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Abe Lincoln Looks West: How the Civil War Changed the Frontier (laphamsquarterly.org)
36 points by samclemens 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 14 comments





Even before the war, Lincoln played a role in the settlement of the west. Southern interests wanted access to the west to be through the south, guaranteeing that slave-owners would be more numerous.

Northern railroad interests decided to build a railroad bridge across the Mississippi River from Illinois to Iowa at Rock Island. Jefferson Davis, as Secretary of War, tried to stop it by claiming that Rock Island was an Army installation. He issued an order saying that the bridge could not be built, but it was ignored. He sent US Marshals to stop construction, but they didn't. He sued, but lost.

Two weeks after the bridge opened, a riverboat crashed into it and burned it down. The riverboat owners (which supposedly included Davis) sued to prevent a replacement bridge; the railroad hired Lincoln to defend them, which he successfully did all the way to the Supreme Court. Newspaper coverage of Lincoln in court made him well-known to northern Republicans.

Southern riverboats going up and down the river couldn't keep up with the northern trains bringing settlers.


It’s important to understand the importance the homesteading act played in the civil war. It was signed into law on the same day as the emancipation proclamation and together represented Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the west as a place of freedom and opportunity. Signing the act essentially removed any hope of southern control of the west because it recognized the property rights of squatters in the west and gave them title belonging to the Union rather than the confederacy. It also galvanized numerous factions in the North to support the idea of total victory when they might have otherwise agreed to a compromise. The economist Hernando de Soto points to the homestead act in his book the mystery of capital as one of the defining ways in which the west, formalized capital and built massive wealth by recognizing the property rights of participants in the informal economy.

> represented Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the west as a place of freedom and opportunity

I don't see how stealing native land and exterminating native americans can be equated with "freedom and opportunity". But I guess the victors write the history.

> Signing the act essentially removed any hope of southern control of the west

South never had any hope of controlling the west. It was a demographic impossibility. There were nearly 20 million white northerners and 5 million southern whites. It was why they ultimately seceded.

> It also galvanized numerous factions in the North to support the idea of total victory when they might have otherwise agreed to a compromise.

The civil war ultimately ended in a compromise. The north did everything they could to make the south feel welcomed back to the union. And those who fought against the north were welcomed back to the military and together, the north and the south, waged extermination wars against the natives in the west. Nothing like a common enemy to bring a divided nation back together.


> South never had any hope of controlling the west. It was a demographic impossibility. There were nearly 20 million white northerners and 5 million southern whites.

That's not really how controlling territory works. The Manchus established control of around 100,000,000 Chinese when there were less than 300,000 of them. By that ratio, the south would have had no trouble controlling the north with a population of just 50,000 -- 5 million is absurd overkill.

(Is there more to it than a ratio of rulers to ruled? Yes, of course, that's the point.)


Exactly- southern plantation owners envisioned massive tracts of land sold to plantation owners who would extend slavery to the west.

Andrew Jackson was the military General that led Indian Wars, not at all President Abe Lincoln, who was dead by an assassin's bullet.

That depends on which Indian war you’re referring to - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_Wars

There were literally more than a hundred dating from the 1600s until the twentieth century.


What do you mean by “the informal economy”?

Hernando, the author, defined it as extralegal - the part of the economy that is outside of the formal law. Squatters in the US - and the rest of the world - don’t have formal legal support when they decide to make a given plot of land their own. Without that legal support, in the form of title, they cannot mortgage the property and access it for capital. The homestead act codified what people had already been doing by creating a system that allowed them to obtain a title to land they considered theirs.

I don't think mortgaging was a relevant consideration at the time.

The key is titling. Without titling, squatters in the west could not access legal protections normally associated with a title such as defending against other claims. I mentioned mortgages in the context of the authors book who asserts that titles also serve another vital function in today’s world in which access to the capital in ones Home is unlocked by a title. Without that one cannot get a mortgage. The homestead act is held up as an example where a government chose to recognize behaviors already existent as a means for mass titling - something that if many third world countries could do then they also could enable their citizens to unlock the capital in their homes. Instead, many of these countries lock this capital through Byzantine rules and regulations. It’s been twenty years since I read the book but he cites Egypt and the Philippines as two countries where the process to title land takes numerous years and costs many times the normal salary of an individual. But if property could be titled, it’s capital would in the aggregate would be worth something 100x all the foreign aid in the world going back to the time of Napoleon. Give it a read... it’s really fascinating how Hernando has structured his analysis and he really calls out how many nations have harmed their citizens by not making it easy to gain title to their property.

Hypothesis: they don't do that mass titling because of costs

Suggestion: use blockchain solutions to let settlers make claims publically without possible government meddling (like bribes), then work out the "claims conflict" the old, expansive way or through some international arbitraging.

Bonus: this could externalize the costs to NGO and charities, unlock large amounts of capital, while getting a new and better land registry started. Existing titles could later be converted to the new system. After that, people could trade their property with fewer paperwork - improving the capital markets.


You may be interested to know the author of that book is also a huge advocate for blockchain. I hate to keep pumping the book/author but it’s really good. Google “commanding heights and Hernando de Soto” that was a pbs series produced many years ago but his segment is still really good. In fact if you look for his talks on YouTube they are all fascinating - could listen to them for hours.

I didn't know about that. Thanks a lot!



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