The Homestead Act is one of those Civil War consequences whose real intention has been lost in its legacy. We remember it for opening up the West to settlement, and for its effects on the Native Americans on the plains, whose displacement it began. What we tend to forget is that it was issued when the fire of secession was still burning, and the question of free versus slave statehood was still theoretically open to debate. It helps to remember Shelby Foote’s words on Lincoln, “Almost everything he did was calculated for effect.” I need to be more cynical in my historical readings!
The Homestead Act effectively opened up thousands of acres of land in the Midwest where slavery had been discussed but not approved, as well as the upper South where blacks would be more welcome as well as further West, which was open to all.
By the time it was over, some four million settlers had filed claims to be allowed to receive the land, which covered 270 million acres in 30 states. This accounted for roughly ten percent of the landmass of the country.
Since the varying peoples of the United States, even then, could not unanimously agree on much of anything, the land deals were equally as divisive. The land proposition had initially been talked of in the 1850s, but Southern congressmen had blocked the proposed legislation each time it was brought up. It was their fear that this expansion might produce more free states, which would not be in favor of the expansion of slavery.