How “Squatter Democracy” Created America’s First Welfare Program

  • June 13, 2023
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With the rise of homeless camps and tent cities in many American cities, the issue of squatting has become a cause for alarm among many residents and policymakers. In many cases parks, sidewalks, and other public rights-of-way have been taken over by people living in tents or makeshift shelters, rendering the areas unusable to most area residents. In other cases, some of these homeless people have taken over empty businesses and homes that were left unattended long enough for squatters to take over. 

The use of the term “squatter” to refer to those living on land they never paid for is generally not used to suggest approval. In modern parlance, squatters are often regarded as equivalent to trespassers. There once was a time, however, when supporting squatters was de facto federal policy in the United States. Indeed, some of the legislation still on the books supporting “squatters’ rights” is a relic of this past era during which many corners of the country regarded squatters more as heroic settlers rather than as thieves and trespassers. 

In the days of westward expansion, squatters—white squatters only, of course—offered a convenient tool for expanding the US’s political boundaries westward. Specifically, squatters helped push aside Indians, Mexicans, and other  impediments to Manifest Destiny. In return, squatters received the tacit support of many ordinary Americans as well as populist leaders in Congress. Beyond these cultural and geopolitical aspects, however, official support for squatters from within the Democratic Party also offered a convenient method of buying votes. Jacksonian populists arranged to transfer land to squatters as prices well below market rates. In return, pro-squatter politicians received political support from squatters and their allies. This wealth transfer was paid by those who lost their land to the squatters, but few of those people were voters in US elections. Thus,  the Jacksonians were rewarded with growing support from poor whites throughout much of the frontier as it moved westward. This  was, in other words, an enormous welfare scheme. 

When Squatting Was Celebrated in America

Squatters have always been present in the American colonies, but at the time of the Revolution they had rarely received support from the central state. This changed after American independence was achieved. Squatters continued to move onto frontier lands, but now they were not content to just hope they could get away with it. Rather, squatters sought explicit legal sanction of their squatting.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the squatting strategy coalesced into an identifiable pattern. Squatters would move into Indian lands or federal lands recently seized or bought from Indian tribes. In many cases, lands targeted by squatters were still legally Indian lands according to international treaties and US law. This did not stop squatters from moving onto these lands.  Later, squatters would also move onto the lands of Spanish—later, Mexican—subjects and citizens. Once on the land, squatters would then exert political pressure on policymakers to abandon efforts to remove squatters. As described by Kenneth Manaster, once squatters had taken up residence on these lands,

[F]ederal officials felt it was impossible to dislodge the settlers or to prevent the settlement. Pressures for turning over land to squatters developed, taking form in the passage of successive preemption laws from 1830 to 1862. In the long run, the squatters won the preferential right to buy their land.1

At first, “federal land was sold at auction, which generated revenue for the federal treasury.”2 Preemption laws, however, “changed the system to one where illegal settlers on the public domain (squatters) could buy land they occupied at the minimum price [offered at land auctions].”3

Via this method, “the actions of ‘squatters’ shaped the political debate in the years from 1790 to 1830 so as to favor a cheap land policy.”4 The squatters knew they were breaking the law, but were confident that enough pressure on Congress could be brought to ensure that the squatters would retroactively be granted permanent legal access.  In the 1830s, this strategy was generally applied to Indian lands in the South and in the old Northwest. By the late 1840s, however, a similar strategy was also applied to lands that were clearly the legal property of British subjects and former Mexican citizens.

For example, in the case of Oregon country, the Anglo-American treaty of 1846 established the 49th parallel as the southern border of British lands. However, British companies and subjects still legally held land and personal property south of this border. Once Americans began to covet these areas, however, settlers took to squatting with the assumption the US would later ratify these thefts through new pro-squatter measures. In the process, new American settlers even began to steal the personal property of British subjects. American settlers killed cattle, carried off the machinery in British-owned mills, and otherwise stole “improvements upon the land [squatters] jumped.”5 In other words, these were lands that had clearly been homesteaded by British individuals and companies, but their property rights were treated as illegitimate by Americans who believed these lands should only be owned by Americans. This squatting was often treated with a wink and a nod by American policymakers and US authorities, and “Oregonians took up the pen to demand confirmation of their land claims [by Congress].”6 Eventually, the persistence of squatters who had stolen land from the British and from Indians would pay off for the squatters as many won permanent control of “their” new lands as Congress acquiesced. 

Similar developments took place in the American southwest where American settlers squatted on the lands of former Mexicans who had become US citizens via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Anti-Mexican sentiment among non-Hispanic white settlers impelled many to find ways to seize Mexican-American lands via squatting. With the introduction of new US courts into these territories—staffed by Anglo-American judges, of course—lawsuits were frequently employed to confirm squatters as the “rightful” owners of the lands in question. The founder of the City of Brownsville, Texas—Charles Stillman—built his property empire largely on a morally and legally dubious strategy of buying up squatter claims on the lands that were legally owned by the Cavazos family. Stillman eventually forced Pedro Cavazos to sell the land at a small fraction of the market price by threatening Cavazos with ruinous lawsuits.7 Stillman never paid this much-reduced promised price, and the courts never enforced the contract. The presence of numerous squatter claims had created enough uncertainty about the land’s ownership to ease Stillman’s theft of the land. 

The most notorious pro-squatter law employed to exploit former Mexicans was found in California. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had pledged the US to enforcing the existing property rights of Mexicans, this promise was soon forgotten. Kim Chanbonpin notes

Congress substantively breached the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when it enacted the California Land Act of 1851. While the terms of the Treaty implied unlimited protections, the Act reduced those protections to a period of two years. The Board [of Land Commissioners] placed an almost impossible burden of proof on the Mexican claimants. Quite simply, the sponsors of the Act aimed “to force Mexicans off the land by encouraging squatters to invade them.”8

It was clear who owned these lands in most cases, but politics ensured that Congress generally sided with Anglo-American squatters. Chanbonbin continues:

The Mexican landowners had legal title, originating from a sovereign, yet their lands were taken away by the Board of Land Commissioners and the federal Possessory Act. As a result, settlers received squatted land, whether it was public domain land claimed by the federal government or tracts of land owned by private individuals. … The federal government made it easier for these squatters to make land claims by making it more difficult for Mexican landowners to register in U.S. land courts.9

Support for Squatters as a Political Strategy to Buy Votes

Not everyone in Congress supported the squatters. Many outside the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic party—including both Whig Henry Clay and Democrat John C. Calhoun, criticized the Jacksonian affinity for squatters, with Clay referring to squatters as “a lawless rabble.”10

The populist Jacksonians, however, supported squatters in a political arrangement in which populist policymakers used the promise of cheap land to gain the enduring support of squatters throughout the Midwest and west. This was the “Squatter Democracy” that came to characterize much of the Democratic party during this period. Suval sums it up:

“Squatter Democracy” denotes the squatter-statesman alliance that was a defining force in antebellum political culture from 1830 to 1860. … Democratic pro-squatterism was not a formal movement but rather a marriage of convenience between land-hungry white settlers and a set of influential, opportunistic politicians who recognized that they had much to gain by conspicuously backing efforts to convert the domains of Indians, Mexicans, and European colonists in the private property of those white settlers, who formed their base. … These measures shared a common thrust: facilitating white American ownership of western terrains at minimal cost to settlers.11

When squatters appealed to Congress, they “invoked the well-understood quid pro quo—land for political support—that had long cemented bonds between Jacksonian politicians and their squatter constituents.”12 

The more land the populists gave away at ultra-low prices, partisans reasoned, the more support the party could expect. The degree to which the party supported squatters, in other words, was built on obtaining “sufficient spoils to satisfy partisans.”13 

Ensuring support for this new squatterism required a significant amount of propaganda. Suval notes

a constant strain of mythmaking aimed at rebranding squatters from outlaw intruders to virtuous pioneers. Florid paeans to the “hearty pioneer” became a staple of Democratic speech-making and editorializing, drawing their language form settlers’ petitions to Congress and amplified in works of popular fiction and art.14

From the point of view of political calculus, this certainly made sense. Pro-squatter Democrats could see which way the political winds were blowing and took advantage. Realities on the frontier pointed to opportunities to win over settlers who could end up controlling both local political institutions and new seats in Congress. Carlson and Roberts note “Illegal settlers … were often relatively poor, but influential on the frontier.”15  Thanks to the rapid spread of manhood suffrage after 1820, increasing numbers of these propertyless squatters were voters, and this presented an opportunity to policymakers to offer something in exchange for loyalty to the Democratic Party. 

Naturally, much of the debate was framed in terms of the hardy pioneering spirit of American settlers, but the reality was more mundane, and “Such idealism aside, the debate over the transfer of public land into private hands was dominated by self-interested rent-seekers.’’16

Those who paid the price for the transfer of these lands into private hands were varied. Those who paid the most, of course, were the Indians, Hispanics, and British settlers who directly lost their property to squatters. Moreover, the cheap-land-for-votes paradigm acted as an impetus for American populists to embrace even more hawkish foreign policy along the American frontier, so as to have more land to offer future squatters. This lead to further attacks on indigenous tribal lands. 

Ordinary Americans, on the other hand, paid for the scheme in two ways. For one, federal land sales were supposed to somewhat offset federal revenues brought in from the tariff. The lessening of land-auction revenues thus put further upward pressure on tariffs to make up the difference. (Admittedly, there was no guarantee that better revenues from land auctions would have actually translated into lower tariff rates.) Another way many Americans paid for squatter gains could be found in squatters’ “queue-jumping.”  That is, the fact that squatters could flout the law and still be able to purchase land at rock-bottom rates meant more law-abiding potential land buyers were placed at a disadvantage. 

We rarely hear about the widespread abuses of squatters in modern political discussions, however. This is partly due the effectiveness of Jacksonian propaganda that continues today. Many Americans remain convinced that most American settlers and “pioneers” had every right to the land in the overwhelming majority of cases. Given the widespread role of squatters, this assumption of legality is dubious.  Unquestioned support of these settlers is often rationalized with (incorrect) arguments that Indians had no real claim to ownership because they were all “nomadic” or had no concept of owning property. The problem of squatter thefts from Hispanic Americans in the wake of the Mexican-American war—which obviously violated extant legal contracts in many cases—are generally ignored altogether. 

A more accurate picture of these settlement patterns would include a recognition that “Squatter Democracy” was essentially a welfare-state scheme in which the government encouraged squatting because it was politically popular to do so. This isn’t terribly surprising, of course. Government schemes to redistribute wealth from one group to another have been popular grifts for millennia. 

1. Kenneth A. Manaster, “Squatters and the Law: The Relevance of the United States Experience to Current Problems in Developing Countries,” Tulane Law Review 94 (1968-1969), 119.
2. Leonard A Carlson and Mark A. Roberts, “Indian Lands, “Squatterism” and Slavery: Ecomomic interests and the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830,” Explorations in Economic History 43 (2006), 487-488
3. Ibid., p. 488. 
4. Ibid., p. 487. 
5. Oscar Osburn Winther, “The British in Oregon Country: A Triptych View,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 58, (October 1967): 181
6. John Suval, “The Nomadic Race to Which I Belong”: Squatter Democracy and the Claiming of Oregon, Oregon Historical Quarterly 118 (Fall 2017): 322
7. Frank H. Dugan, “The 1850 Affair of the Brownsville Separatists,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61, (October 1957): 274-275
8. Kim David Chanbonpin, “How the Border Crossed Us: Filling the Gap between Plume v. Seward and the Dispossession of Mexican Landowners in California after 1848,” Cleveland State Law Review 52, (2005): 308
9. Ibid., p. 309
10. John R. Van Atta, “‘A Lawless Rabble’: Henry Clay and the Cultural Politics of Squatters’ Rights, 1832-1841,” Journal of the Early Republic 28, (Fall 2008): 339
11. John Suval, Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesment, and the Antebellum Rupture of American Democracy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2022), p. 3.
12. Suval, “Nomadic Race,” p. 323.
13. Suval, Dangerous Ground, p. 6.
14. Ibid., p. 4.
15. Carlson and Roberts, “Indian Lands,” p. 490. 
16. Ibid., p. 489.

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