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American Government and Politics

by tens of thousands of hardy pioneers who built their prosperous homes upon the broad acres sold to them at a low price by the federal government.

In the beginning of our history, Congress made no attempt to dispose of the western lands in small lots to actual homesteadseekers. On the contrary, the government decided to sell the land as expeditiously as possible "for the common benefit of the United States" that is, to extinguish the public debt; and accordingly large quantities were sold on contract, principally to speculative land companies, which in turn subdivided and sold in small lots. At length, in 1800, the government began a new policy of offering for sale on credit portions of the public domain in lots small enough to encourage entry and settlement by homeseekers; and in 1820 a system of cash sales was adopted, and purchasers were allowed to buy plots of any size.

The Republican party, in its platform of 1860, protested against a land policy "which regards the settlers as paupers or suppliants for public bounty"; and demanded the passage of a complete and satisfactory homestead measure. In 1862, Congress complied with this demand by passing the Homestead Act, which reserved the arable land for settlers and provided that any head of a family might secure a quarter of a section of land, that is, 160 acres, by residing on it for a period of five years,'

In spite of these attempts to reserve the public lands for bonafide home-seekers, enormous areas have been secured by land companies, either by the purchase of the small grants made to private parties or by fraud. "Our public lands, whose highest use is to supply homes for our people," said President Roosevelt, "have been and still are being taken in great quantities by large private owners to whom home-making is at the very best but a secondary motive, subordinate to the desire for profit. To allow the public lands to be worked by the tenants of rich men for the profit of the landlords, instead of by freeholders for the livelihood of their wives and children, is little less than a crime against our people and our institutions. The great central fact of the public land situation . . . is that the amount of public land patented

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This act, however, was only supplementary to the preemption system (1841 to 1891) according to which the head of a family might enter a quarter of a section by paying $200 and living upon it for a period of six months. Under the act of 1862 each homestead-seeker had to pay a fee of $40.

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by the government to individuals is increasing out of all proportion to the number of new homes." 1

The public lands which have not been granted to land companies and to private persons have been disposed of in several ways. In the first place, whenever a new state has been admitted to the Union it has received from the federal government a large portion of public domain within its area. Previous to 1850, it was the practice of the federal government to give to each state one thirty-sixth of the public lands within its borders for school purposes; and since 1850 the amount has been doubled,' In 1860 Congress granted to each state an amount of land according to its representation in Congress, to be devoted to the support of an agricultural college. In addition to these grants for educational purposes, Congress has given to the various states from time to time large areas to be used in the making of internal improvements.

Finally there are the concessions which have been made to railway corporations. It is estimated that under the various railway acts no less than 155,504,992 acres have been given to railways, and that more than one-half of this amount has been actually taken up by them. Most of this land, however, has found its way into the hands of homestead-seekers, for it has been the practice of the railways to sell their lands in small amounts at reasonable prices in order to encourage actual settlement. It has been profitable for them to develop population and industries along their lines; and they have accordingly used their grants for the rapid upbuilding of the West.*

While the government makes some distinction between ordinary arable lands and the lands which are valuable for timber, stone, and minerals, its policy from the very beginning has sacrificed the public domain very largely to prospectors and speculators. Congress has provided that the timber lands open for

'The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. XXXI, pp. 8-9.

'Large grants were made to the soldiers of the Revolutionary and Mexican wars.

The six states admitted in 1890-91 were given considerably more than one-eighteenth of the public lands within their borders.

4 Reference: J. B. Sanborn, Congressional Grants of Land in Aid of Railways, University of Wisconsin Publications (Economics), Vol. II, No. 3.

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entry must be sold only in small lots to single persons or companies for their respective benefit, but as a matter of fact the entries made by private persons rapidly pass into the hands of large timber companies. A bare list of the timber and land. frauds which have been unearthed by the government would fill a volume of no mean proportions. Mineral lands have been likewise disposed of ostensibly to private individuals in small lots, but in actual practice to large corporations.

The reckless and fraudulent waste of our rich mineral resources has long been a standing disgrace to the federal government. President Cleveland in his message of 1886 declared that "the object of the laws was perverted under the system of cash sales from a distribution of lands among the people to an accumulation of land capital by wealthy and speculative persons." Twenty years later, President Roosevelt, in his message of February 3, 1907, called attention to the waste of our mineral resources, and recommended legislation providing for the separation of the title to the surface of the land from the title to the underlying mineral fuels, in order that the latter may be kept for public benefit, even if the former is sold. In his report for the year 1908, the Secretary of the Interior said: "It is most earnestly to be hoped that Congress at this session will consider favorably the pending measure which has for its purpose the segregating of the coal from the surface and the sale or lease of the coal in such quantities as will permit its development in accordance with the needs of the country, and in a great measure prevent private interests from either monopolizing or holding for speculative purposes the great fuel deposits remaining in the public domain. The pending bill provides for alternate methods of sale and lease, so that the system best adapted to any special section of the country may be used."

The administration of the public lands is in charge of the commissioner of the general land office (Interior Department) who supervises their survey and sale. For the purpose of administration the states and territories having considerable public domain are laid out into districts, in each of which there is a local land office in charge of registers and receivers, who dispose of public lands under the laws and receive the funds accruing from these sales. Under an appropriation of Congress which went into effect on May 27, 1908, the force of special agents in charge

National Resources


of the public lands was greatly increased for the purpose of more carefully policing the public domain and seeing that fraudulent land transactions were prevented.1

The Conservation Movement

Under the historic land policy sketched above, little or no thought was taken of the ultimate result, as the nation's heritage in lands, forests, and minerals was being bartered away to a considerable extent to shrewd and enterprising fortune hunters to say nothing of the enormous areas that have been actually stolen. It is true that the policy of rapid alienation has been the chief, and to a large extent necessary, factor in the rapid development of the West, but nevertheless the Hon. Theodore Burton spoke correctly when he said in a letter to President Roosevelt in 1907:—

Hitherto our national policy has been one of almost unrestricted disposal of natural resources, and this in more lavish measure than in any other nation in the world's history; and this policy of the federal government has been shared by the constituent states. Three consequences have ensued: First, unprecedented consumption of natural resources; second, exhaustion of these resources to the extent that a large part of our available public lands have passed into great estates or corporate interests, our forests are so far depleted as to multiply the cost of forest products, and our supplies of coal and iron are so far reduced as to enhance prices; and third, unequalled opportunity for private monopoly, to the extent that both federal and state sovereignties have been compelled to enact laws for the protection of the people.2

We have in fact arrived at a point where the exhaustion of some of our important natural resources is approaching, if the old wasteful methods of exploiting them are allowed to continue; and the realization of this fact has made the conservation and right use of our natural opportunities one of the most vital ques

1 During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, a little more than 19,000,000 acres of public lands were entered; the total cash receipts from the disposal of lands during that year were about $12,500,000, which netted the treasury a balance of a little more than $10,000,000; during that year also many additional forests were created, making a total forest area of 167,976,886


2 Proceedings of a Conference of Governors, p. viii (Official Report).

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Comass tal & Deans & Bor Franklin

tions to be solved by the present generation. Indeed, as Presi dent Roosevelt put it, "the conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life."1

This issue was first seriously brought to the attention of the general public by President Roosevelt in his numerous addresses; and a practical step toward the solution of the problem was taken by him in the appointment, in 1907, of the Inland Waterways Commission to investigate and recommend a full and comprehensive plan for the development and utilization of the water resources of the country. He took the second important step in calling a Conference of Governors at the White House on May 13-15, 1908. At that meeting of state executives, facts regarding our natural resources were presented by experts; methods of educating public opinion were considered; and many plans by which conservation could be best accomplished were suggested.' Soon after the adjournment of this Conference of Governors, President Roosevelt announced the appointment of a National Conservation Commission for the purpose of making a study of the general problem; and following the lead of the national government, many states have taken action toward the investigation and solution of the question of the conservation of their own natural resources.

1 Ibid., p. vi.

2 For the recommendations of the conference, see Readings, p. 361.

3 The significance of this first Governors' Conference was not confined to the conservation movement. It was, perhaps, the beginning of a new development in our political institutions. At all events it was the first step in the organization of the House of Governors, which is now (1910) assuming institutional form. It provided a permanent organization by which the governors themselves can arrange for periodic meetings, and on the call of this organization a second conference was held in Washington, D.C., in January, 1910. This Governors' Conference is, of course, an extra-legal institution and has no power to take any official action binding upon any one. Yet it may have great influence on state legislative and executive policy. The governors exchange ideas on subjects which come up for solution in their respective commonwealths, and get the benefit of one another's experience. The meetings will tend to promote uniformity in state legislation and do away with the unnecessary and inconvenient diversity of state laws. As was said by Governor Hughes of New York, in a speech made before the second conference, the scope of these conferences may embrace three groups of questions: uniform laws, interstate comity, and interchange of state experience.

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