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Harold M. Hyman: "American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance and the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts" (1985).
How unique or exceptional is America? To Dr. Harold M. Hyman, America is "singular" because at different times in its history, it adopted policies that increased individuals' "access to recognized avenues of mobility, opportunity and success." These policies were expressed in particular laws that encouraged individuals' access to land, to education, and to legal remedies.
The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777; they were in force from March 1, 1781, when Maryland ratified them, to March 4, 1789, the last day of the Confederation and the first day of the government under the new Constitution.
The Pre-emption Act of 1841 was passed by the 27th Congress on September 4, 1841. It encouraged settlement of new states and territories by permitting settlers or squatters on government land to purchase up to 160 acres for not less than $1.25 per acre before that tract was offered for sale to the public. The settlers had to reside on and improve their claim before they could buy it. The Act was a shift away from a policy of selling public lands to raise money for the federal treasury and toward one that encouraged settlement of the country.
The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Continental Congress on July 13, 1787, was, in the words of Professors Douglass North and Andrew Rutten, "a landmark in American economic history." Besides its famous guarantees of such rights as freedom of religion and prohibitions against slavery, taking of property without due process, and interference with contracts, it made it easy for settlers to secure clear title to land in the Northwest Territory, "making land easily transferrable and inheritable." It also provided that states formed from the Northwest Territory would join the Union on an equal footing with the original thirteen (eventually Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin would join). This proved to be significant because, as new states were organized and admitted, there was a shift in power to the frontier states, which held different views toward the disposal of the public lands than did nonpublic land states in the East, Mid-Atlantic and South. In response to changing economic and political pressures, public land policies evolved, a process that was encouraged not hindered by the Northwest Ordinance. The authors commend the Ordinance?s adaptive efficiency--that is, how well the structures it fostered adapted to new conditions to achieve allocative efficiency.
"The Great Land Ordinances" is the name the late Jonathan Hughes gave to the ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787, which were passed by Congress under the Article of Confederation. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was, according to Hughes, "largely an update of the legislation of 1784, and it embraced the 1785 ordinance. That law laid out the scheme for celestial surveys, before the land went up for sale, with the lands divided into square townships of 36 square miles each, 6 miles by 6 miles. The 1785 survey system is part of the metaphorical American thumb-print and...is still the way Americans measure their lands." Because of the surveys, every parcel of land for sale had a "distinct trigonometric identity."
The Declaration of Independence, dated July 4, 1776, was signed by fifty-six delegates, representing the thirteen colonies, to the Continental Congress, which met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
In 1780, meeting before the Articles of Confederation were adopted, the Continental Congress adopted a Resolution calling upon the existing states--Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia were targeted--to cede their claims to lands in the Western Territory to the United States. A Recommendation to that effect was introduced on September 6, 1780, and a Resolution adopted on October 10, 1780. The latter provided:
On April 23, 1784, Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, adopted a resolution known as The Ordinance of 1784, which applied to land west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River -- land encompassed by the current states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. It provided that settlers could petition Congress for authority to a form a temporary government and adopt the "constitution and laws of one of the existing states." When the new "state" acquired a population of 20,000 free inhabitants, it could draft a "permanent constitution" and seek admission to the union "on an equal footing" with the thirteen original states.
Operating under the Articles of Confederation, Congress adopted The Land Ordinance of 1785 on May 20, 1785. Because Congress lacked power to tax citizens of the United States, it aimed, through the Ordinance, to raise revenue through the sale of land in the Northwest Territory. It required that the land be surveyed, mapped and divided into "townships of six miles square." Each township was then subdivided into thirty-six sections of one square mile or 640 acres; thereafter, each section could be further divided for sale by settlers. The survey, using this rectangular methodology, contributed to the rapid and orderly settlement of the Northwest Territory -- the current states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin -- and made the transfer and sale of land easy.
The Northwest Ordinance, effective July 13, 1787, organized the Northwest Territory, and established conditions for admitting new states to the union. It set forth six articles that constituted a "compact" between the original states and the people and future states in the new territory. That "compact" guaranteed such rights as trial by jury, right to bail, freedom of worship, sanctity of contract, respect for the property and lands of Indians and, significantly, it forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory.
The Southwest Territory, which was defined as "Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio," was created by the Southwest Ordinance enacted on May 26, 1790, out of land that was ceded to the U.S. federal government by the State of North Carolina. The Southwest Ordinance was modeled after the Northwest Ordinance with one exception: slavery was preserved. The admission to the union of Kentucky in 1792 and Tennessee in 1796 spelled the end of the Southwest Ordinance.
The Homestead Act was signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862. By fulfilling certain statutory requirements--filing an application, "improving" the land by actually settling on and cultivating it, and filing for a deed after five years--a settler could acquire title to 160 acres of previously undeveloped land in new states and territories. According to Paul Gates, a noted historian of the public lands, it was "one of the most important laws which have ever been enacted in the history of this country." It was repealed in 1976, although homesteading was permitted in Alaska until 1986.
The Morrill Act of 1862 established colleges in each state (except those in rebellion) that would educate people in agriculture, mechanical arts, and other trades. It gave each state 30,000 acres of public land for each Senator and Representative. The land was to be sold and the proceeds invested in an endowment the interest from which would support the new colleges in each state. The act was named after its sponsor, Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill, and was signed by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862. It was amended on July 23, 1866, to permit former Confederate states to qualify for its benefits.
Congress passed the Timber Culture Act in 1873 to encourage settlers to plant and grow trees on "western prairies." The following year, strict eligibility requirements and planting timetables were added. Amendments in 1878 loosened the schedules for "breaking" the prairie, "cultivating" the plowed land and planting trees. The law, however, was easily abused by settlers and ranchers; it never came close to accomplishing what Congress envisioned. Historians of the West give it a failing grade. It was repealed in 1891.
The Land Revision Act of 1891 repealed the Timber Culture Act (1873-1878) and the Preemption Act (1841), and revised other land laws. The last section of the statute authorizing the president to create forest reserves out of public lands has become so important that it is sometimes referred to as The Forest Reserve Act of 1891.
The Organic Act, effective May 3, 1849, established the government of Minnesota Territory. It was incorporated in Article II, §1, of the 1857 Constitution.
The Enabling Act, effective February 26, 1857, authorized the citizens of Minnesota Territory to hold a constitutional convention, draft a constitution, and form a government preparatory for admission as a state to the union.