An Evolving Land Philosophy: Taking Bearings (The Classroom) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #14
How did American ideals about land evolve in the 19th century?
A few prefatory words
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This week we return to The Classroom and so I'm back in professorial mode. Read on!
Adjusting the National Land Philosophy
These newsletters arrive in your inbox (mostly) fully formed, and I realized recently that they might appear to have no rhyme or reason. Behind the scenes, there is often (though not always) a method to this madness. Sometimes you'll see connections between different newsletters (e.g., last week's and next week's, or this one and that one). Sometimes I draw on other projects I'm working on. That's the case this week.
I'm about to travel to Colorado and Utah and talk about my most recent book, Making America's Public Lands, and last week I gave a local book talk (thanks to those who showed up!). So, I've been thinking again about the origins and evolution of the nation's thinking about land. This week charts some of this.
Lockean Property and Jeffersonian Virtue
“In the beginning, all the world was America.”
John Locke, “On Property,” Second Treatise of Government (1690)
The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke knew how to adapt famous stories. American land philosophers themselves learned how to adapt stories about the land, too. A throughline exists from the colonial era to the end of the 19th century that is worth following. When it began to change, it did so not only because of new ideas but because of cues arising from the land itself.
Locke’s story inspired the founding generation. He argued that in the so-called state of nature people were free to act on their own, and by applying their labor to common, unowned land, they transformed it into property. Handily, Lockean ideas justified colonization.
Caveat: Locke and the American founders conveniently ignored two things: (1) the land already had caretakers who invested generations of labor into it and (2) many of those who were coerced to labor on the land received no such property right. Philosophical ideas, apparently, run on exceptions.
Thomas Jefferson may have been the most Lockean of the American founders, going so far as to hang a portrait of the philosopher in his Monticello parlor. Independent land owning, Jefferson believed, produced virtuous citizens, an article of faith planted deep in American psyches. Jefferson said this most famously in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785):
Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.
If this were true, the nation needed to ensure it possessed sufficient land to seed what Jefferson called an “empire for liberty.” (Of course, the seeds of such an empire came from the plant of dispossession.) So, Jefferson helped create a system where the nation’s public domain would be carved up into chunks of surveyed land to be sold off by co-authoring the Land Ordinance of 1784. He also engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, nearly doubling the nation’s land mass.
Toward Improvement and Homesteads
Squatters trespassed on Indigenous lands, but Congress and the military supported this floodtide. Knowing it was easy to pick up and move to new lands, American farmers often treated the land poorly and exhausted soil fertility.
This careless profligacy alarmed Americans of some renown. In 1818, for instance, the president of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle in Virginia weighed in on this question. That individual happened to be former president James Madison. Better land husbandry would create a stable society, Madison concluded, and joined other reformers in calling for improving the land.
“Improvement” became something of a catch-all term and ideology. It might mean simply practicing an intensive agriculture that treated an individual farm as a closed system where animal manure would rejuvenate worn out soil and allow generations to persist in the same place. It also meant transforming what might be thought of as raw land into farms—an improvement on wasted wild land. It soon became associated specifically with free labor ideology that formed a basis for the new Republican Party and as an explicit counter to agriculture as practiced in the American South with enslaved labor, which Republicans maintained ruined land (not to mention human lives!).
As such, Abraham Lincoln exemplified the ideals of improvement. Through Lincoln’s life, he embraced improvement—self-education, working to improve rivers, etc. When Lincoln became president in 1861, he marshaled his personal experience and Republican ideas toward legislation to support this improvement agenda, including most famously, the Homestead Act (1862).
In many ways, the Homestead Act was the high point of improvement. This law gave 160 acres to heads of households who were, or declared their intent to become, citizens. They paid a filing fee, lived on the land for five years, and improved it (at least a house and 10 acres cultivated)—and then the land was theirs, free and clear.
The Homestead Act seemed to be the fulfillment, the logical endpoint of federal land policy and philosophy of decades. Acquire land. Make it available to the public. Transform it. Virtue would flourish.
And the generous measures did put more than 270 million acres into the hands of 1.6 million or so Americans. The Homestead Act functioned as an enormously popular welfare program.
If we were charting the story, this might make the perfect climax. (Of course, we can’t forget the counternarrative of theft and exploitation, either.) However, the story of American land does not end with a perfect piece of legislation.
For example, while the majority of homesteaders met the law’s conditions and “proved up” (with women doing so at slightly higher rates than men). That still meant millions of acres claimed and then abandoned.
The bigger failure stemmed from geographic realities. If you lived in southern Illinois in 1878, 160 acres might easily keep your family fed and produce goods for local markets or even, if you were near a railroad, to urban markets. In the deserts of the Southwest or the sagebrush flats of the Great Basin or the forested mountains near the coast or the Rockies, 160 acres didn’t do much for you.
Congress passed some laws to adjust for such environmental realities, such as the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916. Typically, those laws gave homesteaders more land in such places. At other times, Congress offered more land if settlers compensated for nature's failings: planting trees on treeless plains (e.g., Timber Culture Act of 1873) or providing irrigation on dry land (e.g., Desert Land Act of 1877). These and similar adjustments to the Homestead Act largely failed and often attracted willing fraudsters, manipulating loopholes or dishonest land office bureaucrats to amass land for timber companies or mining conglomerates.
One reason, arguably, these laws failed rested in how they nibbled around the edges only—a bit more land but no fundamental rethinking about land use appropriate to specific landscapes. The assumption remained: yeoman farmers planting grain and sowing virtue.
John Wesley Powell and the Beginning of Change
An American land philosopher who attempted a larger reform was John Wesley Powell. He had explored the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and much of the arid expanse of the Colorado Plateau. In 1878 he published a Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States in which he argued westerners needed to reshape their land and water laws to encourage cooperation. For instance, governing units should be divided along watersheds, not surveyors’ right angles. And the Homestead Act’s 160 acres were nonsensical through most of the West where that was too much for an irrigated family farm and far too little to run a herd of livestock. He suggested a limit of 80 acres for irrigated land and 2560 acres for livestock operations. Powell served on the first Public Lands Commission that reiterated those recommendations in its report in 1880. In addition, the commission urged the federal government to keep timberlands under federal control. A decade later, in 1891, Congress gave the president the power to reserve forests from entry, beginning the national forest system.
Some places, it seemed, would be virtuous and improved only if held in a national commons.
The Complicated Narrative
The story of American land, then, traces a complicated narrative arc. In the beginning was Locke’s philosophical idea—that dismissed key factors. This evolved through assumptions about improvement toward a stable ideal that foundered in western deserts and mountains.
I trace much of this, in greater detail, in Making America's Public Lands, and you can find a thorough bibliographic essay there. Links through the newsletter take you to many of the original sources. The most important books include Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America and a chapter in Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States for "improvement." For the homestead ideal and its reality, see Adam Wesley Dean, An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era and Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo, Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History.
Next week, I'm speaking in Fort Collins; if you happen to live near there, you can find me here on Tuesday evening. On Thursday, I'll be in Provo, and the lecture will be livestreamed here (more details below).
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week with The Library, I'll be exploring (lightly) one of Thoreau's lesser known works.
As always, thank you for reading and please considering sharing.