Title Reviewed:
American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill

Author Reviewed:
Harold M. Hyman.

Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 084, Issue 2, pp 186-187

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill. By Harold M. Hyman. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. Pp. x, 95. Notes, index. $15.00.)

This book considers the acts in its title evidence of "American Singularity." This uniqueness lies in the public policies that provided opportunities to achieve equality by granting access to land, education, and legal remedies.

In the introduction, Harold M. Hyman discusses whether American national experience is exceptional and whether, as Goethe wrote, America "has it better." Hyman provides a survey of contemporary opinion spanning the political horizon, but his erudition does not obscure his optimism. That may be explained, in part, by the change in the membership of the historical profession between World War II and 1950.

Hyman begins by analyzing the Northwest Ordinance. He states that its antislavery provisions were, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, "a vision as well as a blueprint for immediate implementation" (p. 28). Although the government was unable to monitor them effectively, the author believes that they had the effect of making the laws of the slaveholding states " ‘alien,’ dangerous, diseased, and distorted" (p. 29).

With the author's vast knowledge of the era, it is not surprising that the second chapter, dealing with the 1862 statutes and the 1863 Habeas Corpus Act, is the strongest. The Morrill Act made the United States the first nation in the world to commit resources to higher education—and gave an unanticipated opportunity to women. Hyman also presents evidence that these three statutes, seen in the context of the Thirteenth Amendment and a speech that Lincoln gave in April, 1865, demonstrate that Republican leadership accepted and advocated public education for blacks, thus contradicting some of the opposition to the 1954 Supreme Court decison in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

In the third, most innovative chapter, Hyman describes the democratizing effects of the G.I. Bill. By ending a near-monopoly on access to elite universities and graduate education that had formerly been determined by family and money, it brought the nation unexpected talents that otherwise would not have been realized.

The unexpressed a priori assumption of this book is that the true wealth of the nation lies in its citizenry; its postulate is that America has been uniquely successful when it has devoted some of the fruits of its natural resources to its human resources. That is a significant message to all of us who hope that our posterity will celebrate the tricentennial of the Constitution.

MARY K. BONSTEEL TACHAU, professor of history at the University of Louisville and author of Federal Courts in the Early Republic: Kentucky, 1789-1816, is a constitutional and legal historian who is now working on a book about the state and federal courts of Pennsylvania during the generation after adoption of the Constitution.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.