Political Science Quarterly, Volume L, Number 2, June 1935: pp. 161-185.


Carter Goodrich and Sol Davison
Columbia University

The Statement of the Problem

The present study was suggested by what seems to be either a gap or a discrepancy in the account of American development given by the historians of the frontier school. Frederick Jackson Turner and his followers based part of their thesis on the participation of the eastern wage-earner in the westward movement. The discontented mill worker, it was said, could if he wished go west and become an independent farmer; frequently he did so, and the result was to raise the wages of his fellows who remained and to delay the development of a coherent labor movement. In the theory, then, wage-earners took a significant part in the movement to the western lands. Yet in the descriptions of the actual process of settlement, even in those written by the same authors, the migrants are almost never identified as wage-earners, though there are frequent references to the presence of farmers from farther east and of immigrants from across the seas. If there was a substantial movement of wage-earners, its story remains to be told; and if there was not, the theory stands in need of correction.

There is no lack of clarity in the thesis itself. Its essential elements were all stated by Turner in a memorable passage in his original paper on "The Significance of the Frontier " :

Most important of all has been the fact that an area of free land has continually lain on the western border of the settled area of the United States. Whenever social conditions tended to crystallize in the East, whenever capital tended to press upon labor or political restraints to impede the freedom of the mass, there was this gate of escape to the free conditions of the frontier. These free lands promoted individualism, economic equality, freedom to rise, democracy. Men would not accept inferior wages and a permanent position of social subordination when this promised land of freedom and equality was theirs for the taking. Who would rest content under oppressive legislative conditions when with a slight effort he might reach a land wherein to become a co-worker in the building of free cities and free states on the lines of his own ideal? In a word, then, free lands meant free opportunities. Their existence has differentiated the American democracy from the democracies which have preceded it, because ever, as democracy in the East took the form of highly specialized and complicated industrial society, in the West it kept in touch with primitive conditions, and by action and reaction these two forces have shaped our history.1

A movement of workers to the West thus forms one of the premises on which the major interpretation rests. It is true that certain followers of Turner have suggested that this may have been meant in only a symbolic sense, that the West represented opportunity and that its influence would have been significant even if the movement of eastern laborers to the West had been only a potential and not an actual one. It need not be denied that many of the consequences claimed for it might have resulted from the fact that the western lands drew off the surplus farm population that might otherwise have gone into the industrial labor market. But it may be confidently denied that this is all that Turner meant. Some passages, to be sure, might bear that interpretation. For example, when Turner discusses de Toqueville's fears that inequality would increase, he points out that " the sanative influence of the free spaces of the West was destined to ameliorate labor's condition, to afford new hopes and new faith to pioneer democracy, and to postpone the problem" of the conflict between labor and capital.2 In this case it might be possible to believe that the "sanative influence" was indirect or symbolic. It would be very hard to do so, however, in other passages referring to "eastern fears that cheap lands in abundance would depopulate the Atlantic states",3 and "drain the labor supply from growing industrial towns and thus raise wages";4 and it would be quite impossible to think that this was what was meant by the statement in the first quotation that "men would not accept inferior wages and a permanent position of social subordination" when the frontier lay open, or by the reference to the "slight effort" by which a man might reach the new land. When Turner referred to " the undeveloped West" as "a safety valve" for industrial discontent,5 there is no doubt that he spoke in concrete terms and had in mind an actual movement of wage-earners.

It seems clear, also, that it is in this sense that the thesis has been accepted by most of his many followers. This is certainly true of the man who carries on Turner's work most directly. Professor Frederic Paxson notes many of the difficulties which might have prevented migration, but the following passage leaves no doubt of his belief that wage-earners actually moved to the frontier:

The frontier while it lasted was a social safety valve that prevented the rise of social pressure or class antagonism to the danger point. Not only upon the western margin of the United States, but in every State farm land was either free or cheap. The abundance of land invited each generation to enlarge the area of settlement and erect new homes. There was no chance for the socially discontented to become numerous or ominous. No oppressed lower class could be created in a community in which any young man with reasonable nerve and luck might hope to be an independent farmer before he was thirty.6

It was to be expected that historians of the American labor movement would also be interested in this concept. If true, it would go far toward explaining the character and difficulties of early American organization. Turner himself had pointed out that "as the free land disappeared and as immigration came, the labor movement grew in volume and in the extent of its demands." Many others have noted the fact that the tumultuous rise of the Knights of Labor and the organization of permanent and stable trade unionism did not occur until the decade which Turner describes as that of the closing of the frontier.

In a well-known passage, Professor John R. Commons has made this theory a major element in the explanation of the development of American labor:

The condition which seems to distinguish most clearly the history of labour in America from its history in other countries is the wide expanse of free land. As long as the poor and industrious can escape from the conditions which render them subject to other classes, so long do they refrain from that aggression on the property rights or political power of others, which is the symptom of a " labour movement."

He goes on to contrast the American situation with that of the Australian. " In Australia the land has been locked up in great holdings and labourers have been forced to fight the battles of organization in the cities and on the ranches rather than escape as individuals to lands that are free."7 Australia had no safety valve to save it from the explosions of class conflict, and it was therefore not the American labor movement but the Australian that turned to socialism.

A distinguished foreign scholar, Werner Sombart, had already used the same argument as one of the reasons why European socialism had found no foothold in the United States:

In the third place, the American worker was deterred from a specifically anti-capitalist policy by the fact that he was not forced into the position of a proletarian. There was so much land to be had that he was able to become an independent farmer. Whenever a period of depression set in, the "reserve army of industry " moved to the West, where there was room for them and to spare. This departure eased the labor market and kept wages high. . . .8

The point has come down from author to author, and it has been applied several times within the past year. Thus one of the most striking of General Hugh Johnson's speeches might be described as a version in colors of Sombart's picture of the reserve army moving westward in a depression; and Rebel America, published in 1934, makes use of the same doctrine to account for the delay in the formation of an aggressive labor movement:

The final triumph of homesteadism was more than a questionable victory, -- even from the westerners' point of view, as they were to discover in the seventies. George Henry Evans, speaking for the eastern agrarians, hailed it with enthusiasm as a practical realization of his doctrine of natural rights; but from the viewpoint of a later generation of labor radicals, it was less beneficent. The frontier that it opened tended to deplete the labor movement of its most aggressive elements and to create a new army of small independent land owners. It helped to postpone labor's coming to grips with American industrialism until the industrialism had so consolidated its position as to be almost impregnable.9

The wage-earner's participation in the westward movement thus appears to be a matter of accepted doctrine, both in scholarly and popular writing. Certainly no such array of citations could be brought forward on the other side. Denials of its validity must be sought in more obscure sources, such as Leon Samson's Toward a United Front, Mr. Samson makes the vigorous declaration that "the safety-valve theory is refuted by the simple fact . . . that workingmen did not go West, or to be more exact, that those who went West were for the most part not workingmen;" but his attempt to cite the opinions of well-known scholars in support of his contention is only partially successful.10

The real doubts of the soundness of the doctrine arise not from anything that has been said against it, but from the sheer absence of direct evidence in its support. The suspicious thing is that wage-earners are so rarely mentioned in the descriptions of actual settlement, and it was apparently this negative consideration that led Professor Benjamin H. Hibbard, who had previously written of " cheap or free land " as " the outlet for the energy and discontent of the East ",11 to declare in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences that: " There is good evidence that the movement of dissatisfied Eastern laborers to western lands was small."12

There is at least doubt enough to justify a re-examination of the thesis on the basis of contemporary sources, and it is to that that the present study is devoted. Such an examination yields two kinds of materials. It discloses an abundance of contemporary generalizations on the significance of the alleged movement of wage-earners, and it discovers also -- though with greater difficulty -- scattered indications of the presence or absence of wage-earners among particular groups of migrants and settlers. The attempt to piece together these shreds of evidence into an estimate of the amount and a description of the nature of working-class migration will be deferred to later issues of The Political Science Quarterly; the present article is devoted to the place of the " safety-valve doctrine " in the thought of the pioneering periods.

The History of the Safety-Valve Doctrine

The first discovery in any examination of contemporary opinions of the westward movement is that of the antiquity and ubiquity of the idea of the escape from wage-earning. If it is a part of the " Turner thesis", it certainly did not originate with Turner, as indeed he himself was the first to point out. Its history is the more impressive since it is found in all periods of American pioneering and in the mouths of spokesmen for conflicting interests as well as of more objective observers here and abroad. Men of the seventeenth century as well as of the nineteenth, and men who dreaded the loss of labor supply as well as those who rejoiced in the liberation of the wage-earners, were equally sure that these results would follow or were following from the opening of the western lands.

It is in 1634 that Turner finds what is perhaps the first emergence of the doctrine in American political discussion. The young colony of Massachusetts Bay was already torn by disputes over the division of the land; and Governor Winthrop explained that the holdings of the poorer colonists had been limited in size "partly" for the definite purpose of preventing "the neglect of the trades". "This", said Turner, "is a pregnant idea; it underlay much of the later opposition of New England as a manufacturing section to the free homestead policy. . . . The migration of labor to free lands meant that higher wages must be paid to those who remained."13 He finds similar " Eastern fears "expressed during the Constitutional Convention, " in the first debates on the public lands",14 and throughout the long history of the controversy over their disposition. "Cheap lands in the West would . . . prevent effective control of the discontented; would drain the labor supply away from the growing industrial towns, and thus raise wages."15 Turner's pages show also that those whose feelings and interests lay on the other side, who applauded wage increases and rejoiced in the independence of the common man, were no less certain that the same effects would follow from easy access to the land. Thus Albert Gallatin in 1795 attributed the "happiness" of the country very largely to the fact that "the poor man" had "been able always to attain his portion of land";16 and in the following year another member of Congress opposed a bill limiting the area offered for sale on the ground that its passage would be "tantamount to saying that there is some class which must remain here, and by law be obliged to serve the others for such wages as they please to give."17 The same doctrine, Turner points out, was an essential part of the platform of the Locofocos whom he describes as "the first Americans to demand fundamental social changes for the benefit of the workers in the cities." Their "constructive policy" was to "keep society democratic by free gifts of the public land, so that surplus labor might not bid against itself, but might find an outlet in the West."18

Both applications of the doctrine persisted throughout the pioneering period. Enthusiastic proposals for encouraging the westward movement, which were to reach their fullest development with George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley, were matched by bitter opposition based upon a belief in the same common premise. In the Congressional debates on the series of homestead bills, much of the opposition of the Northeast was summarized in the argument that manufactures as well as eastern agriculture would " suffer ... by an abstraction of labor from their respective pursuits."19 "By your policy ", declared a Pennsylvania Congressman in 1852, "you strike at our great manufacturing interest. . . . You render useless and valueless millions of capital which our people have invested in manufacture of iron."20 In the same year, Congressman Sutherland of New York summed up the argument in a speech that, in spite of its oratorical heaviness, almost deserves quotation in full. A piling up of hypothetical clauses gives his view of the labor situation:

. . . if we had a limited territory with a surplus population; if there was an abundance of labor instead of a scarcity; if laborers were here, waiting, looking for employment, instead of demanding its [sic] own terms; if the price of labor was not increasing, while the price of the products of labor are [sic] decreasing; if, in consequence of this high price of labor, " manufactures and other branches of industry " did not claim protection against foreign competition. . . .
It is within a parenthesis that he describes the bill as one " by which the Government, for the supposed benefit of the laborers and landless, does nothing more nor less than to offer a bonus to the laborers and landless to leave the manufactories, work-shops and farms in the old states, and settle in the public domain in the new states." But there is little circumlocution when he states the gist of the manufacturers' case:
Look at the capital invested in agriculture . . . and in manufactures in the old states. Is not all dependent on the price of labor for its profit and loss? . . . My point is, that this " homestead bill " will take labor from the manufacturing states to the land states -- from the manufactories of the East to the farms of the West -- and thereby increase the cost of labor and the cost of manufacture.21

This particular note could not be sounded so clearly in the later debates, since the industrial East had come reluctantly to the support of homestead legislation as part of the greater contest between North and South; but it was in 1860 that Senator Michelson of Tennessee, drawing the opposite moral from the same premise, met Sutherland's argument most squarely :

The great preventive in our country against the evil consequences of a crowded population to the interests of laboring men, has been found in the vast public domain which has been added to our original territorial possessions. It is in this point of view that the wisdom of those territorial acquisitions which we have made is most signally illustrated and demonstrated. The ready outlet they have constantly furnished for our growing and crowded population in the old states has proved a powerful protection to labor in its conflict with capital. If we could now imagine the conditions of things which would exist with our entire population confined and crowded together within the original limits of our Government, we could be able to appreciate the value of our acquisitions of territory and the successful operation of our system of land laws which give encouragement to settlement on the public lands.

It cannot be assumed, however, that the outlet to labor furnished by our public lands has proved entirely effectual in preventing the evils to the interests of labor apprehended from too dense a population. Within a few weeks passed we have witnessed indications of dissatisfaction among laboring men and women in some of the New England states, which shows that the competition for employment has reduced the wages of labor to a point at which it looks out for relief from the oppression of capital. . . . The measure before us ... says to the laboring man in the crowded states, where competition for employment has reduced his wages to a scarcity subsistence, " Here, in the far West, is employment without ruinous competition, where all the fruits of your labor shall inure to the benefit of yourself and family." . . . Its direct tendency will be to diminish the competition for employment, by drawing off a portion of those seeking it, and thus benefiting those who remain behind.22

The same conflict was echoed on a more distant stage. Edward Gibbon Wakefield based his theory of " systematic colonization " largely on what he believed to be the horrible example of the United States. The trouble was that the ease of obtaining land made for a lack of " combinable labour ", and he proposed to avoid this difficulty in Australia and New Zealand by selling the land at what he called a " sufficient price ", which should be high enough to make sure that the laborer would have to work a number of years before buying it and which would also provide a fund to be used in encouraging further immigration.23 Das Kapital answers Wakefield with a scathing condemnation of his attempt to create an exploitable labor supply, but Marx's argument is no less clearly based on the reality of the frontier outlet. He points out, to be sure, that it was less effective after the Civil War. For one thing, " the flood of immigration from Europe [threw] men on the American labor market more rapidly than the current of emigration from the eastern states to the western [could] carry them onward." Nevertheless it was still due to the land outlet that American wage workers were " not yet so dependent as in Europe."24

Two distinguished visitors to the United States displayed a somewhat similar pair of opinions. Harriet Martineau was struck by the scarcity of labor and the high wages in the United States, and suggested that " it would be wise, if it were possible ", to eliminate these evils by raising the price of land.25 On the other hand, Michel Chevalier, in a notable passage, expressed the envy of a European regarding the existence of so admirable a safety valve:

In Europe, work is often wanting for the hands; here, on the other side, hands are wanting for the work. While the Americans have the vast domains in the West, a common fund from which by industry each may draw for himself and by himself, an extreme fall of wages is not to be apprehended.

In America as in Europe, competition among the handwork-men tends to reduce their wages; but the tendency is not increased in America, as in Europe, by the competition among the laborers, that is by an excess of hands wanting employment, for the West stands open as a refuge to all who are unemployed. In Europe, a coalition of workmen can only signify one of these two things: raise our wages or we shall die of hunger with our wives and children, which is an absurdity; or raise our wages, if you do not we shall take up arms, which is a civil war; in Europe there is no other possible construction to put upon it. But in America, on the contrary, such a coalition means raise our wages or we go West. Every coalition which does not amount to this in the minds of the associates is merely the whim of the moment, an affair of little importance. This is the reason why coalitions, which in Europe are often able to shake the firmest fabric, present no real danger to the public peace in this country, where authority is disarmed. This is the reason why European countries, burdened with an excess of population, need for their safety and welfare a West into which each may overflow after its own manner.26

Professional economists frequently made use of the same basic doctrine. As early as 1822, Matthew Carey, one of the first American writers on political economy and father of the more famous Henry, noted that the idea of workmen escaping to the soil had been " a sort of shibboleth from the establishment of the government to the present hour." "Its use", he exclaimed, " is so general, we had almost said so universal."27 But Carey himself was one of the few skeptics. He thought that the removal of industrial workers to the frontier would not raise wages but would only create an unsalable surplus of agricultural products. Moreover, he doubted the fitness of eastern wage-earners to do the work of the frontier. The real way to solve their problems, and Carey's main interest, was the protective tariff; only through its means could their wages be raised. This view of the land question, however, was by no means shared by all who agreed with Carey on the blessings of protection. Thus Calvin Colton, an associate of Horace Greeley's and the author of a tract on "The Tariff Triumphant",28 wrote of the land as a permanent outlet for discontent. If we forget the date and change the tenses, we might almost assign the following to Turner himself:

The time has never yet been in the history of the United States as an independent nation, when labor was not in this sense an independent agent -- when it could not reject an unsatisfactory offer, and yet live. It is not pretended that labor has been able to dictate its own terms. That would be equally improper and unjust, as for the employer to do it. But it has always had an alternative. As a last resort the American laborer can at any time go to the back woods. His independence is never necessarily sacrificed.

This wide, back-woods field for American labor is a security for its independence for ages to come, if not forever, which no European economist could ever appreciate. It was for want of this light that Malthus stumbled and all his followers stumbled after him, not excepting M'Culloch, who was doubtless influenced by the theory of Malthus. They have never been able to see how labor could be independent, and have planned their system on the assumption that it must forever remain the agent of power, and be satisfied with a mere subsistence. It is this independence, in connection with the means of supporting it, that has sustained the wages of American labor and kept them so far above the rates of wages in Europe and other foreign countries.29

A quotation from John Stuart Mill completes a triangle of opinions on the bearing of land and protection on wages. Mill was no less certain than Colton that "the boundless extent of the unoccupied land"30 had raised the price of labor, but disagreed with both American writers on the effect of the tariff:

It is of course true that the general level of wages of labour in America is above the English level, and if these high wages were the effect of Protection, I for one should never wish to see Protection abolished. But it is not because of Protection that wages in America are high, it is because there is an abundance of land for every labourer, and because every labourer is at liberty to acquire it.31

Thirty years after Colton, another American economist, Francis Bowen, again emphasized the independence of the American workman who could frequently "discharge" his employer 32 and again attributed this characteristic largely to the access to the land. "Almost every native American", he declared, "may be said to have the option of 'beginning life,' as it is called, with a little capital." He described the step between farm laborer and small farmer, like those between journeyman and master-mechanic and between clerk and small tradesman, as " a short one and easily taken." " If nothing better can be done, there is always the resource of moving to the West, and becoming a pioneer in the settlement of government land." Writing in the depressed seventies, moreover, Bowen offers a confident generalization regarding the timing of the movement. " The tide of emigration westward", he says, " always becomes fuller and stronger in periods of commercial depression."33

Belief in the reality of the movement from the factory to the frontier was therefore common doctrine both here and abroad, and among economists as well as among politicians. It is natural, however, that it should have been still more fully exploited by the two most notable leaders in the American land reform movement -- George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley. As editor of the Working Man's Advocate and as a member of the Workingmen's and later the Equal Rights Party, Evans was the most persistent advocate of the policies of land reform which found partial expression in the passage of the Homestead Act. At one point, he differed sharply from the opinions of a number of those already quoted. He did not believe that there was or could be any substantial movement of wage-earners to the frontier while the government still sold the land. Like the others he saw the surplus labor supply and the safety valve. But he also saw the price of land closing down the safety valve. This, together with " the expense of removal" and of starting operations, made the lands still " as inaccessible to the bulk of our surplus population as if they were in the hands of the speculators." " It needs be that the lands should be free, in order that the surplus labor may be absorbed."34

To this end he urged that the public lands should be opened freely to actual settlers and granted to them in inalienable homesteads. Through his paper, he conducted a " Vote Yourself a Farm " campaign. Through the Agrarian League and the National Reform Association, he attempted to get people to pledge themselves to vote only for those candidates who promised to help carry through the program.

The only remedy for the workmen is for them to instruct their representatives in Congress to pass a law allowing every citizen of good character, who may wish it, his right to a portion of the Public Lands, free of expense, for cultivation. We have no doubt that enough would avail themselves of the privilege to prevent such a surplus of workmen in factories as would place the whole body (as now) at the mercy of factory owners.35

The same purpose appears, under an interesting and significant title, in the call to a meeting of his National Reform Association:

The Safety Valve

There are Public Lands enough in the possession of the general government (leaving Oregon and Texas out of the question) to allow every family in the United States two hundred acres each, besides all the land now held in private property in the twenty-six States and Territories. Yet with the vast field of nature inviting Industry to its occupation, degraded men are begging employment of their fellow men, striking and turning out for better wages: and poor, ragged, dirty, half-naked, half-famished children are walking the streets of Republican cities, begging for bread.

All who desire a remedy for this state of things, are invited to attend a meeting of the National Reform Association at Dunn's Democratic Headquarters, corner of Grand and Elizabeth Streets, on Monday evening at half-past 7 o'clock.

By order of the last meeting,
Charles F. Gordon, Chairman36
Ellis Smally, Sec.

Underlying all of Evans' thought was his hatred of great inequalities of wealth and his belief in the natural right of man to own land. These are shown very plainly in his editorial on "The Remedy for Hard Times".

The Universal cry is Hard Times! And why is it ? Every late President's Message, not excepting the last, told us that our country was fruitful, that seasons were propitious, and that crops were abundant; that we were at peace with all the world, (except the poor, persecuted Indians) ; and that, in short, we were on the high road to prosperity; and yet the cry is " Hard Times! " And why is it, I again ask, that the people are suffering in the midst of abundance? Is it not that the abundance is in the possession of others than the producers of it? that they have labored for the emolument of the few? Look around you, on every hand, and see if it be not a rule, almost without exception, that they who do the least of useful labor enjoy the most of its products! And why this incongruity? That is the mystery that many are now turning their attention to, and I think is soon to be solved, not only in this but in other countries, to the entire satisfaction of those most interested in the solution.

My view of the cause of the present inequality and distress is well known to those who have perused the former numbers of this paper; but as each number will probably fall into many new hands, it will be necessary frequently to repeat them, with such additions and qualifications as further experience and reflections will suggest. In the year that has nearly elapsed since the publication of my last number, I have reflected much, read a little, and debated a good deal, publicly and privately, on the subject of the Equal Right to Land ... it is the only rightful remedy for those evils of government whose effects are " Hard Times!" All men, if they have a right to live, have an equal right to the sustenance of nature, earth, air, light and water, which are necessary to support existence; an equal right to one as well as the other. Some governments have recognized the equal right to land, and many have not, ours among the number. The struggle is about to commence, however, the events of which shall determine whether this right shall be recognized, or whether our government shall degenerate to some aristocratical form; whether the many shall be dependent upon a few large land holders for the right to shelter and for the right to work without begging for it as a privilege, or whether every man shall have the right to labor for himself on his own premises, of which nothing but death can dispossess him. . . . This measure would benefit the whole laboring population at once, and by taking off the surplus of laborers would gradually improve their conditions. . . .37

Here Evans not only shows why every man is entitled to the land, but he makes sure that we see what the good result would be, i. e., the removal of the surplus labor supply from the labor market. He makes the latter point again, and even more emphatically:

. . . With millions of acres of fertile land within your territories, to the free use of which you have as good a right as you have to the water which you drink or to the air which you breathe; for the land is as necessary to your free existence as the air and water; strange to say, many of you will toil incessantly for a scanty subsistence, and be thankful for the privilege of toiling, for those who claim title to your birthright Others of you, after humiliating yourselves to beg employment, have been refused, and are perhaps at this moment necessarily deliberating whether you shall become the tenant of a poor-house or a prison; whether you shall be considered dependent on public charity, or help yourselves without leave, to a portion of the superabundance of wealth which you have assisted to create! If this be a varnished picture, let the oppressed working tradesmen and other laboring legions throughout the country, the sempstresses of our cities, the children of our factories, the tenants of our prisons and poorhouses, tell the unvarnished truth. . . .

Why need there be any want of employment, until the country is overpopulated? . . .

If the people have free access to the land, the laborer would not be dependent on the employers, and would consequently rise to his proper rank in society, instead of being debased in proportion to his influence. He would receive the full value of his labor, because he would have the ready alternative of laboring for himself. . . .

We have spoken of a surplus laboring population. There may be those who have yet to learn that there is such a surplus, amounting on an average in our large cities at least to about one-third of every extensive mechanical branch. There is hardly a mechanic who is not aware of this surplus, and equally aware of its tendency to reduce wages to the starvation point, unless the obvious remedy is adopted.38

A still more famous land reformer used much the same arguments. Mentioning the name of Horace Greeley usually brings forth the response, " Go West, young man, go West! " The precise phrase does not seem to have been Greeley's,39 but he would nevertheless have been very glad if he had known that it would be associated with him. He was undeniably the prophet of the West; perhaps today we might have called him its publicity agent. Through the columns of the New York Tribune and by constant lecturing, he kept directing the attention of the people to the public lands, and he was without question the most effective advocate of homestead legislation. Greeley was both a friend of labor and an advocate of the high tariff, and it was quite natural that he should combine the two thoughts in his idealization of the West Hence his prescription for the improvement of the wage-earners' conditions:

We know of but one way of keeping up and increasing wages, and that is by increasing the demand for and the productiveness of labor. With the Public Lands free to Actual Settlers, so as to draw off as many as possible to agriculture, and with an efficient Protective Tariff to secure stability, experience and diversification to our Manufacturers, we might look with confidence for an eager demand for labor of all kinds and a general increase in its rewards.40

He was very much impressed by the shortage of labor in the West and the surplus of labor in the cities:

At this moment, we judge from enquiry and observation on a recent inland trip, there might be work found in the Agricultural districts of our Country for Half a Million sturdy, resolute men, and for nearly as many women. At the same time all our cities are crowded with surplus " hands," willing to work, yet doing nothing, because no work is offered them, but vainly seeking something to do. Yet in spite of all remonstrances, thousands rush from the country to the cities, while comparatively few scatter from the cities through the country. And at very short intervals we are made heartsick by the inquiry, " Can't you tell where I may find something to do?"41

In advocating the Homestead Bill, he made sure to point out how the wage-earners would benefit by making the Public Lands free to actual settlers:

. . . Make the Public Lands free in quarter-sections to Actual Settlers and deny them to all others, and earth's landless millions will no longer be orphans and mendicants; they can work for the wealthy, relieved from the degrading terror of being turned adrift to starve. When employment fails or wages are inadequate, they may pack up and strike westward to enter upon the possession and culture of their own lands on the banks of the Wisconsin, the Des Moines or the Platte, which have been patiently awaiting their advent since creation. Strikes to stand still will be glaringly absurd when every citizen is offered the alternative to work for others or for himself, as to him shall seem most advantageous. The mechanic or laborer who works for another will do so only because he can thus secure a more liberal and satisfactory recompense than he could by working for himself.42

Here the concept of the safety valve is particularly definite, and in another passage Greeley makes still clearer his opposition to strikes. They will do no good; only Land Reform and Producers' Co-operation -- for the moment he forgets the tariff -- will help the workers:

The Laboring class already knows that we have little faith in strikes or any form of combination to modify the action of the Hireling or Wages system. We believe that the vice to be eradicated is embodied in the system itself. ... Of the [needed] better system we believe Land Reform and Labor Association are the chief elements. Land reform will open the unimproved and unappropriated soil of the Republic and eventually the world, to free settlement and cultivation in limited tracts by those who need it.43

So far there is great similarity between the attitudes of Evans and Greeley. Both were anxious to have the surplus workers of the cities go to the frontier; both were impressed with the difficulties under existing conditions; and both therefore advocated legislation to clear the way. After the passage of the Homestead Act, however, we see a change in the attitude of Greeley. It was no longer necessary for him to plead for Land Reform. The Homestead Act, in a good measure, provided it. To be sure, it did not provide the inalienability which Evans considered essential to its permanent value, and it certainly did not fulfill his dream of " Rural Republican Townships". Greeley, however, was reasonably satisfied. He turned his attention therefore to pleading with the city folk to " cease being hirelings ", to escape from the city with its wages system and unemployment, and to take up the free lands that a bounteous nature and a bounteous government had placed at their feet.

We cannot all live in cities, yet nearly all seem determined to do so. Millions' of acres of choice land solicit cultivation; the Government gives them away; every able-bodied man may be a farmer and live on his own land if he will; yet hundreds of thousands reject this and rush into the cities, which are already crowded to excess; and here they stick and hang, looking for work where work cannot be, exhausting the scanty means of relatives and friends by borrowing and begging. All these complain -- and most "unreasonably -- that they can find nothing to do.

Understand, once for all, that there is always a surplus of labor in the City, -- that Europe and America vie with each other in filling our streets with needy scramblers for employment -- that, if you come here and get work, you must crowd out some one else as needy and not quite so helpful as yourself -- and that, if you strike off into the broad, free West, and make yourself a farm from Uncle Sam's generous domain, you will crowd nobody, starve nobody, and that neither you nor your children need evermore beg for Something to Do.44

With these same sentiments, Greeley continued until death stopped him. Sometimes he was more eloquent, sometimes less. But always he expressed the same beliefs, the same warning, and frequently the same examples and phrases. Of course he idealized agricultural work, and he assured his readers that tilling the soil belonged in the highest order of occupations:

The farmers of this country are generally hurried by their growing crops. The season thus far has been so rainy that planting ran far into June; weeding is now backward, and haying is upon us, with the harvesting of small grains pressing hard on their heels. Throughout the region north of the Potomac, the Ohio and the Missouri, the July and August of 1867 are likely to be as two busy months as our farmers ever saw. Some will be compelled to accept your help in default of better; others will suffer heavy loss for want of seasonable help of any kind. We estimate that One Million robust men, in addition to those now at work, might be employed by our farmers throughout these two months, with profit to all concerned. And yet the streets of our cities will continue to echo the very tread of tens of thousands, anxious, despairingly seeking " something to do." Many of them would gladly work for the merest pittance; but they want to be clerks, book-keepers, teachers, lawyers, etc., etc. -- and these callings are already crowded to excess. There are some, but not many, mechanics and other workers lt on strike; " there are a few mechanics eager to work at their respective trades, but they can find no employment. These, with many women who cannot find such work as suits them (if any), conspire to swell the ever-sounding solicitation for " Something to Do."

We are a shamefully mis-educated people. Some of us are educated out of usefulness into life-long dependence, unthrift, and misery. Many are educated to hate and shun farming labor as rude, coarse, repulsive, brutalizing. Many whimper that they are not "strong enough for farm work;" when their weakness is the natural consequence of herding in cities and sweltering in the mephite dens where the poor are lodged. Many plead that they know nothing of farm work -- as though that were not the best possible reason for making its acquaintance forthwith. The result of all this is a loss of at least $50,000,000 on this year's crops for want of labor to till and harvest them thoroughly and seasonably; while those who might and should earn that sum will famish and shiver next winter for want of it. . . .45

As we see, Greeley took pains to contrast the unemployment situations in the country and in the cities. The western agricultural lands suffered from a want of labor. The Eastern cities had a surplus. Greeley never missed an opportunity to point out this fact. Logically, it led him to see the West as a land of opportunity.

To many young men in this city and in the East, living by small wages, and to others seeking employment, we say go West. Nations have progressed westward for thousands of years till it has become natural, as with the vines and flowers, to follow the course of the sun. To attempt to hold back the mighty tide is to stand in the way of destiny; to go forward is to meet with opportunity, and to place one's self in harmony with nature. Of course, the young man asks whither he shall go and what he shall do. In Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, wherever there is a thriving town surrounded by a northern population, the foundations of a city are laid. Go thither and help the town to grow, and you will certainly grow with it. If you have a profession, and if you are temperate, honest and industrious, you will have a hundred opportunities where you have one here. But there are no more chances for an unfaithful man there than here. For such, there are no chances anywhere; there are only dreams of chances. If you have a taste for farming, or horticulture, or both, for they should be combined, go West; get a few acres near a town, and the demand for your production will increase as fast as you can supply them. The market of any growing Western town of a few thousand inhabitants is better than the markets of Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. This is a secret worth knowing. No matter what you raise, it will sell. If a young man will plant, and take good care of an apple orchard of five acres, in ten years his wife need not want for silk dresses, nor his daughter for gold ear-rings. A cow will be a well-spring of pleasure; five cows will support the family. Of late, dairy productions have received a new value, and this value will increase, because the limit of production, in proportion to demand, has been reached. This is another secret. We would especially urge getting land. It is a sure investment. You cannot be discharged. You will be a proprietor, and likely enough will be summoned on the Grand Jury.46

"Don't miss this opportunity! " was the constant advice. Strikes cannot improve the situation, only migration to the West can help. The surplus labor supply in the cities must be gotten rid of. Only if this were done could the strikes themselves succeed. " If . . . ten thousand of our older journeymen . . . could be induced and enabled to migrate to the new States, where their labor is in quick demand, . . . the projected strikes might have a chance of success."47 If this were not done, wages must certainly fall. " The prospect now is that labor in the cities must be cheaper henceforth, or there must be a vast migration to the interior and the West, -- a great diversion of human effort from the workshops and the factories to the improvement and cultivation of the soil." 48

The Unresolved Doubt

In view of the history of the safety-valve doctrine, it is easy to see how Turner and his followers gained their idea of its operation. But the strange thing is that the contemporary witnesses who have been cited talked rarely, if ever, in terms of concrete instances. Some of them spoke as if they were being hurt by the movement, and many as if the phenomenon were taking place before their eyes. Yet they never, or almost never, gave actual examples of wage-earners making their way to the frontier. Greeley made many trips west. He always wrote letters to the Tribune telling what he saw, and he was certainly journalist enough to appreciate the effectiveness of concrete illustrations. He spoke of the country, the people, their activities, their enjoyment of their new homes. Sometimes he fortified his articles with statistics of the growth of the western states. In one case, in the papers collected as An Overland Journey, he did mention meeting at Osawatomie, Kansas, an old friend who had been " an industrious mechanic " in New York City and had in two years made himself a prosperous farmer.49 A prolonged search in the columns of the Tribune fails to reveal a single other example. It would be hard to find direct proof in Greeley's writings that this one man, who himself may have been artisan rather than wage-earner, did not represent the entire movement of eastern workers to the West! Nor has any writer since Greeley's time attempted to estimate, even approximately, the number of wage-earners who took up land on the frontier.

It is this task which the present investigation has undertaken. The sources of evidence are scattered and of course far from complete. Even today there are no adequate statistics of internal migration in the United States,50 and data are still scantier for the pioneering period. Certainly there can be no hope of anything approaching an exact estimate. But some indications can still be found. There are clues in what is omitted, as well as in what is included, in the standard descriptions of the westward movement. More direct evidence can be obtained from contemporary newspapers. The press of Boston, New York and certain of the industrial towns of New England will give some information as to what sort of people were leaving the East. The papers of the frontier communities and the collections of state and county historical societies will yield scattered indications of the sources from which settlers had come. Nor is it altogether too late to make guarded use in certain cases of the recollections of old residents. A subsequent article will attempt to build up from these and other materials something of an estimate of the volume of the working-class movement. The unexpectedly rich records of certain emigration societies will perhaps justify a third article on the significance of organized migration. The present paper, however, must end on a note of unresolved doubt.

If Turner was wrong in his doctrine of the safety valve, so also were a long line of contemporary observers. But if he and they were right, there must have been much more of a movement of wage-earners than has ever found adequate description. The question is a puzzling one, and it is the more worth exploring because of the great influence and the great significance of Turner's contribution to the interpretation of American history.51


1 F. J. Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York, 1920), pp. 259-260.

2 Ibid., p. 275.

3 Ibid., p. 191.

4 F. J. Turner, Sections in American History, pp. 24-25.

5 Ibid., p. 46.

6 Frederic L. Paxson, Recent History of the United States (rev. ed., Cambridge, 1928), pp. 157-158.

7 John R. Commons and Associates, History of Labour in the United States (New York, 1926), vol. I, p. 4.

8 Werner Sombart, Socialism and the Social Movement (London, 1909), pp. 277-278.

9 Lillian Symes and Travers Clement, Rebel America (New York, 1934), p. 85.

10 Leon Samson, Toward a United Front (New York, 1933), footnote to p. 6. The author contents himself by quoting what other scholars have said concerning the westward movement instead of himself examining and presenting concrete evidence. Unfortunately, Mr. Samson was neither careful nor thorough enough in his research or he would have found that some of the people he quotes could have been quoted as accepting the "Safety-Valve" doctrine. In some cases, Mr. Samson has definitely misinterpreted the author's meaning. Thus Samson quotes from Edward G. Kirkland (A History of American Economic Life, p. 154) the one sentence: -- "The westward migration was an agricultural migration," -- when the remainder of the paragraph makes it clear that the reference was solely to the occupations of the settlers in the new states. What Kirkland says is that the migrants were farmers after they went west, but Samson cites him to show that they were farmers before they went. Again, the two sentences quoted from Benjamin H. Hibbard (A History of the Public Land Policies, p. 557) are part of a paragraph in which Hibbard was explaining (and accepting) the "Safety-Valve" doctrine, or as he called it, "The Balance Wheel".

Samson quotes Arthur M. Schlesinger (Social and Political History of the United States 1829-1925, p. 8) in order to disprove the "Safety-Valve" doctrine : -- " Individuals might escape the hardships of their class by moving to the frontier; but most of the wage-earners were discouraged from taking this step by large families, poverty, or lack of ambition." But Schlesinger shows his acceptance of the operation of the "Safety Valve" on page 278 of the same volume:

"The steady dwindling of the open frontier from the Civil War to about 1890 meant the disappearance of a social force that had been potent in American history since earliest times. The poor man of pluck and ambition, as well as the social misfit, had always been able to escape oppressive conditions in the older parts of the country by going west and making a 'new start.' In this way the frontier had served succeeding generations as a source of economic rejuvenation and a cradle of robust Americanism. Furthermore, by drawing off the restless and dissatisfied spirits from the congested Eastern centers into a land of abundant opportunity, it had acted as a safety-valve of social discontent."

See also Schlesinger, New Viewpoints in American History, pp. 18-19, 44, 95, 109, 246, for his acceptance of the "Safety-Valve" theory. The same contradictions can be found in other authors whom Samson quotes. These contradictions are signs of the confusion and lack of knowledge of the basic facts behind the "Safety-Valve" theory.

11 B. H. Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies (New York, 1925), p. 140.

12 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. VIII, p. 438, article on "Homestead".

13 Turner, The Frontier in American History, p. 62.

14 Ibid., p. 191.

15 Turner, Sections in American History, pp. 24-25.

16 Annals of Congress, 4th Congress, 1st Session, p. 411. Quoted in part by Turner, The Frontier in American History, p. 191.

17 Turner, idem, p. 191. p. 303.

18 Ibid., p. 303

19 J. L. Dawson of Pennsylvania, in House of Representatives, February 14, 1854. Congressman Dawson was a supporter of the homestead bill but is here paraphrasing the argument of his opponents. Congressional Globe, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, p. 181.

20 J. Allison, Congressional Globe, April 20, 1852, vol. XXV, 32nd Congress, 1st Session, pp. 432 et seq., as quoted in Commons, History of Labour in the United States, vol. I, pp. 512-513.

21 Congressional Globe, April 22, 1852, 32nd Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, pp. 729, 737-

22 Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Session, March 10, 1860, p. 1223.

23 See E. G. Wakefield, A Letter from Sydney and Other Writings (London, 1929), especially Letter XLVI of the Art of Colonization, pp. 203-207, and pp. 17-18, 77.

24 Karl Marx, Capital (London, 1930), vol. II, pp. 857-858.

25 Society in America (New York, 1837), vol. II, p. 62.

26 Society, Manners and Politics in the United States (Boston, 1839), pp. 143-144.

27 Matthew Carey, Address to the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of National Industry (Philadelphia, 1822), pp. 68-69.

28 The Junius Tracts, X, "The Tariff Triumphant" (New York, 1844).

29 Calvin Colton, The Rights of Labor (New York, 1846).

30 John Stuart Mill, Principles of Policital Economy, Rutledge Edition, p. 242.

31 Letter of John Stuart Mill "To the New York Liberal Club on being elected a corresponding member of that body", Letters of John Stuart Mill, edited by Hugh S. R. Elliott (London, 1919), vol. II, p. 299.

32 Francis Bowen, American Political Economy (New York, 1877), pp. 110-111.

33Ibid., pp. 177-178.

34 Working Man's Advocate, March 16, 1844.

35 Ibid., March 2, 1833.

36 Ibid., April 27, 1844.

37 The Radical (in continuation of the Working Man's Advocate), No. 3, vol. II, Feb., 1843.

38 Working Man's Advocate, March 16, 1844.

39 Hoyt's New Encyclopedia of Practical Quotations (New York, 1927), p. 640, attributes it to John L. B. Soule, Terre Haute (Indiana) Express, 1851.

40 New York Tribune, December 17, 1850.

41 Ibid., July 20, 1850.

42Ibid., February 18, 1854.

43 Ibid., July 24, 1850.

44 Ibid., February 5, 1867.

45 Ibid., July 8, 1867.

46 Ibid., July 26, 1867.

47 Ibid., March 28, 1867.

48 Ibid., December 24, 1867.

49 An Overland Journey (New York, i860), p. 64.

50 See C. W. Thornthwaite and H. I. Slentz, Internal Migration in the United States (Philadelphia, 1934).

51 The preparation of this article was made possible by a grant from the Columbia University Council for Research in the Social Sciences. The authors would be grateful for suggestions as to sources that would be of use in attempting to answer the questions raised in the final paragraphs. A second article will be published in a future issue of The Political Science Quarterly.