George F. Will: The door-opener to America

Published: December 27, 2012
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Bell calls the Homestead Act “an accommodating immigration law” because its requirement that the land be farmed for five years was the amount of time required to become a citizen, and because it began the assimilation of immigrants into American law.

The spirit of the act was optimistic. As the New York Times said, it would attract “the common people of Europe” who are free from the prejudices of “the aristocratic and snobocratic classes.”

Under the Homestead Act, which continued in effect in Alaska until 1986, more than 270 million acres — approximately 422,000 square miles or 2.5 Californias — were privatized. The truth-tellers at the National Archives say most homesteaders came from near their homesteads — Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, etc. Furthermore, speculators, railroads and other sharpies snapped up most of the land: Of 500 million acres dispersed by 1904, only 80 million went to homesteaders. Small farmers settled more land under the act in the 20th century than in the 19th.

Still, Bell rightly notes that the act was an immigration law in effect as well as intent. By 1870, the foreign-born population of Wyoming and Montana was 39 percent; of Dakota Territory's, 34 percent; of Nebraska's, 25 percent. And the peak years of national immigration, 1905-14, were the peak years of homestead claims.

Skeptics will say that the Homestead Act which welcomed immigrants to a sparsely populated continent is irrelevant to today. Skeptics should consider not only that immigration is still an entrepreneurial act but also that as the entitlement state buckles beneath the weight of an aging population, America's workforce needs replenishing.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP