A Message To Wall Street From 1862

Slate ran an article last month about homesteaders of the last century, Oh snap!: Homesteader Postcards, The Facebook of 1906.

The article featured a slide show of postcard photos from the early 20th century collected by Michael Williams and published in Who We Were: A Snapshot History Of America, a book that tells the story of the United States through collections of personal photos like these.

The piece described the personalized postcard as the Facebook status message of the epoch, but I couldn’t help but think that these postcards carry a more important message for us today.

Perhaps it’s because each postcard tells a story of a new beginning. The Homestead Act offered people an opportunity to claim 160 acres of undeveloped property for free, so long as they lived there for five years and “improved” the property. Improvements generally meant building a home, but it didn’t matter what this home was made of—tar paper, sod, bricks, wood—so long as it stood.

Looking at these pictures, I thought of the courage of the people in them. What must it have been like to travel to unknown territory, build a home and a life with your own hands, with nothing but your own ingenuity, hard work, and maybe some help from the neighbors a few miles away?

My ancestors were among these people. Subsistence farmers who came from Europe in the hope of a better life. My grandparents and my parents remembered what it was like. I grew up with stories of life on the farm. The first book without pictures I remember buying was a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s A Little House On The Prairie. I read every book in the series.

The world has changed now. We don’t expect to build a house with our bare hands, and we hope for something more than food, shelter, and decent clothes. It’s worth remembering though that many people in the world must do that still today, and I think there are lessons here for both the protesters on Wall Street and those they are protesting against.

You might have to work hard, but everybody gets a chance. Everybody. The corollary is that nobody gets a free ride off the sweat and toil of others. You have to show your worth and earn your way.

The Homestead Act of 1862 is frequently considered one of the most important welfare acts in the United States. Although it arguably had many negative consequences in addition to the positive ones, such as over-farming that caused the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, I think it represents the spirit the United States was founded on.

Those are the values that I grew up with. Let’s hope they’re not gone forever.

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