The Homestead Act and modern conservatism

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2005

George F. Will

Washington Post Writers Group

In his inaugural address, which was largely about America's stance toward the world, President Bush's reference to the Homestead Act was tantalizingly tangential: "In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the GI Bill of Rights." Unpack the implications of those two sentences and you will find the core of conservatism updated for Republicans who think of themselves as a party of governance rather than of opposition to government.

The Homestead Act was passed in 1862, when Congress would have been forgiven for devoting all its attention to the Civil War. But the business of national consolidation continued, defiantly, with the Homestead Act.

Its provisions were as simple as the problem it addressed was stark. The problem was writ large on American maps at that time, which often designated the Great Plains as the Great American Desert. Under the act, fees totaling $18 entitled homesteaders to farm 160 acres which they would own with no other price after five years, or after six months if they paid $1.25 an acre.

Rarely has a social program worked so well. Indeed, a few years ago historians voted the Homestead Act, which remained in effect in the contiguous United States until 1976 and in Alaska until 1986, the third-most important legislative achievement in U.S. history, ahead of, among others, the Social Security Act, the GI Bill and the Voting Rights Act, and behind only the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which actually failed in its attempt to defuse the sectional crisis.

More than 270 million acres - 11 percent of today's America - were put into private hands. These approximately 422,000 square miles are more than 2.5 times the size of California and almost as much land as the combined area of 19 of today's states. According to Mark Engler, superintendent of the National Park Service's Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb., 30 of today's 50 states had homesteads in them and there are up to 93 million descendants of homesteaders.

How does this pertain to Bush's domestic agenda? His inaugural address related that agenda to an "edifice of character." He said "self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self," and that "edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards" and sustained by "the varied faiths of our people."

But the edifice is not "built" only in families; it is influenced by many facets of civil society, which in turn is shaped by government's many activities. Bush, in an address central to America's political liturgy, has now spoken of character as something that is, to a very limited but very important extent, constructed. Public policy participates in the building of it. This is a doctrine of architectonic government - government concerned with shaping the structure of the citizenry's soul.

Twenty-two years ago there was a book, written by this columnist and read by dozens, titled "Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does." It was a manifesto, of sorts, for "big government conservatism." It argued that modern government, with its myriad prescriptions, proscriptions and incentives, cannot help but endorse and, to some extent, enforce certain values. So it should be thoughtful and articulate about it.

It cannot be said of Bush, as was famously said of Martin Van Buren, that he rows toward his goal "with muffled oars." Bush has said "I don't do nuance," and his "ownership society" agenda - from Social Security personal accounts to health savings accounts to tax cuts - is explicitly explained as soulcraft. Its purpose is to combat the learned incompetence of persons who become comfortable with excessive dependence on and supervision by government. His agenda's aim is to continue, in the language of his inaugural address, "preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society."

That is the crux of modern conservatism - government taking strong measures to foster in the citizenry the attitudes and aptitudes necessary for increased individual independence. That is what the Homestead Act did, out in what no longer is the Great American Desert.

• George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-3028
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING