WASHINGTON -- In his inaugural address, which was largely about America's stance toward the world, President Bush's reference to the Homestead Act was tantalizingly tangential: ``In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the GI Bill of Rights.'' Unpack the implications of those two sentences and you will find the core of conservatism updated for Republicans who think of themselves as a party of governance rather than of opposition to government, and who have come to terms with this fact: Americans talk like Jeffersonians but expect to be governed by Hamiltonians.
The Homestead Act was passed in 1862, when Congress would have been forgiven for devoting all its attention to more pressing matters. But just as the construction of the dome of the Capitol in which Congress worked continued, defiantly, as the Confederacy waged war for national dismemberment, the business of national consolidation continued, defiantly, with the Homestead Act.
Its provisions were as simple as the problem it addressed was stark. The problem was writ large on American maps at that time, which often designated the Great Plains as the Great American Desert. Under the act, fees totaling $18 entitled homesteaders to farm 160 acres which they would own with no other price after five years, or after six months if they paid $1.25 an acre.
Rarely has a social program worked so well. Indeed, a few years ago historians voted the Homestead Act, which remained in effect in the contiguous United States until 1976 and in Alaska until 1986, the third-most important legislative achievement in U.S. history, ahead of, among others, the Social Security Act, the GI Bill and the Voting Rights Act, and behind only the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which was more an executive than a legislative achievement, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which actually failed in its attempt to defuse the sectional crisis.
More than 270 million acres -- 11 percent of today's America -- were put into private hands. These approximately 422,000 square miles are more than 2.5 times the size of California and almost as much land as the combined area of 19 of today's states. According to Mark Engler, superintendent of the National Park Service's Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb., 30 of today's 50 states had homesteads in them and there are up to 93 million descendants of homesteaders.