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for people who care about the West

We’re in a land of Lincoln


The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth isn't until Feb. 12, 2009, but we could easily spend the next year considering how our 16th president defined the American West.

Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky, never traveled west of his adopted state of Illinois. Yet he, and the Republican Party he helped found, took a deep interest in the development of the region. It's one of the reasons he went to war in 1861. To understand what was at stake then, we need to go back to the Mexican War of 1846-'48.

The proximate cause of the war was the 1844 American annexation of the Republic of Texas with its disputed boundaries. The American military victory resulted in the addition of land below the 42nd parallel (now the northern boundary of California and Nevada) and west of the Arkansas River, clear to the Pacific Ocean.

As a young Whig congressman from Illinois, Lincoln opposed the war, decrying it as a Democratic scheme to encourage slavery's expansion. Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in Mexico as a young lieutenant, felt the same way. So did Henry David Thoreau, who famously went to jail for refusing to pay a poll tax to support the war.

Once the war was over, though, nobody suggested giving the land back to Mexico.

Instead, the United States set about figuring out how to organize its new territory. Prominent Southerners had visions of slave labor on vast estates and in new mines. The key lay in binding the South-west to the South with transportation.

Jefferson Davis of Mississippi served as secretary of War from 1853 to 1857 under Democratic President Franklin Pierce. To connect the South to the Pacific Coast through the intervening deserts, Davis imported camels. He also commissioned railroad surveys west from St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, believing that the cities that dominated Western commerce would also define the region's fledgling culture.

In the North, there was also support for a Pacific Railroad. But the land along that route first had to be organized into territories. This led to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, which replaced the old 1820 Missouri Compromise slavery boundary with "popular sovereignty."

The bill sparked open warfare in "Bleeding Kansas" between slaveholders and free-soilers. But it also inspired the formation of the Republican Party, a fragile coalition of abolitionists, former Whigs, and even Know-Nothings. Lincoln defined one thing upon which all factions of the party agreed: No expansion of slavery into the territories.

Even though he had pledged not to interfere with slavery where it was already legal, Lincoln's firm line about expansion provoked secession in the Cotton Belt after he was elected president in 1860. And once Southerners were absent from Congress, Lincoln and the Republicans were able to push through bills that had been previously blocked by Southern interests.

The Pacific Railroad would be built, with its eastern terminus on free soil at Omaha, Neb. The Morrill Act established land-grant colleges to improve agricultural and manufacturing production. And the Homestead Act promised 160 acres to any man or woman willing to live on the land and work it.

There were, of course, other ways to deal with this land. It could have been left in the hands of the Utes, Comanches and other indigenous nations. It could have been set aside as a preserve. It could even have been auctioned off to the highest bidder, or awarded to military veterans or political cronies.

Instead, a public resource was given to the private party that appeared most eager to work it. In theory anyway, the size of the property was limited to what one household could manage, and the family had to be there - no idle absentee speculation.

Now consider two other measures that evolved during that era. The Colorado Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, based on practices in California, gave private parties the right to use another public resource, water. But they had to use that water, and they could take only as much as they could put to "beneficial use." Again, no idle absentee speculation was allowed.

The General Mining Act of 1872 was a revision of an 1866 federal law that codified common practice. It gave a public resource to those private parties that were willing to work it. Claims were limited in size to what a small enterprise might manage, and the "annual assessment" provision ensured they would be worked. Once again, no idle absentee speculation.

Nowadays, of course, there is no more homesteading on public land. Colorado's arcane water law has many critics, and the pressure is growing for a repeal of the General Mining Act. Times have changed, and most Americans no longer view the West as a territory that needs to be developed by putting it into private hands.

But those laws, supported by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party he led, have shaped the West. The idea was to give the little guy a chance if he got there early and was willing to work hard. The West developed as an economic and political extension of the Midwest, its farms and mines and ranches tied to Chicago in Illinois, "the land of Lincoln." The Republican platform of 1860 represented "social engineering" on a continental scale.

What we are today, for better or worse, is a result of Lincoln's vision for the West. Some may argue whether that's really worth celebrating as the bicentennial of his birth approaches, but it's certainly worth remembering. Without Lincoln, the West would be a very different place today.

Ed Quillen is a regular op-ed columnist for the Denver Post, a frequent contributor to High Country News and its GOAT blog, and publisher of Colorado Central Magazine in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].