Abraham Lincoln and the West

President Abraham Lincoln

By Todd Arrington, Historian at Homestead National Monument of America

Abraham Lincoln became 16th President of the United States during the most trying period of our nation's history. The debate over slavery had for decades threatened to tear the country apart, and the election of Lincoln on a Republican platform in 1860 provided the catalyst for just such a tragedy. Southern states began to secede before Lincoln ever arrived in Washington, D.C. to take office.

Lincoln is best remembered as the man who guided the U.S. through the Civil War and saved the nation from permanent disunion. Less known but equally important is the active role he played as the architect of the modern American West. In a flurry of legislative activity in mid-1862, Congress passed and Lincoln signed four bills and issued one proclamation that forever changed the character of and opportunities in the West. His enlargement of the federal role in the settlement of the western states and territories can be loosely classified as an early version of the "New Deal" programs initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Lincoln's goals in approving these important pieces of legislation were twofold. First, he truly desired to populate and take advantage of commercial and agricultural potential in the West. Secondly, he sought to rapidly establish a western base of population and institutions that were sympathetic to the Union cause. Recall that during mid-1862 when Lincoln approved these bills, Union forces-especially those in the eastern theater-suffered from ineffective leadership and, consequently, regular defeats at the hands of various Confederate armies. Lincoln and most in Congress feared the prospect of a negotiated peace with the South, knowing full well that victorious Southerners would attempt to expand into the West and take slavery with them. The Republican Party was formed in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery to the West, and in 1862 Lincoln meant to continue that opposition even in the event that the Confederacy gained its independence. By populating the West with Union sympathizers, technology, and institutions, Lincoln hoped to avoid a future Civil War by denying Southerners the opportunity to expand westward.

The four bills and one proclamation signed into law by President Lincoln as part of this "Western New Deal" were:

  1. Department of Agriculture Act, May 15, 1862: This bill created the Department of Agriculture as an agency designed to promote U.S. farming and carry agricultural technology and techniques to the West.
  2. Homestead Act, May 20, 1862: The Homestead Act opened millions of acres of the public domain to settlement and cultivation. This Act was open to anyone who met very basic and progressive requirements, including women, immigrants, and, beginning in 1868, African Americans. Eventually, homesteads were found in 30 states and covered 270 million acres.
  3. Pacific Railway Act, July 1, 1862:This law created the great transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869 and linked the east and west coasts. Lincoln ensured that the railroad ran along a northern rather than southern route. The southern route had been the one preferred by Southern politicians prior to the Civil War.
  4. Morrill Act, July 2, 1862:The Morrill Act created the land grant college system, whereby states were given title to various western lands to sell. Funds generated from these sales were to be used to build agricultural and technical colleges in those states. Many modern universities in the West and other parts of the nation are land grant colleges.
  5. Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862: By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln established the total abolition of slavery as a Union war aim and put African Americans on the road to citizenship. After the war, many former slaves moved west in search of new opportunities away from the South. Following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted them citizenship, many became homesteaders [go here to learn about former slaves who became homesteaders and here for information about Nicodemus National Historic Site].

Lincoln's approval of these laws had important short and long term impacts on both the course of the Civil War and the future of the American West.

Lincoln Listening Sessions:
Listen to the letters, speeches and other excerpts from our nation's 16th President as read by the current Nebraska congressional delegation.

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