Land laws helped determine the development and distribution of perhaps the United States’ greatest economic resource–its land. They were designed to encourage settlement and farming of the North American continent; raise revenue and reduce the public debt; extract resources; reward key constituencies and populations; promote education, business, and economic growth; and conserve wilderness for future generations.
Great Britain claimed sovereignty over part of the eastern seaboard of North America by right of discovery and conquest, despite the presence of Native Americans. In charter and grants, England divided this land among thirteen colonies, although the western boundaries of the colonies were not clearly defined. In the Proclamation of 1763, Parliament forbade settlement of the lands west of Appalachia, and the Quebec Act of 1774 redrew several of the boundaries of the larger colonies. By purchases, statutes, and treaties, the American colonies–and subsequently the United States–took away the rights of the Native Americans to occupy much of what had been their traditional homelands and confined or relocated them to reservations.
The destiny of the new nation, as well as its economy and wealth, was inextricably linked with its land laws, policies, and politics. Real property has traditionally been the greatest source of wealth in human affairs. After gaining its independence, the United States inherited sovereignty over a portion of the North American lands claimed by England.
With the enactment of a constitution in 1789, Congress had the means to make land laws with a more sophisticated purpose than retiring the public debt. Thomas Jefferson proposed selling public lands in compact units to create a democratic bedrock of small farmers. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton favored selling the land wholesale to investors and manufacturers to promote rapid growth and industrialization. The
In the nineteenth century, although the federal government converted many of its public lands to private ownership, it added vast new tracts to its holdings. Over the course of the century, the United States acquired lands from Spain, France, Mexico, and Russia, extending the country’s borders to the Pacific Ocean and multiplying its size more than fourfold. The largest addition came in 1803, when by treaty with France, the United States purchased the
Florida was purchased from Spain in 1819. Texas was annexed in 1845. By the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (which ended the war with Mexico), California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and other territories were added to the United States. The Oregon territories were acquired in 1846, and Alaska was purchased in 1867. Federal laws arranged for these lands to pass into private hands in myriad ways, accomplishing numerous objectives. The overriding objective was to foster ownership by small farmers, who would productively cultivate the lots. In the
In 1862, Congress enacted perhaps the two most significant land laws in U.S. history. The
Similar legislation followed these two historic laws. The
Whereas the nineteenth century was characterized by disbursement of public land and associated resources to private hands, the twentieth century saw a welter of laws designed to conserve the
By the end of the nineteenth century, with the fixing of America’s borders and the closing of the frontiers, there was increasing concern about loss of public lands and the riches they contained. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland reserved 33 million acres for national timber. However, it was during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, spurred by conservationists and naturalists such as Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, that federal conservation began in earnest. President Roosevelt signed the
As the United States expanded, federal law determined the acquisition, organization, use, and disposition of the new territories. However, state laws have always been most important in determining the uses of local
Large-scale regulation of land use by the states is by and large a phenomenon of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, states implemented some laws controlling nuisances on land and regulating such private land controls as easements, covenants, and servitudes. However, comprehensive regulation of land use by state government has resulted from four modern areas of land law: zoning, landlord-tenant law, antidiscrimination statutes, and the law of eminent domain.
States, cities, and towns have used their regulatory power to zone land by industrial use, also known as Euclidean zoning, since 1916, when New York City divided the city into different use zones. Probably no system of land laws has had as pervasive an effect on the shape of modern economic life and its relation to the living patterns of workers as
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a revolution in
The power of
Berry, Wendell. Home Economics. New York: North Point Press, 1987. Fourteen essays in which novelist and nature writer Berry pleads for protection of land and the lifestyles associated with it. Dombeck, Michael, Christopher Wood, and Jack Williams. From Conquest to Conservation: Our Public Lands Legacy. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. Argues for increased conservation based on the legacy of public land laws and policies. Friedman, Lawrence. A History of American Law. 3d ed. New York: Touchstone Books, 2005. An outstanding survey of American legal history, with diverse sections on land law in the eighteenth, early and late nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Gates, Paul. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. The official history of federal lands, authorized by the Public Land Review Commission. Scholarly, immense, and definitive. Hall, Kermit. The Magic Mirror: Law in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A history of American legal culture that argues that the variety of American land laws acted both to encourage and to arrest economic development. Lehman, Scott. Privatizing Public Lands. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Study of public lands and the effects of selling them into private hands. Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994. Reprinting of Turner’s famous 1893 essay on the closing of the American Frontier as well as his other essays relating to American land history, policy, and law. Wolf, Michael, ed. Powell on Real Property. Albany, N.Y.: Matthew Bender, 2000. Thorough and respected summary of property law.
Homestead Act of 1862
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Commercial real estate industry
Residential real estate industry
Supreme Court and land law