[Editor’s Note: Despite the firm advice of counsel, Louis Warren is back to talk to us about the Homstead Act. Louis is also the author of this book, which won every prize ever. Louis’s a bit selfish, you see. One really big prize wasn’t enough for him.]

On this day in history President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, thereby inaugurating one of the most popular government programs in American history. Under the terms of the act, settlers could get 160 free acres — sometimes more — in return for making them into a private farm. Hundreds of thousands of settlers — black, white, immigrant, women and men — took up claims on the frontier, launching one of the great sagas of American history.

For all that, like so much else in the American West, homesteads have recently fallen into that dark and dreary world of right-wing symbolism. Homesteaders have long been icons of individualism. In recent years, advocates for privatizing social security have hailed the Homestead Act as a model (or a fable) of resource privatization. George W. Bush lobbied to privatize Social Security with the Homestead Act as an example of how Americans have found “ the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence.” David Brooks is certain that private investment accounts can replace Social Security and turn people into capitalists because, after all, “the Homestead Act turned people into pioneers.” George Will points out that homesteaders privatized 270 million acres, about 11 percent of today’s America. “Rarely has a social program worked so well.”

But even a cursory glance at the Homestead Act’s real history belies these simplistic conclusions. Sure, the Homestead Act had its successes. Many American families have homesteader ancestors, and many of them were genuine heroes who endured privation and hardship to root their crops and kin in New World soil. The fact that my great-grandfather earned a homestead is a high-point in family lore.

But the law’s failures were profound. Homesteaders may have privatized more than one in ten of America’s acres, but in fact, most who tried homesteading never gained a square inch from the law. For every settler who staked a claim and built a cabin between 1862 and the day the frontier closed, in 1890, at least two packed up and left their claims without ever gaining title. That’s right: the failure rate among would-be homesteaders was sixty-six percent.

Why did those resilient, risk-taking frontier settlers pack it in? To resolve that very question, Congress investigated much, and legislated often. Efforts to stem the flow of failed farmers led to bigger parcels and extra acres for planting trees and digging irrigation ditches. But with high prices for barbed wire, livestock, plows, and other equipment, and with the unreliable rainfall of the Far West, and with the fact that railroads and other speculators acquired most of the best land, making the frontier into farms was still too expensive for the vast majority, even when the land was free. Even with added incentives, the failure rate of aspiring homesteaders never fell much below fifty percent, and may have been much higher. Passed in hopes that urban citizens would take to the country, farming proved so difficult that the flow of farm dwellers to the city actually increased in the years after 1862. In the end, most of the West’s successful farms were not earned under the law, but bought from railroads or other large owners, by customers with cash. For every 160 acres earned by homesteaders, 400 acres were bought on the open market. Think of it this way: homesteaders settled 11 percent of the current United States, but home buyers settled more than twice as much.

Even these were not the full extent of the law’s failures. For those who stuck it out and earned their acreage, the future was often worse, not better. The global increase in farm production drove the price of crops sharply downward for decades after the Civil War. A new round of crop deflation hit in the 1920s, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to pay their bills. In the 1930s, drought turned many a green homestead to dusty brown. Banks foreclosed on mortgages. Debt drove farmers to sell cheap and move to town. The exploding numbers of the rural poor (among them my grandfather, the homesteader’s son) inspired John Steinbeck to conjure the Joads, and at the national level helped mobilize the public to create programs like Social Security in the first place. Except for in Alaska and a few other places, homesteading ended in 1935, when Franklin Roosevelt withdrew all remaining public lands from settlement.

The history of the Homestead Act is astonishing and often inspirational. When it concerns successful settlers, it offers remarkable tales of risk and reward.

But it also provides a cautionary tale about forcing private citizens to shoulder too much risk, and the hard death and eye-popping failure rates of the frontier’s most famous land law should make us think twice about following anyone bent on re-creating its supposed “successes.” In fact, Social Security has provided far more Americans with more wealth than the 1862 law ever did. At least, it hasn’t inspired songs like this one:

Frank Baker’s the name and a bachelor I am,
I’m keeping old batch on an elegant plan.
You’ll find me out west in the county of Lane,
I’m starving to death on a government claim.
My house is built of the natural soil,
The walls are erected according to Hoyle.
The roof has no pitch but is level and plain,
And I always get wet when it rains.

Hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,
The home of the grasshopper, bedbug and flea.
I’ll sing loud its praises and tell of its fame,
While starving to death on a government claim.

Nineteenth Century Folk Song – Author Unknown

Indeed, if giving young people the chance to build wealth for the future is our aim, there are other laws that might provide more useful lessons. Decades before the Homestead Act, Congress began endowing public universities with land grants. The same year the Homestead Act came into being, Congress also adopted a less famous but ultimately more successful measure, the Land Grant Act, which endowed state universities with tens of thousands of acres. Institutions of higher learning sprang up and expanded across the West. The public acquired new access to college education, and the investment continues to pay handsome returns. Today more than ever, university education provides tools to make careers and build wealth, in a far more reliable way than western farming ever did. The state of California, for a brief few decades, and not so long ago, even made university education as free as land in the frontier West. Recreating that opportunity would cost much less than privatizing Social Security, and it seems certain to provide more wealth, too.