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LAND GRANTS: 1850-1887


Beginning with the second half of the nineteenth century came the epoch of the railway land grants. During the twentytwo years following 1850 large donations were made to states for railways or to the corporations direct, till some 155,000,000 acres had been granted and over 49,650,000 acres had been actually certified or patented. Of this latter amount, 667,741 acres had been forfeited.

On June 30, 1886, the lands certified or patented to the various states for railways stood as follows:1 Alabama

2,929,300 Arkansas

2,517,718 Florida

1,760,834 Illinois

2,595,053 Iowa

4,709,959 Kansas

4,638,170 Louisiana

1,072,406 Michigan

3,229,010 Minnesota

7,809,348 Mississippi

935,158 Missouri

1,395,429 Wisconsin


In addition to these grants to states over 14,184,000 acres had been certified or patented from grants made direct to railway corporations.

The bare history of dates and amounts is quickly told. Beginning with the 3,751,711 acres granted for the Illinois Cen

1 Rept. Secy. Int., 1886, 2 : 300.

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tral, Mobile and Ohio, and Mobile and Chicago roads on Sep-
tember 20. 1850, hardly a congress passed without some grant,
until the last one was made in 1871. In 1873 and 1874 several
acts were passed, extending time for railways in Wisconsin and
Minnesota ; but thereafter extensions ceased and a movement
for forfeiture grew.
By administrations the estimated grants are as follows:

Fillmore (1850–1853)

Pierce (1853-1857)

19,678,179 Lincoln (1861–1865)

74,395,801 Johnson (1865-1869)

34,001,297 Grant (1869–1877)




The system may be said to have reached its culminating point during the years 1862–66, inclusive, some 108,397,000 acres being granted within that period, or about 70 per cent. of the total. This was the time of Pacific railway charters.

As a result, in part, at least, of such munificence, the secretary of the interior could announce that on June 30, 1886, the construction of land-grant railways, as reported, equalled 17,724 miles. 3

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2 Donaldson, Pub. Domain, p. 273.
3 This construction was distributed as follows:

States and Territories.


States and Territories.





298.60 410.98 639.97

90.00 707.00

241.35 1,547.64 1, 485.65


New Mexico..

2, 144.11

384.00 625.75 780.00 768.52 446.00 167.00 325.80 225.00 403.60 973.50 500.00





1. Land Grants to States: 1850–62. The passage of the Illinois Central land-grant bill did not break the way at once for similar legislation. Numerous bills were introduced at the 1850–51 session, there being at least eight in the Senate and nineteen in the House, but none of them passed. During these first few years between 1850 and 1856 there was considerable discussion over the subject, and much objection to land-grants was made. It was not until 1856, at the first session of the 34th Congress, that effective opposition broke down.

The opposition arguments were largely constitutional. Under this general idea of constitutionality, however, were two, groups: on the one hand, the southern strict-constructionists; on the other, the old states of the East. As one speaker put it: “There are two classes of objectors to this policy. The one fancies that the sovereignty of the states is infringed by the measure, as a system of federal internal improvements. The second conceives that the sovereignty of the United States is inFaded, unless the old states shall have donated to them an equal amount of land without any consideration whatever."'5

The attitude of this latter group is illustrated by Mr. Washburn (Me.) in making a plea for a land-grant to Maine for railway purposes. He began by claiming it as her due in return for the early cession of her lands, but proceeded to base his argument on grounds common to all the old states. The deeds of cession by Virginia and the others authorized no distinction in favor of the new or land states; and it certainly could not exist where the lands had been acquired by conquest or purchase, by the blood and treasure of the old states. And he appealed to the justice and magnanimity of the new states, exclaiming, “Gentlemen of the New States! give us somethingenough to assure us of your good neighborhood—and you will

*CY. Sanborn, Cong. Grants of Land in Aid of Railways, chaps. VI, VII. 5 Cong. Globe, 1851-52, append., p. 928. Mr. Freeman (Miss.). Ibid., p. 289.


not only secure the lion's share of these lands, but the strongest relations of friendship and fraternity between all the states."

The same line of distinction, looked at from the other side, is shown by Mr. Freeman (Miss.).” He spoke as a member of the committee on public lands whose railway measures the House had been refusing to adopt. He maintained, first, that the lands originally ceded to the federal government were to be used for two distinct ends: to pay the public debt, and to build up new states; second, that lands acquired later from Spain, France, and Mexico were by the terms of treaty consecrated to the same purposes; and, lastly, that grants of alternate sections of public lands to railways would be entirely constitutional, and "the surest mode of increasing the public revenue, and encouraging the growth of new Republican states in our public domain.”

Railway land-grant bills had been solidly supported by the northwestern states, but had been defeated largely by southern votes--Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia being as solidly opposed. The representatives of the old states held that such grants were for the sole benefit of the new states and that therefore they were unequal and unconstitutional. But Mr. Freeman held that this objection could not apply to bills then before the House, for they concerned links in a chain of national roads with the object of connecting the new with the old. The new states, said he, are but nurseries planted for the old.

IIe summed up the consideration received by the federal government in return for land grants as embracing (1) the right to transport the mails at her own price, thus making the railways national post-roads; (2) the right to transport military supplies free of charge, thus making them national military roads; (3) the enhanced value of the public lands in the vicinity of the roads.

Typical of the opposition of southern congressmen, referred to by Mr. Freeman, are the words of Mr. Bayly (Va.).8 In discussing the constitutional power of Congress over the public domain he stoutly maintained that the "new idea', that Con


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? Ibid., p 928. * Ibid., 1853-54, append., p. 405 ; also, 1854-55, p. 286. • See below, p. 162 et passim.

gress could properly appropriate land or money for internal improvements under the war power was a subterfuge and a perversion of the constitution. In reply to the argument that I land grants benefited the government by increasing the sale of public lands, he said, that the demand for such lands was limited by the wants of the people for occupation and cultivation, and that in the long run no more lands would be taken up than were necessary for the requirements of our growing population. In a word, the enhanced value idea seemed fallacious to him.

It is to be observed that there is an element of truth in Mr. Bayly's second contention, if we take the matter from the longtime standpoint.

During the 33rd Congress (1854–55) only one land-grant act passed Congress. 10 At the last session applications for grants to some 5,000 miles of road aggregating nearly 20,000,000 acres were presented, but down through this time the opposition had been strong enough to keep such bills well in check. In 1854, there was somewhat of a panic which put a momentary damper on railway enthusiasm, and in December of that year President Pierce's annual message referred to numerous bankruptcies and put the question: "Even admitting the right of Congress to be un questionable, is it quite clear that the proposed grants would be productive of good, and not evil ?”

Beginning in 1856 with the first session of the 34th Congress, however, came a perfect flood. There was relatively little objection on constitutional grounds, though the representatives of southern states like Virginia and Kentucky spoke against various bills as being for federal internal improvement, not of national importance, etc.; and one can not but wonder at the change.

The reasons for it are fairly clear. Just prior to the crisis of 1857 railway construction was very rapid and many lines were projected to the West. Between 1840 and 1850 a little more than 20,000 miles were constructed, and of this number 5.894 miles were added during the years 1854 and 1855—nearly 6,000 miles ! Naturally the pressure for land grants was great.

The Illinois Central grant had proved profitable to the rail

19 See below, p. 185.

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