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.
Four examples of "access legislation" are the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which increased access to ownership of land, stabilized property rights, and required the establishment of public schools, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill and Acts, which increased access to public lands in the West and education at state land-grant colleges, and the 1944 G.I. Bill, which expanded educational opportunities in the post-World War II era. These laws were imperfectly drafted, needed revision, and at times fell short of their goals because of the way they were implemented; nevertheless, they embodied many of the values and aspirations that inspired the Revolution.
Dr. Hyman explored the question of "American singularity" in the Russell Lectures delivered at the University of Georgia in 1985, and published the following year by the University of Georgia Press. Only Dr. Hyman's lectures on the Northwest Ordinance and the Homestead and Morrill Acts are reproduced in this article. To assist the reader, these laws are posted in an Appendix. These excerpts are posted on the MLHP with the permission of Dr. Hyman and the University of Georgia Press, which holds the copyright.
Dr. Harold M. Hyman is the William P. Hobby Professor of History Emeritus at Rice University. He is one of this country's foremost historians and has written acclaimed books on the constitution and the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras. He was the President of the American Society of Legal History in 1974-75.