“Soulless Capital and Grasping Speculation”: A Comparative Genealogy of the Homestead Act of 1862

By Alex S. MacArthur

Published on January 30, 2024
Volume 9, Issue 1

At the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, millions of acres of thick forests and sweeping valleys lay between the Atlantic and Pacific, populated by Indigenous peoples and not yet scored by railroad tracks and settlers’ spades. The Act aimed to give away millions of acres of land to poor white settlers on the condition that they worked the soil for a five-year period or bought it after six months. By 1860, it would become the core economic plank of the Republican Party’s antislavery political platform. Yet, for one of the most significant pieces of economic legislation in American history, its motivations and legacy remain remarkably contested in scholarship. Was it, as Allen C. Guelzo claimed, “the greatest privatization scheme in American history”? Or, as Eric Foner asserted, an extension of “middle-class, capitalistic” ideology? Was it, as Mari Sandoz once wrote, “the hope of the poor man”? Or was it, as Matthew Karp argued, “an unprecedented distribution of wealth from the government to ordinary citizens”?[1] This essay analyzes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings and those of Galusha A. Grow, not to prove a direct causal link between Emerson’s thought and the emergence of the Act, but instead to unpack the ideological backdrop of the Act’s origins and demonstrate how they extended beyond politics. Examining how both Emerson—one of the most widely-read intellectuals and essayists of the time, as well as the father of transcendentalism—and Grow—the Act’s most dogged advocate—both reacted to economic change rooted in the development of capital and industry, this essay helps contextualize the Act’s contested legacy.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the Homestead Act emerged as one of the most widely supported pieces of legislation in nineteenth-century American politics for an array of reasons whose scope and composition are beyond the limits of this paper to explore. Emerson and Grow were brought up in entirely different contexts—both physical and political—and were weaned on different intellectual influences. Their relationship to land, too, was drastically different. Rather than examining the political constellation into which the Homestead Act of 1862 emerged, by examining Emerson alongside Grow, this paper attempts to trace the complicated legacy of the Act back to shared tensions within the intellectual and political underpinnings of the land reform movement. I argue that the economic philosophies of Emerson and Grow—which both featured strong critiques of the market and a firm belief in petty agrarian proprietorship but nonetheless retained faith in the logics of capitalistic progress—must be understood as inchoate reactions to economic change, more so than products of coherent political projects. Examining how these reactions overlapped in their rebuke of capital, this paper unsettles interpretations of the Act that attempt to position it as a mere consolidation of capital by the Northern elite. Rather, as I suggest, the Act fell short of its yeoman vision precisely because the thought that undergirded it constituted more of a reaction against, rather than a coherent alternative to, a burgeoning market economy.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented prosperity for white American men, yet it was also a time of increasing urbanization and integration into a national and global market. A revolution in industrial production, as well as banking and credit, came in tow. Meanwhile, cycles of speculative investment followed by national panics—like those of 1818 and 1837—began to develop.[2] As economic historian Jonathan Levy emphasized, this post-’37 economy was to rely more than ever on “interpersonal trust, as well as a popular state of confidence and expectations,” which in turn “fueled the speculative upswing in the credit cycle, inducing investment and pulling along commercial development.”[3] While the United States remained largely agrarian, this commercial development was beginning to draw more people to the cities, which harbored more immigrants by the day. These changes enmeshed independent yeoman farmers into larger-scale trade networks. They were specializing, working harder, exploiting the land more, and purchasing consumer goods. Even old Concord, the idyllic home of Emerson and Thoreau, was beginning to change: Irish laborers constructed a railroad that cut through the woods right near Walden Pond.[4] While Emerson feigned disinterest in economic matters—going so far as to write that “banks and tariffs” were “flat and dull” topics for discussion by “dull people”—the changing backdrop of American society molded his philosophical project and the broader work of his interlocutors.[5] Likewise, Grow’s experiences growing up in agrarian northern Pennsylvania radically shaped his political interests.

To many writers in a rapidly changing antebellum America, the nature of an economy whose commercial foundation was largely based on trust, expectation, and speculation created a social environment that undermined virtue and humanity. As Levy noted, this led many intellectuals to the conclusion that “life was becoming nothing more than a confidence game.”[6] Observing that this new commercial society hollowed out and corroded human relations, a diverse body of writers and artists sprang forth with critiques. Whereas, as Levy held, the older criticism of commercial society was more conservative—“a religious critique, with aristocratic overtones”—the new, “romantic” critique that was emerging was more wide-ranging.[7] As intellectual historian Peter Wirzbicki suggested, this critique, which drew largely on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was primarily introduced to Americans by Thomas Carlyle, who pioneered the idea that the “cash payment” was becoming the sole “nexus of man to man.”[8] Carlyle, whose arguments surfaced in The Communist Manifesto, became Emerson’s lifelong friend and correspondent.

Emerson’s legacy on economic issues remains as contested as the history of the Homestead Act. Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford famously adored Emerson’s work, taking his emphasis on independence and grafting it onto industrial capitalist entrepreneurialism.[9] Scholars like Thomas D. Birch and Michael T. Gilmore cast Emerson as ambivalent or even receptive to market capitalism.[10] Wirzbicki, on the other hand, stressed parallels between Emerson’s criticisms and radical politics. As he maintained, Emerson “would have heartily approved of a young Marx’s sense that capitalism strangled the inner true life of man in the process of producing external material things.”[11] In large part, these contradictions in interpretations of Emerson stem from his own incipient, and at times conflicting, criticisms of commercial society. However contested his legacy might be, there is no denying that the expansion of commercial society was deeply troubling to Emerson.

Central to Emerson’s critique of this expanding commercial society was his indictment of its effects on the human subject. This critique first hinged on the increasing division of labor and specialization pervading the United States after the market revolution. To Emerson, the division of labor bred dependence, which corrupted man’s integrity and removed him from the product of his labor. Emerson’s 1837 address, “The American Scholar,” was ostensibly a rousing call to reevaluate the act of academic creation through the prism of labor. But in discussing the danger of intellectual dependence and specialization, he revealed a coherent economic objection tethered to his conception of Man. As he writes, “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.”[12] The danger to Man, for Emerson, emerged from the systematic division of tasks among men in the “social state”:

Unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, ⎯ a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.[13]

Not only was Man no longer himself in the limitless Emersonian conception, he allowed his own subjectivity to become objective; he was “metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. . . . The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.”[14]

It is worth noting that what Emerson rebuked here was not the very principle of the division of labor itself, but rather the extent to which it had been so radically “distributed to multitudes.” His 1841 “Man the Reformer” lecture to the Boston Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Library Association, reflecting a worsening economic situation and a changed audience, was more radical in its denunciation of the division of labor. Rehearsing his own response to the question of giving up its “immense advantages,” which “put men back into barbarism by their own act,” Emerson coolly stated that he “should not be pained at a change that threatened a loss of some of the luxuries or conveniences of society if it proceeded from a preference of the agricultural life out of the belief that our primary duties as men could be better discharged in that calling.”[15] Emerson’s objection to the division of labor, then, was not one made purely in reference to the realization of Man’s potential. Instead, it was implicated in his tacit opposition of the corruption of the marketplace with the “agricultural life” (or at least, an idealized notion of an agricultural life removed from the forces of the market), which emerged as a central theme of his philosophy.

Emerson’s renunciation of luxuries was not puritanical castigation; rather, his indictment of the pernicious influence of materialism lay at the heart of his critique of the division of labor, which created the material conditions necessary for luxuries. In the very immediate political sense, trade and commerce—“a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage”—had created demands for products that had not previously existed, like sugar and tobacco.[16] These and many other “things,” Emerson wrote in his 1846 “Ode to William Channing,” are “in the saddle, / and ride mankind.”[17] Worse still, the consumer’s dependence on the commodity blinded him to any sense of moral duty—one only had to ask a few questions to “become aware that we eat and drink and wear perjury and fraud in a hundred commodities,” and yet, while all consume, “none feels himself accountable.”[18] Emerson thus established how the consumerism bred by capitalism was directly linked to the continued existence of slavery and charged men of commerce with being morally corrupt.

The same logic appeared in his appraisal of abolitionism, whose “upshot” he identified as “the question of property & no property, rent & antirent.”[19] “Each man,” Emerson concluded, “must do his own work,” for, in an increasingly commercial world, the man was not just being governed and corrupted by the commodities he consumed and created; he was being deprived of the intellectual benefit of labor. As Emerson stressed, “Manual labor is the study of the external world. The advantage of riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir . . . not only health, but education is in the work.”[20] Central to this objection was a return to the theme of dependence, this time not simply on the commodity but on the laborer himself: “They have some sort of self-sufficiency, they can contrive without my aid to bring the day and year round, but I depend on them, and have not earned by use a right to my arms and feet.”[21] As Levy highlighted, in attacking the concept of dependence, Emerson joined a lineage of thinkers stretching back to Rousseau, whose Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1754) became an important basis for much of American thought. Rousseau’s conceptualization of the effects of dependence would become Marx’s “alienation” by way of Kant and Hegel.[22]

This broad renunciation of dependence—be it moral or material—was a staple of much of Emerson’s work, even beyond his economic writings. It found its most notable articulation in “Self-Reliance” (1841), Emerson’s most widely circulated essay. While on the surface, the text seemed to call for rugged individualism, Emerson warned that “the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.”[23] By “property,” Emerson referred not necessarily to land, but rather to capital. His understanding of capital as “dead labor” largely paralleled Marx’s labor theory of value.[24] In his 1850 essay “Napoleon; or, the Man of the World,” Emerson conceptualized the conservative “as being in line with “the interests of dead labor—that is, the labor of hands long ago still in the grave, which labor is now entombed in money stocks, or in land and buildings owned by idle capitalists” and opposed this to the “democratic classes,” whose interests were “living labor, which seeks to possess itself of land, and buildings, and money stocks.”[25] Emerson’s critique was, then, more broadly against all forms of unearned wealth.[26] It also revealed his understanding of property; namely, that it was defined by human labor alone. While this critique—clearly inflected by but nonetheless distinct from Marx’s—did not naturally lead to a fully formed alternative vision of society as in Marx, it was radical in its breadth. “By coming out of the trade,” Emerson warned, “you have not cleared yourself [...] Nay, the evil custom reaches into the whole institution of property, until our laws which establish and protect it, seem not to be the issue of love and reason, but of selfishness.”[27] The problem for Emerson, then, was not the existence of property altogether but the wide-reaching corruptive “trail of the serpent” of the commercial system, which tainted morality in its myriad forms.

Running through the core of Emerson’s sweeping rebuke of commercial society—and his corpus more broadly—was a continued insistence on an ideal of petty agricultural proprietorship. While Emerson insisted that he was not demanding a return to widespread agrarianism, his intellectual opposition to consumer society consistently returned to ideas of manual labor, self-reliance, proprietorship, and proximity to nature, which are given fullest expression through a rose-colored image of pastoral life. Recognizing the degree to which commercial society was governed by “selfishness,” Emerson offered a hypothetical that revealed much about his agrarian ideal:

Suppose a man is so unhappy as to be born a saint, with keen perceptions, but with the conscience and love of an angel, and he is to get his living in the world; he finds himself excluded from all lucrative works; he has no farm, and he cannot get one; for, to earn money enough to buy one, requires a sort of concentration toward money, which is the selling himself for a number of years, and to him the present hour is as sacred and inviolable as any future hour.[28]

Implicit here is the goal of farm ownership, which seemed to signify a realm in which one could hypothetically live as a saint. But more radical was Emerson’s pursuant proclamation that “whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours, is at once vitiated.”[29] It would seem, then, that Emerson’s ideal was not simply farm ownership but the equitable distribution of property, so that the greatest number might be independent proprietors. The closest that Emerson got to describing how this might be done was when he later wrote, “Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor. Let us begin by habitual imparting.”[30] Here it became evident that he was no revolutionary asking for a violent seizure of private property.

Still, Emerson, recognizing that “the whole interest of history lies in the fortunes of the poor,” clearly saw the need for a change in the distribution of property and viewed the well-being of those without property as a metric for governmental success.[31] While Emerson did not go beyond this in articulating real governmental policy, he repeated that we ought to “put ourselves into primary relations with the soil and nature, and abstaining from whatever is dishonest and unclean, to take each of us bravely his part, with his own hands, in the manual labor of the world.”[32] This notion dovetailed with his belief in the primacy of nature and its foundational importance to intellectual production. As he expressed at the end of his essay “Nature” (1836), while “the abstract question occupies your intellect, nature brings it in the concrete to be solved by your hands.”[33] If we combine his economic precepts—that there exists an intellectual benefit and universal necessity of manual labor, that property is given value through labor, and that the division of labor and materialism are harmful and breed dependence—Emerson’s agrarian ideal emerges as a rational synthesis. Despite his insistence that he did not literally wish that “every man should be a farmer,” farm proprietorship remained at the core of his critique of commercial society in “Man the Reformer.” The final lines of his speech, an argument for the necessity of sacrifice in reform, were again articulated in agrarian terms: “As the farmer casts into the ground the finest ears of his grain, the time will come when we too shall hold nothing back, but shall eagerly convert more than we now possess into means and powers, when we shall be willing to sow the sun and the moon for seeds.”[34]

The Emerson that emerged from these texts appeared acutely aware of the damaging power of commercial society, even radical in his wide-ranging critiques. Yet while he urged reform, Emerson’s criticism never seemed to verge into a genuine belief in any alternative to the market economy. Certainly, his life seemed to stand in contradiction to much of his rhetoric in “Man the Reformer,” which, in his defense, he readily acknowledged.[35] Perhaps, though—alongside his praise of labor and reprobation of inheritance—he would not have wished to tell the Mechanics’ Library Association about the $23,000 that he inherited from his late wife’s family, which he used to purchase his home.[36] Neither did Emerson’s odes to self-reliance sufficiently compel him to join the transcendentalist Brook Farm commune alongside George Ripley.[37] He even bickered with his lifelong friend and protégé, Thoreau, because the latter became too “militant.”[38] These petty examples aside, Emerson’s legacy in relation to commercial society has been most complicated by his essay “The Young American,” the canonical text for those in the scholarly tradition of Birch and Gilmore. In this speech, which was delivered to the Boston Mercantile Library Association in 1844, Emerson referred to the “anti-feudal power of Commerce” and later remarked, “This is the good and this the evil of trade, that it would put everything into market, talent, beauty, virtue, and man himself.”[39]

While Levy was wise to note that Emerson went through “phases and stages” and was likely influenced by the recovery of prices from the Panic of 1837,[40] Emerson’s view in “The Young American” was not in complete contradiction to his rhetoric in “The American Scholar,” “Man the Reformer,” or even “Napoleon; or, the Man of the World.” Indeed, alongside his acknowledgement of the power and potential benefits of commerce, he stressed the value of agrarian proprietorship.[41] Only here, Emerson framed a withdrawal to farms by men of trade as a means of alleviating the oversaturated labor market, with the added bonus of “all the moral benefit which we may expect from the farmer’s profession.”[42] Here, Emerson’s agrarian rhetoric was tinged with the imperial impulse toward Native displacement, westward expansion, and the development of land. Asserting that “the beautiful continent is ours, state on state, and territory on territory, to the waves of the Pacific Sea,” Emerson continued:

The task of surveying, planting, and building upon this immense tract, requires an education and a sentiment commensurate thereto. A consciousness of this fact, is beginning to take the place of the purely trading spirit and education which sprang up whilst all the population lived on the fringe of sea-coast. And even on the coast, prudent men have begun to see that every American should be educated with a view to the values of land.[43]

Where an earlier Emerson asserted that knowing “the values of land” might have meant the intellectual values conferred through contact with the land, this later Emerson illustrated that he knew the monetary value of land as property to be exploited. On the other hand, in the very same address, Emerson later listed “beneficent socialism” as a “friendly omen.”[44] How can we reconcile such inconsistent language within the same speech? Attempting to design a narrative that gives adequate justification for all of Emerson’s various assertions would be difficult and perhaps unproductive. Rather, if one examines Emerson’s economic thought throughout his body of works, it reveals itself as a nascent reaction to evolving structures of industry and capital. His was a philosophy that was thorough in its criticism of the dependencies bred by commerce but amorphous in its articulation of an alternative. Never was it so far-reaching as to invalidate the entire system of the market economy. On the other hand, an independent agrarian ideal remained at the core of Emerson's thought.

Emerson was not alone in his emphasis on agrarian proprietorship. Indeed, his inchoate economic thought goes a long way in helping one understand why the Homestead Act became such a popular measure. Still, if the Republican Party was mostly composed of former Whigs with an injection of “radical” Jacksonian Democrats, how did a decidedly non-Whig measure become central to the Republican mantra? As Eric Foner has shown, one can trace the origins of the land reform movement back to James Madison’s claim that access to land would alleviate urban poverty. Later, under President Andrew Jackson, the Democratic Party would make land access a central tenet.[45] In the 1840s, however, labor radicals in the industrializing Northeast—like George Henry Evans, editor of the Working Man’s Advocate—and more mainstream figures like Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, did much work to popularize land reform.[46] Importantly, their arguments centered on cheap land as a means of alleviating poverty-stricken industrial centers, which increasingly resembled Manchester and Birmingham in England. However, as Robert Ilisevich argued in Galusha A. Grow: The People’s Candidate, perhaps no single politician became more associated with the land issue than Congressman Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania.

While the bill’s eventual passage was the product of the labor of many men, it was Grow who was the bill’s most dogged advocate.[47] By the time Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862, Grow’s bill had already been passed in the House five times in the preceding ten years. At Grow’s first major homestead speech in 1852, the bill had been identified as a litmus test for opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska bill and split the Democrats. Still, the bill attracted support from both parties and from across the country.[48] Nonetheless, over the course of the next eight years, voting on the bill became sectional. As Ben Wade angrily told Georgian Robert Toombs, the question at stake was, “Shall we give n——s to the n——less, or land to the landless?”[49] Finally, with intransigent Southern Senators no longer posing a problem and the details sorted out, the bill passed into law. More so than those of Evans or Greeley, Grow’s background and political trajectory help us analyze how the Act was rooted in a similar incipient resistance to economic change seen in Emerson’s writing. Further, Grow’s path from Jacksonian Democrat to radical “black Republican puppy” to Gilded Age capitalist helps us understand the changing economic politics of the nineteenth century. [50]

Galusha Aaron Grow was born on August 31, 1823, in Windham County, Connecticut. His father died when he was four years old, leaving Galusha’s mother with six children. In 1834, the family moved to settle on a farm in northern Pennsylvania, in Lenox Township. While much of Grow’s papers were lost in a fire, Ilisevich notes that “subsistence farming and poverty were universal in the valley” and that these were the years when Grow, whose family was likely struggling to pay off the land, became convinced of the necessity for land reform.[51] While farm life was difficult, Grow seemed to place value and meaning on physical labor throughout his life. He looked forward to returning to farm work whenever politics or law tried him, leading his enemies to nickname him the “Glenwood bark-peeler” and his supporters to call him the “Bark-spudder.”[52] While Grow’s upbringing gave him an appreciation for farm labor, his life was not fully removed from the market. When the Panic of 1837 hurt the lumber business, a beardless fourteen-year-old Grow paddled down the Tunkhannock Creek, wound his way through the Susquehanna River, and finally navigated the wide, windy Chesapeake Bay, just to sell in Annapolis.[53] There, he witnessed slave labor for the first time. Later, as a Democratic, then Republican, Congressman, his antislavery sentiment would surpass that of William H. Seward, Thurlow Weed, and other former major Republicans.[54]

Grow’s agrarian milieu was also a place of noted Democratic radicalism. The so-called “Wilmot district,” encompassing Susquehanna, Bradford, and Tioga counties, had been settled by New Englanders, and its rural voters were critical of land speculators and tariffs that supported special interests. David Wilmot, the famous Democrat-cum-free-soil-Republican author of the homonymous 1846 Proviso, emblematized this district, where farmers despised both the tyrannical slave power and the social radicalism of northern Republican élites. These voters were not particularly keen on slavocratic rule, either. After the turmoil of the ’40s and ’50s, antislavery organizing galvanized its inhabitants, many of whom rallied around the district’s namesake.[55] But above all else, the voting record speaks powerfully to the area’s radical dynamism: in 1852, the district gave Franklin Pierce a majority of 2,500 votes, whereas in 1856, it would give John C. Frémont a remarkable 70-percent majority of over 9,000 votes.[56] The prewar path that elevated Grow from stump speaker to Speaker of the House was anything but linear. Fresh out of Amherst College and tired of the legal profession, Grow joined the Jacksonian Democratic mainstream in his county, taking after the likes of Wilmot. Despite his radical free-soil politics, he stuck to the Democratic Party through 1848 and 1852. Finally, in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and trailing behind the defection of Wilmot, Grow switched to the Republican Party, where he would remain for the rest of his life and serve as a radical wartime Speaker.[57]

While Grow’s political beliefs developed over the course of his career, an emphasis on land reform remained at the core of his project, both as a Democrat and a Republican. Grow’s roots as a radical free-soil Democrat (who saw himself as firmly planted in the Jacksonian tradition) help explain his willingness to adopt a rhetoric that tacitly acknowledged the opposing interests of capital and labor. Examining similar arguments in Grow’s first major homestead speech in 1852 and his 1860 “Free Homes for Free Men” speech, we observe how his reasoning paralleled, in large part, Emerson’s concern over the increased influence that capital exerted upon the human subject. Yet where Emerson, following Rousseau and Carlyle, waxed philosophical about the ontological effects of the dependence bred by commodities and the division of labor, Grow, following Jackson, outlined a direct political indictment of the cruel forces of capital, which were dangerous both to the citizen and to the nation’s democracy. Whether in 1860 or 1852, Grow recycled many of the same arguments and language in his speeches to Congress. One barely modified snippet gets at the core of his thought:

The struggle between capital and labor is an unequal one at best. It is a struggle between the bones and sinews of men and dollars and cents; and in that struggle, it needs no prophet’s ken to foretell the issue. And in that struggle, is it for this Government to stretch forth its arm to aid the strong against the weak? Shall it continue, by its legislation, to elevate and enrich idleness on the wail and the woe of industry?[58]

Here, Grow held that the government must step in not in favor of industry—whose special interests could have a corrupting influence on democracy—but in favor of labor. In making explicit his belief that the interests of labor and capital were not harmonious, Grow laid out the stakes of the Act. Namely, he made it clear that it was a law designed to bolster the laborer more than the capitalist. In opposing the terms capital and industry to labor, he revealed that the scope of the bill was not exclusively aimed at controlling capital, as expressed through speculation, but to control the interests of the ruling industrial élites more broadly.

While his critique of the effects of capital was not as wide-ranging as Emerson’s, Grow’s speeches revealed that his argument was, too, a moral one. In the final lines of his 1860 speech, he warned, “Let not the government dampen his order and palsy [the pioneer’s] arm by legislation that places him in the power of soulless capital and grasping speculation; for upon his wild battlefield these are the only foes that his own stern heart and right arm cannot Vanquish.”[59] His description of capital as “soulless” and speculation as “grasping” contrasted sharply with his repeated invocation of the hardworking cultivator of the land and the humble fireside, where “the soul receives its first impress.”[60] Grow’s account of the “idleness” of industry and capital, too, stood in sharp contrast to his frequent mention of the industrious cultivator. In his critique of the old bounty system—whereby land was granted to veterans who usually sold it on the cheap—as well as in his treatment of his old enemy, the speculator, we see something that resembles a labor theory of value. Exchanging the land, Grow holds, was not what gave it monetary worth; rather, it was through cultivation—the blood, sweat, and tears of the “bones and sinews of men” and the “sons of toil”—that land was given value.[61] As he declared in his 1852 address, “the only true foundation of any right to property is man's labor. That is property, and that alone which the labor of man has made such.”[62] Likewise, in both speeches, Grow described the act of purchasing land as the “absorption” of the “hard earnings of labor without rendering an equivalent.”[63] Grow’s understanding of value proceeded from his sympathies, which, like Jackson’s, were “ever with the sons of toil.”[64]

Like that of Emerson, Grow’s indictment of capital led him to the ideal of petty agrarian proprietorship. As Emerson outlined the benefits of having primary “relations with the soil and nature,” Grow, who had experienced these benefits on his own body, argued that agrarian life shaped man’s character for the better. Therefore, he argued, widespread access to the soil for the poor would “relieve your almshouses, close the doors of your penitentiaries, and break in pieces of your gallows.”[65] As Grow concluded, “for purifying the sentiments, elevating the thoughts, and developing the noblest impulses of man’s nature, the influences of a rural fireside and an agricultural life are the noblest and the best.”[66]

If Emerson’s critique hinged on a renunciation of dependence, which played out mostly in the realm of the self, to Grow the risk of dependence was a governmental as well as moral concern. As Grow, echoing Jefferson, held, an “independent yeomanry, scattered over the vast domain, is the best and surest guarantee for the perpetuity of our liberties.”[67] While Grow made the same argument in 1852, citing Jackson and Lord Chatham, in 1860 he added slavery to the picture. He addressed the question by way of Roman history: “Had the policy advocated by Gracchus, of distributing the public lands among the landless citizens of the nation, been adopted, the Roman fields would have been cultivated by free men instead of slaves, and there would have been a race of men to stay the ravages of the barbarian.”[68] While antislavery seemed secondary to Grow’s argument, by casting the bill as an economic measure that was also an antislavery measure, he channeled more Republican energy into his bill—an important strategic pivot, especially given that the Act had been blocked by Southern Democrats in 1860.[69]

But Grow’s advocacy for establishing a network of independent farmers across the country was not simply a defense strategy. At its root was the principle that land should be distributed equitably among the poor and that a nation’s wealth lay not in its towering cities but in its blazing hearthsides. As he maintained in his 1852 address, “it is not a sure indication that the people of that country are most prosperous and happy in which you behold the most splendid edifices, the greatest profusion of wealth and concentration of capital.”[70] Rather, as he later articulated in straightforward terms, “the prosperity of States depends not on the mass of wealth, but its distribution.”[71] At a time when Republicans positioned slavery as a remnant of feudalism to argue for its replacement by mass wage labor, Grow harnessed the same rhetoric to argue that land monopoly was the true feudal “relic,” speculators and capitalists the true lords, and real cultivators the true serfs. This was the basis upon which he claimed that access to “land enough to rear a habitation on” was a human right.[72]

Grow thus appeared to be staunchly critical of capital and perhaps even radical in his view of land distribution as a human right. Yet, like Emerson, while Grow’s arguments were strong in their criticism and, unlike Emerson’s, direct in their demands, those arguments never turned into a fully formed critique of industrial society. Grow’s life story, like Emerson’s, stood in tension with his words. While Grow critiqued capitalism, he became a successful capitalist. While we have lost many records from his personal life, we know that by the time he resumed office in 1894, Grow had pursued a long business career that encompassed everything from oil speculation to coal production and even the railroad business.[73] When he came back to serve in the House, Grow came to peace with the Republican Party of the Gilded Age—he finally seemed completely sundered from his old Jacksonian roots and swept up in the new expansion of commerce and industry. While Grow critiqued the demagoguery of capital and industry, he never questioned their existence or importance to the nation. Even his advocacy for homesteads, both in 1852 and 1860, employed the economic reasoning that the actual cultivation of land would birth more American consumers, which would drive tariff revenues up. After all, Grow still had to justify the doling out of America’s most precious resource to the poor in front of an audience comprised of many industrial capitalists. His arguments therefore had to frame the bill as congruent with the interests of industry and capital—hence all his accounting work revealing how the current land distribution policy was grossly inefficient. As Ilisevich pointed out, Grow made it clear in 1852 that the law was not an attempt to destroy free enterprise.[74]

By the time of its passage into law in 1862, the Homestead Act had become one of the most widely supported pieces of legislation in the Republican Party.[75] Charles Sumner and Andrew Johnson—whom Sumner later called “the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power”—both lent it their hearty approval.[76] Yet how did a bill whose stated goals were to dole out millions of acres to poor people and, in the words of its most persistent advocate, ward off “the power of soulless capital and grasping speculation” shimmy its way into Abraham Lincoln’s spindly hands? The answer, as we have seen, is complex and likely involves some combination of free-soil antislavery political consolidation, Greeley’s New York Tribune, overcrowded cities and oversaturated labor markets, settler republicanism, agricultural development, anti-industrial reactions, vestigial Jeffersonian and Jacksonian influence, and tariff revenues. But reading Emerson alongside Grow reveals that there was a broader intellectual foundation for nascent critiques of capital that were rooted in an agrarian vision of independent proprietorship, and that this sentiment spread beyond the sturdy, Democratic, anti-slavery, bark-peeling, self-proclaimed heirs of Jefferson and Jackson and into the broader public. Emerson and Grow may not have articulated an alternative political project like some other thinkers across the Atlantic, but we must remember that the Homestead bill passed both houses of Congress at a moment when, as Philip Foner observed, no party in American history had “made such a conscious effort to win the votes of the workingmen.”[77]

The Homestead Act may well have been co-opted by “soulless capital,” but after examining the arguments of the bill’s most notable exponent, it is hard to see in good faith how, as Allen Guelzo argued, it would have been conceptualized as a “privatization scheme.” Perhaps the difference is trivial, but it seems more accurate to describe the bill as a comparatively radical yet reactionary American attempt to distribute property among the toiling masses—a measure at once resistant to the forces of capital and yet couched in capitalist logics of development, displacement, and expansion. However robust, both Grow’s and Emerson’s critiques of an expanding market society were mired in conflict. While on the one hand they railed against the ails of capital and the market, both held fast to an outmoded ideal of petty agrarian proprietorship; while both saw themselves as the poor man’s advocate, neither’s critiques were wide-ranging or specific enough to outpace the opposing forces of capital. The pressure cooker of the Civil War would unwind these contradictions, and the radical critiques of capital that undergirded the Homestead Act, in bolstering the Republicans, would dialectically push capitalism onward and upward. The contested and contradictory intellectual and political origins of the land reform movement that came to a head in 1862 may well help us understand how land reform ultimately fell radically short of the agrarian ideal espoused by Emerson and Grow.


Primary Sources

Grow, Galusha A. “Free Homes for Free Men.” Presented at the Washington, Republican Executive Congressional Committee, February 29, 1860.

———. “Man’s Right to the Soil.” Printed at the Congressional Globe Office. Presented at the speech of Hon. G.A. Grow, of Pennsylvania, on the Homestead Bill, March 30, 1852.

Locke, John. “The Second Treatise of Civil Government, Second Treatise, § 27.” press-pubs.uchicago.edu, 1689.

Marx, Karl. “Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I - Chapter Ten, Section One.” Marxists.org, 2019.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. New York: Literary Classics of the U.S, 1983.

———. “The Poet” (1844).

———. “Man the Reformer” (1841).

———. “Nature” (1836).

———. “Self-Reliance” (1841).

———. “The Conservative” (1841).

———. “The Young American” (1844).

———. “Napoleon; Or, the Man of the World” (1850).

Secondary Sources

Edwards, Richard. “Changing Perception of Homesteading as a Policy of Public Domain Disposal.” Great Plains Quarterly 29, no. 3 (2009): 179–202.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

Guelzo, Allen. “Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who Was the Real Father of Big Government?” The Heritage Foundation | Leadership for America 100 (February 8, 2012): 1–17.

Ilisevich, Robert D. Galusha A. Grow: The People’s Candidate. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.

Karp, Matthew. “The Mass Politics of Antislavery.” Catalyst 3, no. 2 (2019).

Levy, Jonathan. Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States. New York: Random House, 2021.

Hurn, Rachel. “Not a Luddite, Not a Thoreauvian.” The New Yorker, January 31, 2011.

Mr. Lincoln’s White House. “Visitors from Congress: Galusha A. Grow (1823-1907).” Accessed May 9, 2023.

Waugh, John C. “The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.” Bill of Rights Institute, 1868.

Wirzbicki, Peter. Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.


[1] Allen Guelzo, “Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who Was the Real Father of Big Government?,” The Heritage Foundation | Leadership for America 100 (February 8, 2012): 12; Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 29; Mari Sandoz, "The Homestead in Perspective," in Land Use Policy in the United States, ed. Howard W. Otto (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), 47 quoted in Richard Edwards, “Changing Perception of Homesteading as a Policy of Public Domain Disposal,” Great Plains Quarterly 29, no. 3 (2009): 179–202; Matthew Karp, “The Mass Politics of Antislavery,” Catalyst 3, no. 2 (2019), 159.

[2] Jonathan Levy, Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States (New York: Random House, 2021), 34.

[3] Levy, Ages of American Capitalism, 191–92.

[4] Levy, Ages of American Capitalism, 197.

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” in Essays & Lectures (New York: Literary Classics of The U.S, 1983), 465.

[6] Levy, Ages of American Capitalism, 186.

[7] Levy, Ages of American Capitalism, 194.

[8] Thomas Carlyle, A Carlyle Reader, ed. G. B. Tennyson (Acton, MA: Copley, 1999), 3–24, quoted in Peter Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), 116. See also Levy, Ages of American Capitalism,195.

[9] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 4.

[10] Birch, Thomas D. “Toward a Better Order: The Economic Thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The New England Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1995): 385–401, 385; Gilmore: American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 1-34.

[11] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 117.

[12] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 54.

[13] Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in Essays & Lectures, 53.

[14] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 54.

[15] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 139.

[16] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 137.

[17] Emerson, “Ode to William Channing” in Emerson: Essays and Poems (New York: Library of America) 113, quoted in Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 117.

[18] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 138.

[19] Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Selected Journals: 1841–1877, ed. Lawrence Rosenwald (New York: Library of America, 2010), 326, quoted in Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 108.

[20] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 140.

[21] This language of ownership over one’s own “arms and feet,” and later, as we shall see, Emerson’s idea of value as proceeding from labor, is strikingly similar to John Locke’s own articulation of the relation between labor and property. See John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Civil Government,” Second Treatise, § 27 (1689), press-pubs.uchicago.edu.

[22] Rahel Jaeggi, Alienation, ed. Frederick Neuhouser, trans. Alan Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), quoted in Levy, Ages of American Capitalism, 195.

[23] Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841), in Essays & Lectures, 281; see also Wirzbicki Fighting for the Higher Law, 116.

[24] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 117; N.B., Karl Marx, “Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I - Chapter Ten, Section One,” Marxists.org, 2019.

[25] Emerson, “Napoleon; or, the Man of the World” (1850), in Essays & Lectures, 727.

[26] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 121.

[27] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 138.

[28] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 138-39.

[29] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 149.

[30] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 149.

[31] Emerson, “The Conservative,” in Essays & Lectures, 183.

[32] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 138

[33] Emerson, “Nature,” in Essays & Lectures, 48.

[34] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 150.

[35] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 140.

[36] Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Essays & Lectures, 141; on inheritance see “Chronology” in Essays & Lectures, 128.

[37] Wirzbicki, Fighting for the Higher Law, 122.

[38] Rachel Hurn, “Not a Luddite, Not a Thoreauvian,” The New Yorker, January 31, 2011.

[39] Emerson, “The Young American” (1844), in Essays & Lectures, 217, 221.

[40] We might also add to Levy’s contextualization the possibility that he framed his rhetoric differently when addressing workingmen and merchants.

[41] Emerson, “The Young American” (1844), in Essays & Lectures, 214.

[42] Emerson, “The Young American” (1844), in Essays & Lectures, 215.

[43] Emerson, “The Young American” (1844), in Essays & Lectures, 214.

[44] Emerson, “The Young American” (1844), in Essays & Lectures, 222.

[45] Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), xxiv.

[46] Robert D. Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow: The People’s Candidate (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 59-60.

[47] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 61.

[48] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 210.

[49] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 74, 178.

[50] As exclaimed in 1858 by Carolinian Congressman and hothead Laurence M. Keitt, prior to his being knocked to the floor by the “tall, slightly built” Grow; see Noah Brooks, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, p. 112 (February 15, 1863) quoted in “Visitors from Congress: Galusha A. Grow (1823-1907),” Mr. Lincoln’s White House, accessed May 9, 2023.

[51] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 3-6.

[52] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 30-4; 153, 53.

[53] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 6.

[54] Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, 104-105.

[55] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 10, 12.

[56] Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, 163; Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 141-42.

[57] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 3-38.

[58] Galusha A. Grow, “Man’s Right to the Soil,” Printed at the Congressional Globe Office (speech of Hon. G.A. Grow, of Pennsylvania, on the Homestead Bill, March 30, 1852). The 1860 version is the exact same except for the phrase “and in that struggle, it needs no prophet’s ken to foretell the issue.”

[59] Galusha Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men …” (Washington: Republican Executive Congressional Committee, 1860), 8.

[60] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 5.

[61] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 3-4.

[62] Grow, “Man’s Right to the Soil,” 7.

[63] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men, 8; Grow, “Man’s Right to the Soil,” 7.

[64] Grow, “Man’s Right to the Soil,” 4.

[65] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 5.

[66] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 5.

[67] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 7.

[68] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 7.

[69] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 189; Karp, “The Mass Politics of Antislavery,” 160.

[70] Grow, “Man’s Right to the Soil,” 7.

[71] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 5.

[72] Grow, “Free Homes for Free Men,” 5.

[73] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 221.

[74] Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 66; see Grow, “Man’s Right to the Soil,” 1.

[75] See, for example, Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, 304.

[76] John C. Waugh, “The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” Bill of Rights Institute, 1868.

[77] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 293; see also Karp, “The Mass Politics of Antislavery,” 159.

About the Author

Alex S. MacArthur is a student in the Class of 2025 concentrating in History with certificates in French and European Cultural Studies. His research interests broadly center around Atlantic intellectual and political-economic history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a particular focus on land and slavery. He is also interested in film, literature, and musicology, and he plays the trumpet and drums in multiple ensembles.