Speculation and the public domain, 1785-1841
Everhart, Duane K.
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The concept of the public domain, which may be loosely defined as all the land owned by the government of the United States, has gone through various stages of development. The "sale" principle, implemented when the public domain was created, lasted for approximately three-quarters of a century, until it was replaced by the homestead Act of 1882, which embodied the principle of "free land.â€� In the twentieth century, the rapid diminution of the public domain has caused the appearance of the "reservation" principle. For all intents and purposes, the public domain has been closed to settlement by the mid-twentieth century, marking the end of one of the most important epochs in the history of the United States, it appears that citizens in twentieth century America, except possibly in the Western states, are unfamiliar with the concept of the public domain, and have little realization that it has played a vital role in America's economic development. But then all the color and excitement of the land office sales, the land auctions, and land speculations have receded into the past, and it is probably felt by many that any investigation of the public domain should be reserved almost exclusively for historians. The existence of land in continental dimensions is a factor that has significantly affected the political, economic, and social growth of America. This vast amount of land, stretching from ocean to ocean, initially proved to be one of America's most important assets. This huge new country was founded and settled by individuals interested in tilling the soil, and for approximately three hundred years after colonization began, the major emphasis of American development was definitely agricultural. After the American colonists had gained their independence from England and formed their own government, the most immediate and pressing problem they had to face was the, disposition of the interior lands. Important factors which influenced early laid legislation were the pressing need for revenue and the realization that the sale of the public lands would contain the type of society ultimately to exist in America. With these two views in mind, the government forged the national land policy. It is my contention that laid policy of the United States from its inception in the Land Ordinance of 1785 until the Preemption Act of 1841 was definitely of a conservative character, further, It is the writer*s opinion that public land legislation in this period generally favored the speculator, or monied individual, at the expense of the actual settler. Despite the agrarian, small-farmer myth which existed, this period in our land history was influenced to a great degree by the land speculator who helped shape the social and economic character of the agricultural population. The social impact of speculation, while at times.beneficial, was detrimental to many settlers and speculators alike. Economically, the same point holds true, for the Panics of 1819 and 1837, which played havoc with the financial stability of the United States, were largely triggered by over-speculation in public lands. The first part of this paper deals with the pre-Revolutionary precedents to the national land system, and than discusses briefly the creation of the public domain. The writer feels this preliminary examination is necessary, for any study of land and land policy in America should be prefaced with an understanding of its origins. Then a brief chapter is included which discusses the various views regarding the use of the public domain. The next section constitutes a surrey of speculative activities in land, and then the social and economic impact of speculation. Special emphasis has been placed upon the Panics of 1819 and 1837. In conclusion, an attempt has been made to survey the effects of land speculation as interpreted by the leading students of the public domain. Finally, some of the critical problems in the study of the national land system have been pointed out.