The Great American Land Grab
Part Two (in case you missed it, here's Part One)
With the winning of independence and the establishment of a national government, America had an opportunity to create a nation unfettered by the proclivities of European nobility. Men like Jefferson looked forward to a vigorous agrarian democracy, fostered by public education and a judicious distribution of the government's western domains. Then as now, however, politicians were less interested in promoting agrarian democracy than in making a quick buck. The history of the giveaway of America's public lands-hundreds of millions of acres over a century and a half-constitutes one of the longest ongoing scandals in the annals of modern man. Fraud, chicanery, corruption and theft there were aplenty, but more scandalous was the lack of concern for the social consequences of uneven land distribution. Congress at times did enact such farsighted measures as the Homestead Act of 1862, but far more often it authorized the wholesale disposal of public lands to speculators rather than to settlers. And what Congress didn't surrender to the land hoarders, the state legislatures, the Land Office and the Interior Department usually did.
In the early nineteenth century, the typical speculator's gambit was to form a "company" which would bid for massive grants from Congress or the state legislatures, generally on the pretext of promoting colonization. Once a grant was obtained- and it never hurt to be generous with bribes-the land would be divided and resold to settlers, or, more likely, to other speculators. The enormous Yazoo land frauds-in which 30 million acres, consisting of nearly the entirety of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi, were sold by the Georgia legislature for less than two cents an acre, and then resold in the form of scrip to thousands of gullible investors- was perhaps the most famous of these profit-making schemes. Huge fortunes were made in such swindles, often by some of the most respected names in government. The social consequences were not limited to the quick enrichment of a fortunate few. The issuance of vast tracts of land to speculators also had the effect of driving up land prices, thereby impeding settlement by poor Americans. And, since grants were not always completely broken up, they had the additional effect of implanting in the new territories of the South and West the pattern of large landholdings that persists to this day.
Texas landholding patterns, for example, date from this early period, though grants to the original American empresarios were made by Mexico rather than Washington. At first there was a rush to purchase and occupy Texas lands granted to Stephen F. Austin and others. After the initial "Texas fever" subsided, many immense and valuable estates remained intact, and could be acquired for a relative pittance. Today many of these enormous tracts are cotton plantations, cattle ranges or oil fields owned by wealthy individuals and corporations.
End of Part Two.
Part Three will be published starting Thursday, September 11.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you'll be pleased -- and perhaps shocked -- to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.
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