexico and Utah were left to decide their status for themselves; and, Texas received a cash settlement to satisfy its claims to territory in New Mexico. To pacify the South, the Compromise fortified laws against fugitive slaves. To soothe the North, the slave trade was abolished in D.C. though slavery itself was permitted.

The Compromise of 1850 may have postponed the Civil War by over a decade but tensions over free-soil intensified in 1854. The territories that are currently Kansas and Nebraska would soon apply for statehood, and widespread violence accompanied the question of whether they would be free or slave. In the political scramble to prevent the bloody conflict from escalating into outright war, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. Settlers were permitted to carry slaves into those territories, which would then determine for themselves whether their state constitutions would be free, or slave.

The Republican Party

The ultimately unsuccessful Homestead Act of 1848 had resulted from a groundswell of free-soil support, including what was the largest petition drive in America to date. The signers of the petition were the natural constituency of a new political party -- a party that strongly advocated free-soil and stood more firmly against Southern pressure. In July 1854, the Republican Party held its first convention to adopt a platform and to nominate candidates for state office in Michigan. Its 1860 platform opposed the extension of slavery into the territories but did not advocate interfering with states that already incorporated slavery. The first Republican Presidential candidate (1856), John C. Frémont, ran under a familiar sounding slogan, "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont." Evans also threw his influence and activism behind the new Party, travelling the countryside to promote its agenda.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the presidential candidate. Republicans pledged to support homesteading, to raise tariffs and to prevent the extension of slavery. That same year, a Homestead Bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President James Buchanan. Shortly after the election of Lincoln to the office of President, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Ten other Southern states followed suit and formed a separate nation, the Confederate States of America. In April 1861, Civil War erupted.

With Southern voices no longer heard in either the U.S. Congress or Senate, the Homestead Act of 1862 passed readily. It was sponsored by Galusha A. Grow, whom Evans had converted to free-soil. Evans himself was not present. He had died of pneumonia in 1856 while travelling through bitter winter storms on behalf of the Republican Party.

The Homestead Act has been called a cynical wartime measure. Undoubtedly, part of the impetus behind it was merely a desire on the part of Republicans to ensure continued support from the powerful free-soilers. Moreover, there is also no question that the Republicans wished to seize a golden opportunity to have the issue of the extension of slavery de facto settled in their favor. Both motives lend credibility to the charge of cynicism. But opportunistic politicians cannot be credited with passing the Homestead Act in anything but the proximate sense. The Act was actually passed by decades of reform agitation, and through the persistent working class demand for land and economic independence -- a demand based on natural rights and the American ideal of prospering through labor. Thus the Homestead Act was a mixture of the worst and the best within American politics. At once, it was both a cynical and an idealistic measure.

Using the government as a means of translating the idealism into practice was problematic. At the same time as the Homestead Act was passed, the Lincoln Administration oversaw the establishment of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, and a national banking system that issued greenbacks. These institutions, along with such actions as the suspension of habeas corpus, constituted an incredible growth of government power with a corresponding decrease in individual liberty. Most significantly for the future of homesteading, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Bill (1862) to link the industrial East with the West by railroad. Public money was used to subsidize the effort and the participating railroad companies received gratis a square mile of public land for every mile of rail laid. In this manner, an estimated 170 million acres were placed into the hands of businessmen who became land speculators. The government-business alliance gave rise to such fortunes as that of rail tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. It also served as a brake on homesteading by individuals.

Other factors contributed to the blunted impact of homesteading. A major factor was the inflexibility of legislation that defined a viable homestead as 160 acres. This estimate was based on "wet" farming practices in areas like Kentucky and Illinois. The size requirement did not fit the arid West, which was far more suitable for large cattle ranches. Moreover, the post-Civil War government showed more favor to business concerns than to farmers, and passed tariffs that protected Eastern industry at the expense of agriculture. The carpetbagging postwar atmosphere also gave way to unethical banking practices that caused farm forfeitures and to farmers' dependence on subsidized monopoly railroads for shipping. Thus, whatever idealism remained in the Homesteading Bill of 1862 was further diluted through politically motivated and rigid implementation.

It is a testimony to the power of grassroots populism that the homestead movement can be called a success, despite the fact that it never realized its potential. Between 1862 and 1890, over 370,000 homestead applications were approved and, so, a huge transfer of public lands into private ownership was facilitated. It is a testimony to the unstoppable nature of a just demand that homesteading was able to survive as well as it did in the face of Democratic compromises, Republican opportunism and the alliance of big business with government.