Summary of Legislative Debate on Resolutions in Relation to Purchase of Public Lands, 17 January 18391
Mr. Lincoln, from the committee on Finance,2 to which the subject was referred, made a report on the subject of purchasing of the United States all the unsold lands lying within the limits of the State of Illinois, accompanied by resolutions that this State propose to purchase all unsold lands at 25 cents per acre, and pledging the faith of the State to carry the proposal into effect if the Government accept the same within two years.3
The report having been read.
Mr WILLIAMS expressed himself against the resolutions and report. He thought it unwise to introduce such a policy. The expenditure would be great under the system. He thought there would be no profit arising to the State after the expenses of the officers and legislation upon the subject were paid.
Mr. LINCOLN thought the resolutions ought to be seriously considered. In reply to the gentleman from Adams, he said that it was not to enrich the State. The price of the lands may be raised, it was thought by some, by others that it would be reduced. The conclusion in his mind was that the Representatives in this Legislature from the country in which the lands lie would be opposed to raising the price, because it would operate against the settlement of the lands. He referred to the lands in the military tract. They had fallen into the hands of large speculators in consequence of the low price. He was opposed to a low price of land. He thought it was adverse to the interests of the poor settler, because speculators buy them up. He was opposed to a reduction of the price of public lands.
Mr. L. referred to some official documents emanating from Indiana, and compared the progressive population of the two States.—Illinois had gained upon that State under the public land system as it is. His conclusion was that ten years from this time Illinois would have no more public land unsold than Indiana now has. He referred also to Ohio. That State had sold nearly all her public lands. She was but 20 years ahead of us, and as our lands were equally saleable, more so as he maintained, we should have no more 20 years from now than she has at present.
Mr. L. referred to the canal lands, and supposed that the policy of the State would be different in regard to them, if the Representatives from that section of country could themselves choose the policy, but the Representatives from other parts of the State had a veto upon it, and regulated the policy. He thought that if the State had all the lands, the policy of the Legislature would be more liberal to all sections.
He referred to the policy of the General Government. He thought that if the national debt had not been paid, the expenses of the Government would not have doubled, as they had done since that debt was paid.
1On December 26, 1838, the House of Representatives passed a resolution instructing the Committee on Finance, of which Abraham Lincoln was a member, to report on the subject of unsold federal lands.
Illinois House Journal. 1838. 11th G. A., 1st sess., 142, 223-25.
2Joining Abraham Lincoln on the Committee on Finance were Archibald Williams, Henry L. Webb, Jesse W. Gouge, Isaac P. Walker, Jonas Rawalt, William Compher (Campher), Edward M. Daley, and Wyatt B. Stapp.
Illinois House Journal. 1838. 11th G. A., 1st sess., 31.
3From the onset of the republic, there had been two conflicting views about the disposal of public lands. The first view, espoused by Alexander Hamilton and favored by eastern states, was that the federal government should retain the public domain and pledge it toward retiring the revolutionary war debt and paying government expenses by extracting all possible income from it. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that the civic life of the republic would be better served by making the land available to farmer-owners at little cost, a view embraced by those clamoring for land in the west. Out of necessity, Hamilton’s view prevailed before and immediately after the War of 1812. The price of land varied between $1.00 and $2.00 per acre until 1820, when legislation set the minimum price at $1.25 per acre. Even this comparatively low price was too much for some frontiersmen, and their solution was to squat on public land, improve it, and raise a crop or two to make their payments before they were discovered. Squatters wanted protection against speculators who might try to buy their tracts; they also wanted legal recognition of their right to preemption--a prior right to purchase their claim at a minimum price before auction. Congress passed a number of preemption acts, and in September 1841, squatters and western states scored a major victory with the passage of the Distribution-Preemption Act. This legislation sanctioned squatterism, allowing settlers to stake claims on surveyed federal lands before sale and, at the time of auction, purchase a minimum of 160 acres at $1.25 per acre. The act further provided that Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri, Michigan, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and any other state thereafter admitted to the Union would received 10% of the proceeds of the sale of public lands in their respective states. Sections eight and nine granted each of the states 500,000 acres of federal land, stipulating that the proceeds from the sale of these lands was to go toward public works. In 1862, the Homestead Act further opened land to settlers, giving land free to settlers who agreed to live on and improve tracts of 160 acres for five years. The federal government also made further grants to states totalling over 300 million acres.
Paul W. Gates, “Public Domain,” Dictionary of American History rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 5:443-44; Norma Lois Peterson, The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison & John Tyler (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 98; “An Act to Appropriate the Proceeds of the Sales of the Public Lands, and to Grant Pre-Emption Rights,” 4 September 1841, Statutes at Large of the United States 5 (1856):453-58.
4On January 28, the House, on Lincoln’s motion, took up the report and resolutions. Representatives offered amendments, and the House referred the report, resolutions, and amendments to a select committee, of which Lincoln was a member. On February 2, Lincoln of the select committee reported back the report and resolutions without amendment, recommending their adoption. The House then adopted the resolutions and sent them to the Senate requesting the latter’s concurrence. On February 13, the Senate tabled the resolutions. On March 2, the Senate took up the resolutions and adopted them, and they became joint resolutions of both houses.
Illinois House Journal. 1838. 11th G. A., 1st sess., 299, 328-29, 600; Illinois Senate Journal. 1838. 11th G. A., 1st sess., 266, 330, 499.
Printed Document, 1 page(s), Illinois State Register & People’s Advocate (Vandalia, IL), 1 February 1839, :6.