Untitled Document

The Founders and the Pursuit of Land

Table of Contents

The Pursuit of Land
George Washington
Ohio and the Transmontane Region
Benjamin Franklin
James Madison and John Marshall
Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson and the Northwest

The Pursuit of Land

In early America the pursuit of land drove the movement west. “The population of the United States was like a body of water that was being steadily enlarged by internal spring and external tributes,” wrote historian Max Farand.1 Early America concentrated on becoming an ownership society or perhaps an ownership-exploitation society. Historian Edmund S. Morgan noted: “Ownership of property gave not only economic independence but also political independence to the average American.”2 The vast amount of available land created a society different from that from which many Americans had emigrated. Historian Bernard Bailyn observed: “The colonists lived in exceptional circumstances and shared a peculiar outlook. Unlike the inhabitants of the British Isles, they were not located at the center of their culture looking outward toward exotic margins. Their experience was the opposite. They lived on the far periphery looking inward toward a distant and superior metropolitan core from which standards and the sanctioned forms of organized life emanated. They lived in the outback, on the far marchlands, where constraints were loosened and where one had to struggle to maintain the forms of civilized existence.”3

Land formed America’s Founders – just as the Founders helped form the land, but for more than two centuries, America had been primarily a series of coastal settlements. Historian Forrest McDonald observed: “Of the Middle States, only Pennsylvania had a continuous line of settlement deep into the interior, and even in that state three-fourths of the population was concentrated in a small area near Philadelphia.”4

Still, Americans hugged the Atlantic coast. Theirs was relatively unique experience – divorced as they were from the “motherland.” George Washington clearly foresaw that the situation would change as colonists sought cheap land to plant and develop. That, in turn, would challenge the unity of the country’s disparate settlements and the leadership of the new government of an independent America. In the decade before the Revolutionary War, the westward movement of Americans suddenly accelerated. Max Farand noted: “Twenty years before the Revolution the expanding population had reached the mountains and was ready to go beyond. The difficulty of crossing the mountains was not insuperable, but the French and Indian War, followed by Pontiac’s Conspiracy, made outlying frontier settlement dangerous if not impossible.”5 Peace opened possibilities that warfare had prevented and postponed.

“I shall not rest contented till I have explored the western country, and traversed those lines (or a great part of them) which have given bounds to a New Empire,” wrote George Washington.6 His fascination with the West began young and lasted a lifetime – and exemplified the ongoing social and economic movement. The Library of Congress observed: “Between 1747 and 1799 Washington surveyed over two hundred tracts of land and held title to more than sixty-five thousand acres in thirty-seven different locations.”7 Land was the future. “Land is the most permanent estate and the most likely to increase in value,” wrote a youthful Washington.8

Before and after the Revolutionary War, land was the investment of choice for Americans once they arrived from Europe – a choice that signified their faith and optimism in America’s future. It was the plentitude of land that drew many early settlers. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote that “when the Republic was young, all Americans knew what to do when they got real money: If you gave an American a dollar, he would buy something costing ten. This was only good sense, the American knew, because soon the ten would, by the sheer magic of America, became a hundred. The instrument of this magic, the touchstone, was land...”9 Historian Gordon S. Woods noted: “In Europe land was scarce in relation to people and therefore was expensive. Hence, unable to afford their own land to farm, Europeans were compelled to work for others, either by becoming laborers for landowners in the countryside or, more often, by migrating to the cities to engage in manufacturing goods in factories. In both cases since labor, because of its plentifulness, was cheap, the workers’ wages were low. Because their wages were so low, the European workers tended to postpone marriage and thus to have fewer children than if they had owned their own land.”10 Americans were more expansionary – with both children and land.

Far-sighted Americans saw their future lying to the West – with only native Americans standing in the way of their advance. Historian Bernard Bailyn noted that George Washington “wrote enthusiastically in 1767 about an ‘opening prospect in the back country for adventurers, where numbers resort to, and where an enterprising man with very little money may lay the foundation of a noble estate.’ Anyone he declared, who neglected the ‘present opportunity of hunting out good lands and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own (in order to keep others from settling them) will never regain it.”11 Although fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson never ventured west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he shared Washington’s predilection for western vistas” and western expansion.12 Historian Drew R. McCoy wrote: “Jefferson was not totally unconcerned with the problem of land, especially in the realm of theory and speculation. His confidence about the American future betrayed his assumption that America’s western (and perhaps northern and southern) boundaries would be regularly extended, always bringing in a fresh supply of virgin land.”13

Economic and social pressures pushed Americans west in search of land and economic opportunity. Historian Charles Sellers wrote: “Even landowners who stayed put often found their diminished farms encumbered with obligations to landless siblings and yielding a mean living. Attempting to meet the stem family’s traditional responsibilities to kin, small farmers joined the landless in a scramble for supplementary income.”14 Development plans were made haphazardly by families and systematically by incorporated companies. Historian Bernard Bailyn wrote: “Everyone with any ambition and capacity, it seems, on both sides of the Atlantic, sought some profit from what promised to be the greatest land boom in history. Plans were drawn up, revised, expanded, abandoned; companies formed overnight, sometimes quickly disappeared, sometimes grew into syndicates; and connections between American and British groups were universal, conceived of as a requirement for ultimate success.”15

In the wake of the French and Indian War, controlling Americans’ westward movement was a way for the English in London to control wanderlust in America. Americans had became obsessed with the purchase of land by the 1760s. John Seelye wrote that “there is little question that in the period from 1753 to 1763, Anglo-Americans were on the move – which could be figured either as martial adventure, geopolitical outreach, or the expansion of the mind – and that westward-trending and eastward-bending rivers defined the direction of their march.”16 Historian Forrest McDonald wrote that the “mystique of the land could be used to justify agrarian laws, but it could also be made to justify getting rich by speculating in land. That is, if one obtained a few thousand or a few score thousand acres of land from the public domain, if one recruited settlers, and if one retailed the land in, say, hundred-acre parcels to them, then one was contributing to the public weal both by helping to retire the public debt and by increasing the number of independent (and therefore virtuous) citizens.”17 Settlement established ownership for England but also created political obligations for the mother country.

In the late 1760s, America’s British overseers saw damages in these visions and sought to limit Americans’ westward mobility. British interference, however, in American pursuit of the acquisition of land – and the desire to limit Americans’ westward movement helped bring on the American Revolution. “It is time,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1774, “for us to lay this matter before his majesty, and to declare that he has no right to grant lands of himself. From the nature and purpose of civil institutions, all the lands within the limits which any particular society has circumscribed around itself are assumed by that society, and subject to their allotment only. This may be done by themselves assembled collectively, or by their legislature, to whom they have delegated sovereign authority; and if they are allotted in either of these ways, each individual may appropriate to himself such lands as he finds vacant, and occupancy will give him a title.”18

After the American Revolution, the western movement was both spectacular and speedy – especially to the Kentucky side of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote that America’s ‘youthful population was moving about the country even more rapidly than it had in the past. Before the Revolution the territory of Kentucky had contained almost no white settlers. By the early 1780s, however, it had more than 20,000; by the end of the century it had grown to over 220,000 people, and people marveled at the fact that not a single adult had been born and grown up within its borders.” Wood wrote: “This spectacular growth and movement of people further weakened traditional forms of social organization and intensified people’s feelings of equality.” Wood noted: “All the massive movements of people westward, all the growing productive activity, all the endless trading, were creating a continental marketplace and a natural harmony of economic interests. Farmers could sell their produce to Americans and could buy their manufactured goods from Americans; and if the artificial political obstacles of the states could be eliminated, the whole country could be linked in trade and prosperity.19 George Washington foresaw the growing market for his lands, writing a Kentucky friend in 1795: “If I do not sell my lands on the Ohio and great Kanawha in a lump – or at least by whole tracts, they will not be sold at all by me. – These will fetch me fifty per cent more at this time than I would have sold them for two years ago.”20 Virginians saw the economic potential especially clearly. R. Kent Newmyer wrote: “It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of land greed in American history...Land was America’s most abundant and most sought-after resource. For the better part of two centuries, the vision of cheap land was the magnet that attracted millions of immigrants. It was billed as ‘free,’ but it never was. First, it had to be wrested from the Native Americans, which brutal process Chief Justice [John] Marshall would try to mitigate; from the Spanish and French, who sold out; and from the Mexicans, who were forced out. It was fought over by the rich and powerful to see who could get the most and the best. It was fought for by the poor, who wanted a little piece of the action and who, unlike the large buyers and sellers, were willing to put their lives on the line to get it.”21 For the new nation, the settlers’ lust for land could be a political strength. For individuals, it could be an economic weakness that they would come to regret.

Some Americans, particularly in the mid-Atlantic states, sought land farther from home. Somewhere, life would be greener, easier, and more productive. Historian Joseph Ellis wrote that Washington’s “appetite for acreage...was the single fault line that ran through his otherwise impregnable interior defenses and control points, because land represented the only tangible and abiding measure of his hard-won status, the only form of financial security truly worthy of the name.”22 Washington wrote that “lands are permanent, rising fast in value, and will be very dear when our Independancy is established, and the importance of America better known.” Virginia’s geography made it important to nation’s development, Washington believed. Biographer John Tebbell wrote that Washington “was inclined to promote whenever it was possible the idea he had held firmly from his youth, that the tidewater country, with its numerous rivers thrusting long fingers into the rich interior of the nation, was destined to be the center of America commerce, as soon as the vast network of inland waterways could be developed properly.”23

Like his contemporaries, Washington pursued land – productive agricultural land. “Washington and many of his fellow Virginia aristocrats had a more functional regard for land. Land was, first of all, a constant,” wrote Washington scholar Glenn A. Phelps. “It was not subject to the changing fortunes of paper money inflation, royal mercantile policies, the loss of political favor, or the decline of one’s skills through age or poor health.”24 For leading Virginians, land was virtually a religion. Patrick Henry biographer Henry Mayer wrote: “For Henry, as for the vast majority of his countrymen, land held the key to happiness and prosperity. Nine out of every ten Americans lived – and made their livings – on farms, and very few doubted the moral superiority of the agrarian way of life. To own land enough to feed and clothe the family and raise enough of a marketable crop to trade or sell for what the land could not yield seemed close enough to paradise for anyone. The crowds and corruption of city life, and the dubious manipulations of merchant princes, struck most yeomen as unsavory and threatening.”25 Another Henry biographer, Harlow Giles Unger, noted: “By the mid-1790s, he ranked with George Washington and the Lees as one of Virginia’s greatest landowners, with direct ownership in more than 100,000 acres and indirect ownership of 15 million more. Among his properties under cultivation, he could count three productive plantations with nearly 25,000 acres in Virginia, 10,000 acres that he leased out in Kentucky, and 23,000 acres in western North Carolina. He also received rents from farms and plantations that he owned in twelve counties, stretching from Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains.”26 Even with so big an estate, it was small when spread among Henry’s 77 grandchildren.

Land speculation was a natural and common preoccupation among the Founders. For some it became an economic affliction. “Hardly a prominent man of the period failed to secure large tracts of real estate, which could be had at absurdly low prices, and to hold the lands for the natural advance which increased population would bring,” wrote Albert J. Beveridge.27 For many, such speculation would prove a hazardous preoccupation. Virginia’s Henry Lee and Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris and James Wilson ended up in jail because of their debts from speculation. Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner noted that land speculation was “a fundamental aspect of American economic life, but it had become in the last few years an extremely tricky one. General [Henry] Knox was above the knees in financial trouble because of the new settlements he had started in Maine.”28 Speculation in land became particularly rampant in the early 1790s when the stability of the new republic seemed assured. Describing the process of speculation, historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “One worked or connived to obtain a stake, then worked or connived to obtain legal title to a tract of wilderness, then sold the wilderness by the acre to the hordes of immigrants, and thereby lived and died a wealthy man. Appropriately, the most successful practitioner of this craft was George Washington, who had acquired several hundred thousand acres and was reckoned by many as the wealthiest man in America.”29

While settlers were moving west, Americans in the East were suffering from increasingly disordered economic conditions in the 1780s. That was one of the driving forces behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “The delegates [to the Constitutional Convention ] also had a variety of investments, one form of which was speculation in land. Many of the delegates had doubtless taken small plunges, but only eight can be identified as speculators on a grand scale. These were Washington, who owned scores of thousands of acres in all parts of the country; Robert Morris, who had begun the speculations that would see titles to several million acres pass through his hands before he would go bankrupt; Thomas Fitzsimons, who was to be Morris’s partner in several ventures; [Nathaniel] Gorham, who in 1787 was negotiating a contract to buy, with a partner, a million acres of the land that Massachusetts owned in western New York; Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, who had begun land operations that would ultimately run into hundreds of thousands of acres; Wilson, who operated on a somewhat smaller scale in Pennsylvania; Mason, who had acquired fifteen thousand acres in the upper Potomac region and another sixty thousand in Kentucky; and William Blount of North Carolina, who was in process of acquiring scores of thousands of acres in Tennessee.”

George Washington

George Washington had learned to accumulate land from a master, Lord Thomas Fairfax. It was Lord Fairfax who gave Washington his first job surveying. Scholar Charles H. Ambler noted: “More than any other person, except his mother and his half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, Lord Fairfax influenced and determined the early career of George Washington. Before 1748 they had met at Belvoir, and Fairfax had become interested in Washington’s efforts to learn surveying, in his friends, especially young George William Fairfax, and in their sports and athletic achievements.”30 Washington had an appropriate model in the Fairfax clan, which was the colony’s biggest landholder. At the time that the British government approved Fairfax’s title to his Virginia claims, according to Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington “was...thirteen and, though he was precocious in all that related to business, he still was too young to understand the full meaning of Fairfax’s victory and of the vast speculative movement that began as soon as the Colonials knew where the Proprietor would set his stakes. Around young George whenever he was at Mount Vernon, the talk was of patents, of surveys, of trails, of settlements and of the profits that might be made by organizing land enterprises beyond the farthest bounds of Fairfax’s grant. Much of this was dream, much was speculation, though a few bold men already had penetrated from Virginia to the Mississippi and had descended it. There was admiration for the explorers but there was envy of the speculators where their plans were known. Rivalry was stirred among different patentees; ugliness showed itself; but Fairfax’s following, which included the Washingtons, had both content and ambition. Under the decision of the Privy Council, lands taken out by them within the western reaches of the proprietary would have secure title. Beyond those lands was the unclaimed Valley of the Ohio – with the promise of a fortune for young men of enterprise and courage.”31 Charles Ambler noted: “In a very real way the early eighteenth-century movement of Virginia planters beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains was a part of the larger westward movement which soon followed into the Trans-Allegheny. Not satisfied with acquiring choice lands in the former region for themselves and locating Pennsylvania Dutch and Scotch-Irish settlers upon the refuse, Lord Fairfax and his young surveyor had little difficulty in inducing friends and relatives in tidewater Virginia to become original patentees of lands west of the mountains and to settle there.”32 Washington family friend William Fairfax was the agent for Lord Fairfax, who owned much of northern Virginia – a land grant that totaled about 5 million acres.

Residents of no colony or state exemplified the pursuit of land more than did Virginians. And no Virginian exemplified that pursuit more than George Washington. John E. Ferling, the historian who most carefully detailed Washington’s investments, wrote that land speculation was the enterprise “oldest and closest to his heart.33 Washington’s education in the accumulation of land began early. Biographer Paul Johnson wrote: “As a sixteen-year-old, Washington learned not just the extent of the American interior, but how to judge the quality and exploitability of the land therein.”34 At age 18, Washington began to accumulate land. Using funds from surveying, he bought 450 acres in western Virginia. In the fall of 1750, Washington “ran the lines of approximately sixteen tracts,” wrote biographer Douglas Southall Freeman. “Then, on October 25, George had a new and delightful experience. He saved much the greater part of his earnings as a surveyor while cherishing ambition to buy good land when he found a tract that appealed to him in price and quality. The time now came. On October 17 he had the satisfaction of asking transfer of patent for a tract of 453 acres which he bought off Capt. John Rutherford – the first spread of friendly Shenandoah land to become his. This was not all: on the twenty-fifth he submitted to record a deed from Lord Fairfax to 550 acres of land in Frederick.”35 According to biographer John E. Ferling, “Soon thereafter he acquired another parcel, over 1000 acres along Bullskin Creek, a tributary of the Shenandoah River that meanders near the present boundary of Virginia and West Virginia.”36

Washington’s land-acquisitiveness was familial. Washington’s half-brother Lawrence was one of the organizers of the Ohio Company, which had been incorporated in 1747 with Thomas Lee as president and John Mercer as secretary. A year later, the company received a grant of 200,000 acres from the British government in order to populate the frontier. Historian Corra Bacon-Foster wrote: “The company...secured from the King in May, 1749, a charter and grant to a half million acres of land on these terms—200,000 acres to be at once located on the north of the Ohio River with the provision that if the company did not erect a fort on the land and maintain a sufficient garrison therein and locate at their own expense a hundred families therein in seven years the grants would be void, but if these terms were accomplished they were to receive the further grant of 300,000 acres of land. On a second petition the company secured the entire grant with very little restriction as to location.”37 Historian John E. Ferling wrote that “when the deadline was reached the French and Indian War was blazing and there were no settlers on the company’s lands. In 1760 Washington cooperated in an endeavor to revive the moribund company, and three years later, at the end of the war, the resuscitated Ohio Company dispatched an agent – in fact, it was Colonel Washington’s former aide, George Mercer – to implore the British government to renew its grant. Mercer remained in London for five years, but ultimately he failed. In 1767 the English secretary of state announced that all of the transmontane West belonged to the king. Twenty years after its inception the Ohio Company was dead. Not one investor had made one cent off the enterprise.”38 Washington’s loyalty to England was irreparably damaged and dying.

Washington’s military ambitions during the period of French and Indian conflict had eventually transformed into an economic ambition to extend the land holdings he already made by inheritance, investment, and marriage. Willard Rouse Jillson wrote of Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian Wars: “In all of these campaigns he had occasion to observe and philosophize upon the lands on the western waters as was the privilege of no other landed gentleman in America.”39 As historian Charles Royster wrote, “Washington wished to own much more land. He planned large purchases and sought grants in the Ohio Valley promised to veterans by Dinwiddie. He and George Mercer, a partner in the Ohio Company, agreed to meet in Williamsburg in November 1759 and there ‘leave no Stone unturned to secure ourselves this plan. It promised so much profit that they would have to fight for it. Mercer detected ‘mighty Schemers’ who conspired to get ‘all the best Land’ by keeping the surveying in their own hands, excluding him.”40

Land grants to Washington and others as a result of his military exploits became the basis for further acquisitions. Historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick wrote that Washington “was obsessed with the idea of amassing land in the West, tremendous amounts of it, putting it all under cultivation and bringing commerce and people there. This cycle of acquisition and development began very much as the expression of a ‘private’ self, of private ambition and private interest. He was fully determined that it should bring him wealth, possessions, and status. He would in fact expend much time and effort on this, revealing considerable executive capacities in the course of it, while some of his dealings – especially with men who seemed to get in the way of his projects and ambitions – were exceedingly sharp and even ruthless. During his military service, having already used his earnings as a surveyor to acquire several thousand acres on the Virginia frontier, he got his first sight of the rich bottom land along the rivers of western Pennsylvania. He subsequently bought fifteen thousand acres of it in the Fort Pitt area. Eventually he badgered Governor Botetourt of Virginia into making good on promises of land to the veterans of his former regiment, whereupon he proceeded, through swift action, advance surveys, and purchases of other men’s bounties added to his own, to engross an inordinate amount of it – over forty thousand acres – for himself.”41 According to Joseph J. Ellis, “Washington’s avid pursuit of acreage...was rather typical of Virginia’s planter class. He was simply more diligent in his quest than most.”42 Washington scholar Glenn A. Phelps observed that his “attitude toward acquiring land bordered on the obsessive and was governed by three principles: buy (or claim as a bounty for public service) as much good land as possible, trade poor land for better land whenever possible, and never sell land for cash.”43

In the 1760s, Washington looked south as well as west in his quest for additional land. He sought to develop the Great Dismal Swamp area on the North Carolina-Virginia border. Twelve prominent and politically-connected Virginians in 1763 formed a company first called “Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp” and later the “Great Dismal Swamp Company in order ”to drain and develop 150,000 acres. It was a sisyphean task; much of the area today is a national wildlife refuge. As was his habit, Washington explored his purchase. Washington Irving wrote: “This vast morass was about thirty miles long, and ten miles wide, and its interior but little known. With his usual zeal and hardihood he explored it on horseback and on foot. In many parts it was covered with dark and gloomy woods of cedar, cypress, and hemlock, or deciduous trees, the branches of which were hung with long drooping moss. Other parts were almost inaccessible, from the density of brakes and thickets, entangled with vines, briers, and creeping plants, and intersected by creeks and standing pools. Occasionally the soil, composed of dead vegetable fibre, was over his horse's fetlocks, and sometimes he had to dismount and make his way on foot over a quaking bog that shook beneath his tread.”44 As historian Turk McClesky observed of the company’s owners, “For half a century, they and their heirs and assigns struggled to turn a profit. Production of shingles and lumber brought some income; grander schemes, such as connecting by canal the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound, were only imperfectly completed; and tobacco and corn grew no better on company land than in easier-to-manage fields closer to home.”45 In fairness, Washington was diverted by his other land projects and by the Revolutionary War. Historian John E. Ferling noted: “Washington eventually made four additional trips to the site during the decade to scout for good land, and, after one trip, he and Lewis purchased over eleven hundred acres on the southern perimeter of the swamp. But the company failed to open any lands before the Revolution although as early as 1768 Washington succeeded in marketing cypress shingles that he procured from the area.” Eventually, a canal would be built through the swamp in order to allow the harvesting of timber. After the Revolutionary War, Washington tried to revive it. Ferling wrote: “At its initial post-war meeting the company’s board rubber-stamped Washington’s views, agreeing to advertise in Europe both for additional investors and for a source of cheap labor. The following year Washington summoned the entrepreneurs to Richmond for another meeting, and this time the directors agreed – again at the general’s behest – to seek Virginia’s aid by promising to surrender to the state all profits from the canal’s tolls. But at the end of the decade the canal remained only a project on paper, the beginning of construction repeatedly frustrated by rivalries among Virginia’s varied interest groups, as well as by fears in North Carolina that the channel would only serve to divert its trade to the Old Dominion.”46

Washington was different from most speculators of the time. First he operated in many areas of the new nation. Second, he could usually afford to acquire, hold and wait to sell – not dependent on a quick sale at a lower price. Joel Achenbach noted that “Washington invested in such land ventures as the Walpole Grant, the Mississippi Company, and the Dismal Swamp Company. Nonetheless, he denied being a land speculator. This was a sensitive point, for in his mind a speculator was a wheeler-dealer, a huckster, someone who snapped up land and sold it on a whim. He was not such a man. He had a gentlemanly relationship with his property and his tenants. He tended not to sell his land, but rather bought and held, and hoped to find tenants who would lease the property and make improvements, such as clearing fields and erecting fences. Despite owning 30,000-plus prime acres along the Ohio and Great Kanawha, among other western properties, he still declared, ‘It cannot be laid to my charge that I have been either a monopolizer, or land-jobber, for I never sold a foot of Land in the Country, not am I possessed of an acre west of the Allegheny (and the quantity comparatively speaking is small) that I do not hold under military rights.’”47

Still, Washington unquestionably sought to exploit the speculative fever of the age. Biographer Louis Martin Sears noted that Washington “was bent upon acquiring [land] within the limits of West Florida. He wished the individual tracts to be as large as were attainable, and expressed a preference for river bottom lands in the northern limits of the grant. If necessary to the obtaining of good land, he was willing to lay out a moderate sum in cash above the rights accrued by patent. The project came to naught when the Governor of West Florida proved unauthorized to give title. It was a disappointment, for he had hoped to obtain here in the Southwest a solid block of 15,000 to 25,000 acres.”48

Washington believed in the powerful motivation of land acquisition. “What Inducements have Men to explore uninhabited Wilds but the prospect of getting good Lands?” Good land mean the profitable yield agricultural products and timber,” Washington wrote to former aide-de-camp George Mercer in 1771.49 According to biographer James Thomas Flexner, “Washington had unique possibilities, of which, in his later years, he took full advantage. Most land speculators were limited to buying huge tracts wholesale, or specializing in one or two regions they knew well, or buying specific properties in the dark. But Washington’s name was known in every part of the United States, and people of influence were enchanted to have contact with him. A few years before, he had leaned over backwards not to presume on his eminence. Now he was shameless about demanding favors. He asked what were the going prices in the neighborhood; what were the assets and probity of potential purchasers; and even wished his correspondents to supervise deals for him. Government officials were called on to determine what further legal steps were needed to enforce his patents; surely they would not wish to see injustice done him! For the services of gentlemen, he never offered payment, but asked permission to reimburse actual outlays. Only in matters too minor ‘trouble my friends with’ did he employ paid agents.”50 Washington could be as expansive as any land promoter, writing in 1773: “As these lands are among the first which had been surveyed in the part of the country they lie in, it is needless to premise that none can exceed them in luxuriance of soil, or convenience of situation, all of them lying on the banks either of the Ohio or Kanawha, and abounding with fine fish and wild fowl of various kinds, as also in most excellent meadows, many of them (by the bountiful hand of nature) are, in their present states, almost fit for the scythe.”51

The accumulation of land was not only habit-forming for Washington. It was also controversial as when Washington obtained agreement from his fellow French and Indian War veterans to examine their land claims in the areas of western Pennsylvania. Historian W. W. Abbot wrote: “On December 15, 1769, Washington petitioned the Virginia governor and council for two hundred thousand acres of land for the former Virginia officers and soldiers entitled to grants under the terms of Dinwiddie’s Proclamation of 1754.”52 Charles Ambler wrote: “Stimulated by the activities of the Pennsylvanians, the Virginia Executive Council, December 1769, permitted Washington to locate two hundred thousand acres allotted claimants under the Dinwiddie Proclamation of 1754, provided the surveys did not encroach upon prior settlements. In pursuance of this action in August, 1770, these claimants met in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where it was resolved to locate the desired grants in the region of the Great Kanawha, beyond ‘the traders’ lands’ and the new settlements in the Trans-Allegheny. For this purpose, Washington, an experienced frontiersman, now anxious to visit the West again, was chosen to represent such persons as filed their claims with him and bore their part of his expenses.”53 In was an important step forward on a long journey to establish Washington’s claims. “In the House of Burgesses...Washington was able to do no more in furtherance of the claim of the veterans of 1754 than to arrange for a meeting of beneficiaries in Fredericksburg. At this meeting, August 2, Washington met comrades whom he had not seen after he had left Willis Creek in 1754,” wrote Douglas Southall Freeman. “Agreement was reached on the percentage of the whole that would go to men of each rank. All participants were called upon to make a pro rata payment for surveys and other expenses. Washington was prevailed upon to assume the handling of this thorny business.”54

Washington, Dr. James Craik, his personal physician, and surveyor William Crawford spent nine weeks beginning in October 1770 surveying the 20000 acres that he had been awarded for his service in the French and Indian Wars. Always seeking to obtain the best lands for the least investment, this was an opportunity that Washington was determined not to lose. He “felt an acute sense of urgency, since settlers were already flocking to the Ohio and Great Kanawha rivers, and he feared they might preempt the most productive soil. He also got wind of a huge scheme by English investors to obtain 2.5 million acres and inaugurate a new colony, Vandalia, whose borders might further curtail the bounty lands.”55 Washington’s party traveled down the Ohio River and the Great Kanawaha River. John Ferling wrote that Washington “ran no surveys, but he took copious notes and he marked off two corners of ‘the Soldiers L[an]d (if we can get it)....’ By mid-November they were back in Pittsburgh, and a few days later, after an absence of nine weeks, Washington was resting before his heath at Mount Vernon.” Ferling noted that Washington “used his influence to secure the selection of his old friend Crawford as the official surveyor of the bounty lands. Then, when the tracts were located, he utilized his persuasive powers with the veterans to attain Crawford’s appointment as the surveyor to divide the general tracts into individual portions. Meanwhile, Washington set about to gently persuade some veterans to sell their shares to him...The government, though ignorant of the nature of each tract, gladly accepted Washington’s plan....At the time, no one complained, but later some of the men exploded when they actually saw their plots, venting their wrath at Crawford. They were ‘a good deal shagereend [sic].’”56

Washington remained touchy on the subject of the bounty lands and his treatment of fellow bounty recipients. In a letter to one complaining grant holder, Washington belligerently wrote: "Sir, Your impertinent letter was delivered to me yesterday. As I am not accustomed to receive such from any man, nor would have taken the same language from you personally, without letting you feel some marks of my resentment, I would advise you to be cautious in writing me a second of the same tenor. But for your stupidity and sottishness you might have known, by attending to the public gazette, that you had your full quantity of ten thousand acres of land allowed you, that is, nine thousand and seventy-three acres in the great tract, and the remainder in the small tract. But suppose you had really fallen short, do you think your superlative merit entitles you to greater indulgence than others? Or, if it did, that I was to make it good to you, when it was at the option of the Governor and Council to allow but five hundred acres in the whole, if they had been so inclined? If either of these should happen to be your opinion, I am very well convinced that you will be singular in it; and all my concern is, that I ever engaged in behalf of so ungrateful a fellow as you are. But you may still be in need of my assistance, as I can inform you, that your affairs, in respect to these lands, do not stand upon so solid a basis as you imagine, and this you may take by way of hint. I wrote to you a few days ago concerning the other distribution, proposing an easy method of dividing our lands; but since I find in what temper you are, I am sorry I took the trouble of mentioning the land or your name in a letter, as I do not think you merit the least assistance from me."57

As the Revolutionary War approached in 1775, Washington’s relations with British colonial governor worsened. Historian John E. Ferling noted that as “Washington was putting together his second team for the Great Kanawha, he received even more disconcerting news. Shortly after he returned from the Virginia convention sessions in Richmond, one of his old soldiers from his frontier days dropped by Mount Vernon bearing the tale that Governor Dunmore was about to disallow all the land grants previously made to the colony’s veterans of the French and Indian War; supposedly, the soldier added, the surveyor of the tract, Washington’s old buddy William Crawford had not been properly licensed. Washington listened with disbelief. He could lose twenty-three thousand acres! He immediately contacted the governor, adducing evidence and entreating the executive’s beneficence. But Dunmore dryly responded that if Crawford was not properly certified ‘the patents will of consequence be declared null and void.”58

Washington’s land holdings clearly affected his political outlook – first regarding England, and later regarding the United States. Washington thought big and thought about the implications of thinking big. Glenn A. Phelps wrote that Washington’s “extensive land-holdings in the West, as well as his frequent surveying expeditions to the frontier, had placed him within a circle of Virginia politicians with somewhat more enterprising, expansionist, westward-looking interests than their tidewater brethren.”59 Increasingly after the Revolutionary War, Washington’s land-holdings affected his preoccupation with the development of the Potomac River and a canal through the area where it was not navigable. Washington wrote a friend in 1785 that “unless we can connect the new States which are rising to our view in those regions, with those on the Atlantic by interest (the only binding cement, and not otherwise to be effected by opening such communications as will make it easier and cheaper for them to bring the product of their labour our markets, instead of going to the Spaniards southerly, or the British northerly), they will be quite a distinct people; and ultimately may be very troublesome neighbors to us.”60

For eight years from 1775 to 1783, Washington’s preoccupations were military rather than economic. But with the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s attention was again focused on his reduced personal wealth and his cash flow problems. Biographer Paul Johnson wrote that Washington’s “wartime concerns as a general were now transformed to his civil anxieties as a progressive economist and a practitioner of both food raising and manufacture (he milled flour, made bricks, and worked in other fields to produce goods for sale). He was nagged by the fear that state rivalries, such as that between Maryland and Virginia over river power, would destroy the young and fragile republic unless the federal, or general government as he called it (with a distinct military overtone), was strong enough to arbitrate. Hence the significance of the Potomac conferences and schemes he promoted was much wider than the water issue.”61 He continued to add to his land holdings as he sought to maximize their value – especially in the development of waterways that would aid transportation of goods.

Washington never lost his preoccupation with the acquisition and sale of his lands. Washington biographer Paul Johnson observed that Washington “was a soldier and statesman but, above all, he was a landed gentleman. This was what he wished to be; in a sense all he wished to be.”62 The size and diversity of Washington’s land holdings, however, was impressive. Biographer Harrison Clark wrote: “When his father died, George Washington inherited about 2,500 acres in Deep Run, in addition to his father’s farm. He kept the former tract throughout most of his life, giving it to a nephew, Robert Lewis, in 1795. The additional lands he acquired from subsequent inheritance, purchase, or military service, he also held, for the most part. Occasionally, he exchanged properties for more convenient locations. At other times he sold lands to meet debts and obligations arising from his long periods of public service. Over the years his holdings increased until they totalled about ninety-six square miles. These lands were situated in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, the District of Columbia, and the present states of West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.”63

Washington foresaw America’s great westward migration and he foresaw potential wealth for himself. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote: “Washington believed that as a private citizen pursuing his own interests he could still be working for the good of the nation. He engaged without a qualm in a scheme that would benefit him financially, while it bolstered American independence in a way that he thought was crucial....While war lasted, the country lay empty of white inhabitants save for a few hardy souls who dared brave the Indians raids organized by the English. With the coming of peace began a great folk exodus from the established regions of the East (mainly from Virginia) over the mountains into the empty West. Washington expected the stream to swell steady with immigrants, who would leave the monarchical tyrannies of the Old World for the republican freedom of the New. ‘The bosom of America is open,’ he declared, to ‘the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.’ ‘Let the poor, the needy and oppressed of the Earth, and those who want Land, resort to the fertile plains of our western country.’”64 Historian John E. Ferling wrote: “Few public figures in American history could match Washington’s record of virtuous and selfless service, but even he stumbled when the vast potential of the frontier West was at stake....That personal considerations, from the potential enhancement of his Mount Vernon properties to the added value that would accrue to the real estate he owned in Alexandria, should now have entered his thoughts can hardly come as a surprise. As always, he convinced himself that the nation was the chief beneficiary of his actions. If that was not quite the case, it nevertheless would be difficult to argue that the national interest was in any way harmed by his conduct.”65 Washington was scarcely alone in this commingling of public and private interests. Most of the other leading Founders had similar thoughts and habits. Historian Stuart Leiberger wrote: “Washington, Madison and Lee linked personal friendships to the nation’s destiny: whatever benefited one, benefited the other. They would prosper personally while uniting America and making it self-sufficient. This attitude led neither to breach of law nor to the use of public office for personal gain. Their speculations were private ventures and were not based on privileged information or abuse of the people’s trust. Like so many of Lee’s dreams, this one quickly dissipated when Jefferson failed to persuade Europeans to invest.”66

Indeed, it can be argued that Washington’s personal economic ambition was useful to the emerging nation. Washington’s travels as a military leader gave him a larger perspective than virtually any other American except Franklin who had the advantage of his European sojourn. In a letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, General Washington outlined his conclusions from his travels in America: “Prompted by these actual observations, I could not help taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States, from maps, and the information of others, and could not be struck with the immense diffusion and importance of it, and with the goodness of that Providence which has dealt her favours to us with so profuse a hand. Would to God we may have wisdom enough to make a good use of them. I shall not rest contented till I have explored the western part of this country, and traversed those lines (or a great part of them), which have given bounds to a new empire; but when it may, if ever it should happen, I dare not say, as my first attention must be given to the deranged situation of my private concerns, which are not a little injured by almost nine years [sic] absence, and total disregard of them.”67 Biographer Robert E. Jones noted: “Washington never received the great riches he hoped for from his western lands, but in a sense the United States did. His acres on the Ohio reinforced his already strong interest in the West and in the creation of effective ties of commerce and economic interest across the mountains. In 1772, these ties were meant to bind Virginia together and to make the Potomac the principal commercial artery of the region; later they helped to bind together a nation. That Washington evolved from an American nationalist was owing, to an extent, to the bounty lands.”68 But another issues was weighing on Washington. In a letter to secretary Tobias Lear in 1794, Washington described financial reasons for selling off his Western Lands: “I have another motive which makes me earnestly wish for an accomplishment of these things, it is indeed more powerful than all the rest, namely to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings.”69

Ohio and the Transmontane Region

In the decades before the American Revolution, population pressures had begun to push Americans westward. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote: “Throughout the colonies more and more people were on the move; many drifted into the small colonial cities, which were ill equipped to handle them. By 1772 in Philadelphia, the percentage of poor was eight times greater than it had been twenty years earlier, and almshouses were being constructed and filled as never before. Most of these transient poor, however, saw the cities only as way station in their endless search for land on which they might re-create the stability they had been forced to abandon.” Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “Communication between country towns and New York and Philadelphia, carried on in the normal course of trade, was made easy by the abundance of navigable waterways and passable roads.”70 But Americans sought more land & more freedom than was available along the Atlantic coast or its rivers.

Both squatters and speculators were attracted by the new security along the frontier. After the French and Indian War, noted historian Gordon S. Wood, “people set out in all directions, eager to take advantage of the newly acquired land in the interior.”71 Historian Bernard Bailyn wrote: “The population movement into uncultivated and legally unclaimed lands excited feverish ambitions in land speculators in every corner of the Anglo-American world – speculators as different as George Grenville and Benjamin Franklin, the Reverend John Witherspoon and the earl of Dartmouth. Among them were most of the officials of colonial America, a large phalanx of British politicians and merchants, and planters and merchants everywhere in America, who were determined to get a substantial piece of the pie.”72 observed: “British and colonial authorities could scarcely comprehend the meaning of this enormous explosion of people in search of land. The colonists, one astonished official observed, were moving ‘as their avidity and restlessness incite them. They acquire no attachment to place: but wandering about seems engrafted in their nature; and it is a weakness incident of it that they should forever imagine the lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled.’”73

The conclusion of peace with Britain in 1783 ushered in a new era for western development. The Treaty of Paris gave the United States control of the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. Scholar Charles Ambler noted: “Already effective in binding the states together in the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, this domain continued to be a bond of union and became the touchstone of public policy. It was therefore largely because of his continued interest in the west that Washington was able to retain in peace that preëminence which he won in war. Thus the late Herbert B. Adams, in one of the most singular tributes ever paid by scholar to soldier and statesman, could say: ‘It would seem as though all lines of our public policy lead back to Washington as all roads lead to Rome.’”74 Historian W. W. Abbot wrote of Washington: “In the first six months after his return to Mount Vernon, he took steps to have legal title to the various parcels of his western lands confirmed by the state of Virginia, and he began to search for ways to make his holdings productive and profitable. He wrote and talked to people about what could be done with these lands; he ran notices in newspapers and distributed handbills, in Maryland in Pennsylvania as well as Virginia, inviting settlers to take up and improve small parcels under long-term leases; and he tried to identify and make contact with people abroad who might be induced to come to America and become his tenants.”75

What Washington’s brother Lawrence had tried to accomplish decades earlier in Ohio now seemed possible – if the Indians would cooperate. Historian John E. Ferling wrote that “the Native Americans not only had never surrendered these lands, they saw no reason to recognize the Treaty of Paris, by which Great Britain had so magnanimously presented the trans-Appalachian West to the United States. Instead, the tribesmen in the Northwest took the position that the Ohio River was to be the outer boundary of the United States. Supported by the British, who continued to hold the old royal forts in this area, the Indians were far from powerless.”76 Land created both opportunity and conflicts as Native Americans resisted the invasion of European-Americans. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote: “Land speculators, however, wanted to move the Indians westward and open more territory for white settlement. Confused, lied to, and cheated of their land and their furs by greedy white traders and land-hungry migrants, the Indians retaliated with atrocities and raids. Some tribes attempted to form coalitions and wage full-scale war.”77 Washington biographer Paul Johnson noted that “one central axiom of Washington’s view of the world...which was already beginning to emerge: the Indians should not be allowed to impede the westward march of American settlement. He never objected to Indians cooperating and sharing in the settlers’ superior technology and standard of living.”78 Washington wrote Richard Henry Lee in 1785:

Towards the latter part of the year 1783 I was honored with a letter form the Countess of Huntington, briefly reciting her benevolent intention of spreading Christianity among the Tribes of Indians inhabiting our Western Territory; and expressing a desire of my advice and assistance to carry this charitable design into execution. I wrote her Ladyship for answer, that it would by no means comport with the plan of retirement I had promised myself, to take an active or responsible part in this business; and that it was my belief, there was no other way to effect her pious and benevolent designs, but by first reducing these people to a state of greater civilization, but that I wou’d give every aid in my power, consistent with the ease and tranquility, to which I meant to devote the remainder of my life, to carry her plan into effect.79

The colonists had always been risk-takers, but the transmontane region involved new risks for both individuals and the government. The frontier was still dangerous – for both Native Americans and European Americans. The American government’s hold on it was tenuous. The power of the national government was very limited. Several states claimed that their territory extended to the other side of the Appalachians. Britain never withdrew its own military presence from over the Canadian border until after the Jay Treaty of 1795. Meanwhile, the British colluded with Native Americans to foment unrest in the Northwest. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to govern the territory north of the Ohio River, but its power to enforce the ordinance was almost non-existent. The states had to sort out conflicting claims and cede control to the new national government. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “Quibbling over title to the lands west of the Appalachians was frequent from 1776 onward. The states that had claims to such lands by virtue of their colonial charters were determined to retain them; the states that held no such claims were eager for the lands to become the possession of Congress so that they might share in them. The issue held up ratification of the Articles of Confederation for more than three years, after which, through a complex series of negotiations, Congress acquired title to the lands north of the Ohio. Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia retained their interior lands westward to the Mississippi.”80 At the time, Virginia’s territory included all of the current states of West Virginia and Kentucky. Historian Jerry A. O'Callaghan noted: “In the summer of 1776 the Continental Congress needed soldiers to bring about the independence it had so boldly proclaimed on July 4. To get them it offered a land bounty when it had no lands. In other words it sold the land market short. To cover the shortage it persuaded first Virginia and then the remaining six states with crown grants west of the Appalachians to cede them to the emerging nation.”81

After the American Revolution, Washington needed to pay attention to his land holdings, which he had neglected during the eight years of the Revolutionary War. George Washington spent September 1784 exploring his western land claims with his friend Dr. James Craik. He had intended on roughing it, as he wrote Craik: “You will have occasion take nothing from home but a servant to look after your horses, and such bedding as you may think proper to make use of. I will carry a marquee, some camp utensils, and a few stores.”82 They “travelled on horseback six hundred and eight miles, for a great part of the time in wild, mountainous country,” wrote biographer Louis Martin Sears.83 “Washington was greeted with marked distinction on his way into the interior; bevies of friends, sometimes including relatives, awaited him here and there,” wrote historian Charles Ambler. The trip reenforced Washington’s concern with developing transportation linkages between the newly developed lands and eastern ports. “By extending inland navigation as far as possible and crossing portages by improved roads, he would have demonstrated to the western settlers ‘how easy it is to bring produce of their lands to our markets’ to the great advantage of the country at large. In this way he would have dried up Spanish sources of trade; or if any part of that from the western settlements should continue to flow ‘down the Mississippi, from the Falls of the Ohio, in Vessels which may be built – fitted for the Sea – and sold with their Cargoes,’ he hoped at least to divert the proceeds ‘this way.’”84 The nation’s benefit would be to Washington’s benefit as well. Woodrow Wilson wrote of the trip: “For nearly five weeks he was deep in the wilderness, riding close upon seven hundred miles through the forested mountains, and along the remote courses of the long rivers that ran into the Mississippi; camping out as in the old days when he was a surveyor and a soldier in his 'prenticeship in these very wilds; renewing his zest for the rough life and the sudden adventures of the frontiersman. But, though he had come upon his own business, it was the seat of a future empire he saw rather than his own acres scattered here and there.”

When last he had ridden the long stages from settlement to settlement and cabin to cabin in this far country of the Ohio, he had been a Virginian and nothing more, a colonial colonel merely, come to pick out lands for his comrades and himself, their reward for serving the crown against the French. A transformation had been worked upon him since then. He had led the armies of the whole country; had been the chief instrument of a new nation in winning independence; had carried its affairs by his own counsels as no other man had done; had seen through all the watches of those long campaigns the destinies and the hopes that were at stake. Now he saw the crowding immigrants come into the west with a new solicitude he had not felt before. A new vision was in his thought. This western country was now a "rising world," to be kept or lost, husbanded or squandered, by the raw nation he had helped put upon its feet. His thought was stretched at last to a continental measure; problems of statesmanship that were national, questions of policy that had a scope great as schemes of empire, stood foremost in his view. He returned home more engrossed than ever by interests not his own, but central to public affairs, and of the very stuff of politics.85

Historian Ron Chernow observed that Washington “saw how fickle were the loyalties of the western settlers and how easily they might be lured someday by a designing foreign power. Since Spain had obstructed American commerce on the Mississippi River, Washington thought the United States could cement its grip on these inhabitants by offering them navigable waterways to the eastern seaboard, preferably through Virginia, creating ‘a smooth way for the produce of that country to pass to our markets before the trade may get into another channel.’ He believed that ‘commercial connections, of all others, are most difficult to dissolve,’ which foreshadowed his faith as president in enduring commercial rather than political ties with other countries. He also feared that thirteen squabbling states would be powerless to act in a timely fashion as the world was being swiftly reshaped on the western frontier.” Chernow noted: “On an abstract level, Washington portrayed the western lands as a new American Eden, telling the Reverend John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey, that ‘it would give me pleasure to see these lands seated by particular societies or religious sectaries with their pastors.’ When it came to his actual behavior as a landlord, however, Washington never ascended to these giddy rhetorical heights and could sound like a downright skinflint.”86 Washington was chary of unworthy credit risks but anxious to unload his property at a profit. He had learned from unfortunate experience that land contracts on which he counted could fall apart. James Flexner wrote: “If what seemed a good opportunity swam into his ken, Washington became an eager salesman, extolling his land, which, he insisted, would instantly skyrocket in value. He usually set a price from which he could comfortably descend as he bargained. If there were problems of fact he urged arbitration: one man appointed by his own representative, one by the prospective purchaser, and a third by these two. In the end, he specified exactly the size and dates of future payments. Having gone through all this, he regarded the sums due as assets he could count on, but only too often at the specified dates and long thereafter no money would appear.”87

Benjamin Franklin

Virginian George Washington and Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin shared a similar vision of settling the West. They also had a better understanding of their country than most Founders whose actual experiences were relatively circumscribed. Franklin biographer Gordon S. Woods wrote: “This dream of landed empires in the West was one he long clung to and one he shared with his son William. Two years later he fantasized with his friend the evangelical preacher George Whitefield about their being ‘jointly employ’d by the Crown to settle a Colony on the Ohio...What a glorious Thing it would be, to settle in that fine country a large Strong Body of Religious and Industrious People! What a Security to the Other Colonies: and Advantageous to Britain, by Increasing her People, Territory, Strength, and Commerce.’” Like Washington, Franklin was a nationalist. He was concerned with security as well as expansion. Woods noted that “before he became a member of the assembly, Franklin had been concerned with the way the Pennsylvania government had neglected the defense of the colony against America’s French and Indian enemies, largely because of the Quakers’ pacifist principles and their sympathy for the Indians. When the legislature didn’t act to defend the colony in 1747, Franklin almost single-handedly had privately raised 10,000 armed men in the Militia Association and had organized lotteries to raise funds to purchase cannons and to build batteries on the Delaware River.”88

Like Washington, Benjamin Franklin also understood the importance of land to the American economy. Franklin wrote that “so vast is the Territory of North-America that it will require many Ages to settle it fully, and till it is fully settled, Labour will never be cheap, where no Man continues long a Labourer for others, but gets a Plantation of his own, no Man continues long a Journeyman to a Trade, but among those new Settlers, and sets up for himself, Etc.” Franklin’s vision of union, however, was unfriendly to non-English immigration. Unlike Washington who favored German immigration, Franklin decried the influx of Germans into his adopted state of Pennsylvania. Washington’s views were similar to Franklin’s regarding the Ohio valley, but different regarding German immigrants. Franklin wrote: “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours?”89 (Franklin’s comment about “Palantine Boors” in 1764 cost him a position in the Pennsylvania Assembly.) In his essay, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.,” Franklin wrote:

Europe is generally full settled with Husbandmen, Manufacturers, &c. and therefore cannot now much increase in People: America is chiefly occupied by Indians, who subsist mostly by Hunting. But as the Hunter, of all Men, requires the greatest Quantity of Land from whence to draw his Subsistence, (the Husbandman subsisting on much less, the Gardner on still less, and the Manufacturer requiring the least of all), The Europeans found America as fully settled as it well could bee by Hunters; yet these having large Tracks, were easily prevail'd on to part with Portions of Territory to the new Comers, who did not much interfere with the Natives in Hunting, and furnish'd them with many Things they wanted.

Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short Time save Money enough to purchase a Piece of new Land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family; such are not afraid to marry; for if they even look far enough forward to consider how their Children when grown up are to be provided for, they see that more Land is to be had at Rates equally easy, all Circumstances considered.90

In contrast to Franklin, noted Washington biographer Louis Martin Sears, ‘both Washington and Jefferson encouraged German settlers....Jefferson wished to place Hessian prisoners upon Virginia farms, and offered them such inducements to desert as homesteads, cows, and temporary exemption from taxation.”91 Historians Bruce S. Thornton and Victor Davis Hanson wrote that Washington’s “view of farming’s political significance was consistent throughout Washington’s life. In the seventies he inquired into the possibilities of settling Palatine immigrants from Holland as tenants on his Ohio Valley lands, a scheme he said was ‘founded in interested as well as political views. The latter no doubt included the recognition that settling the American West with small farmers, who lived on the land they rented and worked and eventually could own outright, would form the civic as well as economic bedrock of the young, expanding Republic.”92

Like Washington, Franklin knew the frustration of seeking British approval or land grants in the Ohio River. “One of the considerations which had served to keep him in the colonies – one stronger than friends and family ties – was a project of developing a ‘Slice of Territory’ to be settled between Pennsylvania and the Mississippi,” wrote Franklin biographer Alfred Owen Aldridge. “Even before his mission to England, Franklin had dreamed of leading a colony to the Ohio, and during his English residence he had been involved in an abortive application for a grant of land.”93 Once in England in the 1760s, Franklin’s hope for a major land grant in Ohio kept in him in England. He worked on it for nearly a decade beginning in 1763. Franklin biographer Gordon S. Woods wrote: “When the Walpole partners first approached Hillsborough as secretary of the American Department, they asked for a grant of only 2.5 million acres for their company. Hillsborough told them that they were too modest: ask for 20 million acres, he suggested. This was a duplicitous suggestion, as Franklin later realized, but the Walpole speculators bought it and upped their request to 20 million acres – one of the biggest land grabs in world history. Hillsborough actually hoped that such a grandiose claim would discredit the whole project and prevent its getting a royal charter. He wanted to diminish the power of the colonies, not help them grow.”94 Biographer Walter Isaacson noted that Franklin became “involved with a variety of partnerships, including ones called the Illinois Company and then the Indiana Company, that had failed to win support in London. In the summer of 1769, Franklin helped organize a consortium so powerful that he was convinced it would be able to outmaneuver Lord Hillsborough. The Grand Ohio Company, as it was named, included a collection of some of London’s richest and most prominent names, most notably Thomas and Richard Walpole.”95 Indeed the company was known as the Walpole Company. Biographer H.W. Brands noted that Franklin had always been a small player in this large game; his value to the bigger bettors was the influence he wielded among those who could make the project or break it.” Hillsborough succeeded to block it for several years, but in 1772, it was brought before the Board of Trade. Franklin was wary that his involvement might prejudice Hillsborough, but “when the petition (signed by Walpole, Franklin, John Sargent and Samuel Wharton) was presented, the board handed down a detailed unfavorable report,” wrote biographer Alfred Owen Aldridge. “Franklin thereupon drew up an answer, which was presented to the Privy Council. Against Hillsborough’s two principal objections, he urged that the project involved no conflict with Indian claims and that the area could be settled so as to maintain trade intercourse advantageous to England.”96 As a result, the petition was approved, prompting Hillsborough to quit as prime minister. Brands noted: “The prospective Ohio grandees [had] infiltrated the government by the tested means of offering shares to ministers and friends of ministers.”97 Franklin had successfully derailed Hillsborough, but Hillsborough had derailed the Grand Ohio Company long enough that the Revolutionary War would prevent its operation.

Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “In the tactical battle over disposition of the western lands, private and public interest were interwoven and narrow self-interest was indistinguishable from broad philosophical purpose.” McDonald noted: “Many of the prominent stockholders of these companies were also prominent nationalist leaders – including Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, William Duer, James Wilson, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton.”98 McDonald wrote: “Except in western Pennsylvania, where a monumental snarl of speculative claims had developed, everything north of the Ohio River was relatively simple, for that territory had become the property of the national government at the end of the Revolution. The territory that became Kentucky was more involved. It was originally a part of Virginia; and before consenting to Kentucky’s becoming a state, Virginia had granted a great deal of the land as bounties to Revolutionary War veterans and others, so that neither Kentucky nor the United States had an unclouded title to the unoccupied lands in the state.”99

James Madison and John Marshall

Virginian James Madison had a broad vision of the country’s possibilities but saw his own economic opportunity, ironically, in New York’s Mohawk Valley. He began speculating on land there in the 1780s – along with partner James Monroe. Washington also saw the possibilities there, visiting the area in 1783 when the Revolutionary War was winding down. According to historian John Ferling: “It was a vacation for a hardy individual. Washington traveled over 750 miles in less than three weeks, hiking, portaging, riding, sailing, canoeing, and camping both in the Lake Champlain wilderness and the green New York forests west of Albany. He vigilantly watched for choice available land and eventually acquired a lush tract in the Mohawk Valley.”100 John Seelye wrote: “Washington’s route was in effect a survey of the waterways and portages connecting the Hudson with western waters, a counterpart to the Potomac-Monongahela contingency and one that opened (according to Lewis Evans). ‘Communications with the Inland Parts of the Continent,’ which Evans believed was ‘of the utmost important to the [then] British Interest,’ but which in 1783 held out considerable promise of extending the United States’ domain.”101 Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham wrote: "Madison's main hope in the seventeen-eighties for the wealth that would make him independent...rested on lands in the Mohawk valley which Madison had seen in 1784. During a visit to Mount Vernon in October 1785, Madison discussed the Mohawk project with George Washington...The general approved enthusiastically. The Mohawk valley was 'the very Spot which his fancy had selected of all the U.S.' for land purchase, and he had, in fact, recently bought a tract there himself."102

George Washington’s fellow Virginian John Marshall sought opportunity closer to home. Marshall lacked inherited wealth and felt he had to provide for his large and growing family. Unlike Washington Marshall was born in western Virginia and had strong family ties to Kentucky. “Marshall had a large personal and professional interest in Kentucky land,” biographer Francis N. Stites wrote. “A boom had followed passage of the Virginia land law of 1779, which offered some warrants to veterans upon proof of military service and allowed the purchase of others with depreciated paper currency. The warrant was little more than a hunting license. The establishment of title to the land required a complicated series of steps involving the location and survey of a tract and the filing of papers with the Virginia land office at Richmond. Because Virginia had granted more land than was available and because surveying techniques were primitive, conflicting claims abounded. In such cases the only way to protect a claim was to file a caveat with the land office against a rival claim to the same parcel and then await a court decision. Every inch of Kentucky land was quickly disputed. Courts in Virginia – and in Kentucky after statehood in 1792 – were clogged with lawsuits.”103 Militarily distinguished and politically connected, Marshall found plenty of good legal work to be done for both himself and his father. Historian R. Kent Newmyer wrote: “As a lawyer for officers, many of whom were his former comrades-in-arms, he was in a position to deal in land warrants, which very quickly become items of speculation during the postwar land boom. Marshall was well placed to garner a sizeable piece of the action; to buy at a discount and sell at a profit, or to sell a part to pay for the rest. Judging from his dealings with Arthur Lee and James Monroe, he was not only successful but aggressive. As he confessed to Monroe regarding his various land dealings, ‘If I succeed I shall think myself a first rate speculator.’ He also assured his old friend ‘that you will not lose more.’”104

Marshall was in a good position to help his father, a prominent Kentucky surveyor and the official surveyor of Fayette County. R. Kent Newmyer wrote of the young Virginia lawyer: “As a resident of Richmond, he was near the land office, where he could purchase treasury warrants for Kentucky land and continue to buy up military warrants. Marshall then sent the warrants to his father, who could locate them on specific tracts of good land, enter the title, and arrange for a survey, which by Virginia law was necessary for completion of title.” Marshall was philosophically and economically pragmatic. Newmyer wrote: “Marshall shared land madness with others of his time and place, but he did so on his own terms. He enjoyed his Chickahominy ‘plantation’ as a respite from law and judging, but he did not philosophize or rhapsodize about the republican virtues of grubbing God’s good earth. He was one of the most astute and aggressive land speculators of his day, but he had no desire to live as a great planter. What land promised him was social status, security for his family, and a legacy for his children....it was natural that his first major acquisition during this period was title to the family estate of 850 acres at Oak Hill, a gift from his father, who had moved to Kentucky in search of land. Marshall also began to speculate on his own once he got out of the army. As an officer in the Continental line, he was entitled to an allotment of 4,000 acres.”105

Marshall became more involved in extensive land speculation in the mid-1790s when he sought to buy about 160,000 acres of the old Fairfax estate, which Washington had helped survey decades before. As Gustavus Myers described the Fairfax estate: “Because of its arable soil valuable for tobacco growing, its timber and other resources, its accessibility, lying as it did, on the Potomac River and other rivers, and its close proximity to the newly-established site of the National Capital, the prize was a rich one. In April, 1791, a declaration in ejectment was served on the tenants in possession. This action was brought in behalf of Hunter's grant. The Winchester district court admitted Denny Martin (otherwise Denny Fairfax) to defend the suit.”106 Pennsylvanian Robert Morris, whose daughter was married to Marshall’s brother, was to finance the transaction in Europe. At the time, Marshall declined to enter federal service because of his economic focus on his family; his wife was an invalid and his sons had trouble establishing themselves economically. Marshall biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: “Marshall’s interest in purchasing the manor lands, totalling about 215,000 acres, traced to the 1786 decision in Hite v. Fairfax, which implicitly recognized the Fairfax claim...Lord Fairfax’s heir... had no interest in moving to North America, and was eager to sell his holdings. The state of Virginia, however, saw the proprietary as a potential source of revenue and had begun to confiscate and sell off those portions that had not already been appropriated. Denny Fairfax retained Marshall to defend his interests against the confiscations, and Marshall soon became convinced that he could defend the Fairfax title against all comers, including the state of Virginia. If he was correct, the manor lands would provide an exceptional investment opportunity. Few Virginians believed that the proprietary could withstand the state’s challenge, and this lowered the price of the property substantially. Still, it was a high-stakes gamble, and Marshall was betting his financial future that his legal judgment would prevail.”107 Myers argued that “the real contention revolved around the point of whether Denny Fairfax, as Lord Fairfax's heir, had any claim whatever on an estate supposed to have been confiscated. The State of Virginia denied first, that Lord Fairfax had ever got this estate lawfully, or by legitimate methods; second, it asserted that the estate had been confiscated; third, it claimed that as an alien, Denny Fairfax could not hold lands. In opposition to these arguments, Marshall used much the same arguments that he had employed in the case of Hite vs. Fairfax. The court, in this case, decided in favor of Fairfax; as to the special circumstances leading to this decision, there are many obscurities in the available records, and the explanation cannot be extracted.”

But the next step in the proceedings is incontestably clear. Presently it turned out that Marshall himself and his brother James had bought out Denny Fairfax's claims to the Fairfax estate in Virginia. This was considered news of the first importance in that State. That the purchase took place so soon after the drafting of Jay's Treaty was looked upon as signifying that if fresh assaults were made upon Fairfax's title, the claimants could fall back upon the provisions of that treaty as an additional ground for validation of their title. This coincidence of John Marshall's buying the Fairfax claim with the signing of Jay's Treaty was a matter of invidious comment. John Marshall's agent was his brother James Markham Marshall, also a lawyer, who personally negotiated in England with Denny Fairfax for the purchase of the Fairfax claim, for his brother John and himself.108

Before Marshall could buy from Denny Fairfax, he had to secure Fairfax’s title. Marshall biographer Francis N. Stites wrote: “Denny Fairfax retained Marshall as his lawyer in 1790 and began litigation to secure his title both to the manor lands, for which specific claims had been made, and to ungranted wilderness lands. The legislature had spoke of both in denying the title but seemed more interested in the wilderness lands – in 1789 Virginia had granted 788 of those acres to David Hunter. Acting on Marshall’s advice to claim everything, Denny Fairfax challenged the Hunter grant on the grounds that the peace treaty of 1783 had restored all British possessions to their owners. The state courts upheld the Fairfax title, and in 1796 Hunter appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. In the interim Marshall had joined the syndicate that had agreed to purchase the Fairfax lands – some 160,000 acres for approximately $20,000. When Hunter postponed his appeal, James Marshall went to Europe to negotiate a loan to conclude the transaction, and John worked out an arrangement to secure the title in Virginia. In December 1796 he and the legislature compromised; the Fairfax purchasers surrendered claims to the ungranted lands, and the state granted clear title to the manor lands. James finally managed a loan in April 1797 that permitted partial payment and the first steps toward completion of the transaction. Shortly thereafter, when their partner Robert Morris declared bankruptcy, the entire burden fell upon the shoulders of the Marshall brothers.109 Biographer Albert Beveridge wrote: “At the winter session, 1796-97, of the Virginia Legislature, Marshall, acting for his brother and brother-in-law, as well as for himself, agreed to execute deeds to relinquish their joint claims ‘to the waste and unappropriated lands in the Northern Neck’ upon condition that the State would confirm the Fairfax title to lands specifically appropriated by Lord Fairfax or by his devisee.”110

Even after their victories in the court and in the legislature, noted Marshall biographer David Scott Robarge, "Marshall and the syndicate still faced the problem of financing the manor lands purchase: no loan, no land. The most they could secure, through James Marshall's negotiations with Dutch and English bankers and Robert Morris's efforts with the latter and in the United States, was about one third of the 22,000, including interest, due for all the manor lands."111 Marshall biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: “Marshall’s next task was to raise the £20,000 agreed upon. That would prove to be almost as difficult as the battle to acquire a clear title had been, and the deal was not to be consummated until October 16, 1806. In the interim, Marshall had to pay interest on the purchase price, and the burden of doing so cast a pall over his financial situation for the next half-dozen years. The money was raised eventually, and Marshall, after various sales and exchanges with his brother James and his brother-in-law Rawleigh Colston, ended up with 50,000 acres of prime Virginia real estate.”112 In arranging a loan to finance the deal, Marshall and his erstwhile partner Robert Morris were hurt by unrest in Europe that diverted European interest in American land speculation. Morris was most immediately affected and went bankrupt in 1797.

The purchase of the Fairfax estate left Marshall heavily in debt; he continued to decline time-consuming public office to concentrate on more lucrative work as a lawyer to pay for his acquisitions. After Marshall returned as one of three U.S. emissaries to France in 1797, his celebrity for the XYZ affair made him a hot political property. Nevertheless, Marshall declined an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court and nearly declined a strong entreaty from George Washington to run for Congress in 1798. Legal expert James F. Simon noted: “Marshall remained heavily in debt as a result of his Fairfax land purchases and considered it his most urgent business to pay off that debt by returning to his thriving law practice in Richmond.”113 Francis N. Stites wrote: “The right to acquire property was, in Marshall’s view, almost as important as life itself. He had devoted a large portion of his public life to the preservation of that right from infringement by state legislatures.” Stites noted that “His own legal problems with Fairfax lands, still unsettled, reinforced these long-standing convictions.” Ironically, Washington posthumously would free Marshall from debt. Stites wrote of the five-volume biography of Washington that Marshall authored: “The work was a disappointment, even though Marshall’s $20,000 share of the royalties helped make the final payment on the Fairfax purchase.”114 Biographer Albert Beveridge concluded: “On October 18,1806, the Marshall syndicate, having finally made the remaining payments for that part of the Fairfax estate purchased by it—fourteen thousand pounds in all — Philip Martin, the devisee of Denny M. Fairfax, executed his warranty to John and James M. Marshall and their brother-in-law, Rawleigh Colston; and this deed was duly recorded in Fauquier, Warren, Frederick, and Shenandoah.”115

Robert Morris and Bankruptcy

Land speculation was a risky business – even for the well-connected. Robert Morris, the financier who guided America through the Revolutionary War, was not as lucky as Marshall. During the war and post-war years, Morris had built up a network of contacts in Europe which he expected to finance his speculative activities. David Scott Robarge wrote: "John Marshall's ties to Morris...dated to the late 1780s when he represented Morris in complicated commercial litigation in the chancery court. In the early 1790s, John and James Marshall borrowed from Morris to buy stock in the BUS [Bank of the United States]. After James became engaged to Morris's daughter in 1794 or 1795 and was appointed secretary of the financier's North American Land Company, Morris offered to underwrite the manor lands purchase with European loans."116 The breadth of Morris’s investments was breath-taking. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer wrote: “In 1794 Morris and his partner John Nicholson organized the so-called ‘Asylum Company,’ which was based upon one million acres of land in Pennsylvania, chiefly in Luzerne, Northumberland, and Northampton Counties. They built a town on the Susquehanna which they named Asylum, and aimed to attract settlers to their tracts. A year later Morris sold his interest in this enterprise to Nicholson. In 1795 more than six million acres of land were thrown into the North American Land Company, including 647,046 acres in Pennsylvania, of which 250,000 acres were located north and west of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers in a country not yet laid out into counties, much of it being situated near the present site of Pittsburg. Morris and his partners owned 932,621 acres in Virginia, of which 484,025 were situated in Montgomery County, 717,249 acres in North Carolina, 957,238 acres in South Carolina, 577,857 being in the Orangeburg district, 2,314,796 acres in Georgia, of which 1,453,516 were in Washington County, and 431,043 acres in Kentucky.” He added: “When the tracts assigned to this company were disposed of, Mr. Morris was still so extensive a landholder that he owned real estate in Pennsylvania estimated to have a value of $1,000,000 with which in 1797 to organize the Pennsylvania Property Company, his final effort in a long succession of struggles to save himself from a bankrupt's fate.”117

Morris also invested extensively in the building of the new national capital next to the Potomac River – a favorite project of his friend Washington. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer wrote: “As soon as the Congress of which he was a member decided that the seat of government should be located on the Potomac's banks, Morris proceeded to invest extensively in land in the most likely parts of the District of Columbia. He and his partners purchased about six thousand building lots in Washington, later adding some twelve hundred more to their holdings, making in all 7234. The site of the future city was a primeval forest. There were no houses, barring some cabins for workmen and negroes, until Mr. Morris began his building operations.”118

The pursuit of land naturally led to speculative abuses. The land speculation fever that gripped America would later be personified in Fletcher v. Peck, concerning the Yazoo tract in what would become Mississippi and Alabama but which was temporarily in dispute between Georgia and the federal government. At stake were 35 million acres which were outside of the state lines but which the state government sought to sell for a half million dollars in January 1795. Stites wrote that “in 1795 four land companies induced the Georgia legislature through bribes to sell thirty-five million acres along the Yazoo River for a trifling half million dollars. Angry over the fraud, the indignant Georgians threw the rascals out. In 1796 a new legislature repeated the 1795 grant. But the lands had already been resold to innocent third parties. One, the New England Mississippi Land company, purchased over eleven million acres on the day of the repeal. The title to this huge tract ultimately came before Marshall and the Supreme Court.”119 Among the investors was Patrick Henry. According to biographer Harlow Giles Unger, Henry “joined other investors in forming the Virginia Yazoo Land Company, one of three Yazoo Land Companies in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, to which the governor sold an astonishing 35 million acres in the western Yazoo River area of Georgia for an even more astonishing price of $500,000, or one and a half cents an acre.”120 Henry was hurt by the Yazoo fiasco, but not as badly as Robert Morris. The Yazoo dispute and the attendant bad publicity in Europe led to Morris’ own collapse although Morris himself laid the seeds for his financial demise by using the same collateral for multiple loans. Morris complained after the Yazoo controversy erupted, writing a Philadelphia newspaper in 1795: “I feel myself ill-used. My character has been attacked in distant countries upon a score of dealings, which are not only important to myself but to many others.”121

Morris’s speculation had been on a grand scale – buying western New York in the early 1790s for $75,000 and selling it a year later for tidy profit of $58,000. His agent for the British purchasers was Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin. Morris’s success prompted him to pursue similar purchases and similar purchasers in Europe. He sent one son to New York to handle purchases and another son to Europe to find buyers. Relatively quickly, Morris found himself in financial difficulty and needed a loan from one of his British customers. Eventually, he could not make payments on the loan.

“The transactions in New York were complex and financially compromising, but Morris was still ahead of the game, and after the initial sales negotiations he set his northern venture on the back burner. The fever for land speculation was by now sweeping all the former British colonies in America, and nowhere did it reach such a pitch as in Morris’s home state,” wrote Morris biographer Charles Rappleye. One Morris partner was James Nicholson, a Pennsylvania official with a flexible view of the law and morality. They worked together on six land companies and in the process “their association [grew] steadily deeper and more intimate.” Rappelye noted: “Morris and Nicholson, now operating as partners, answered these uncertain times with ever grander ventures in land. There were two basic approaches to the land business at the time; but large tracts on credit and pay for them by turning them over quickly to second-wave speculators, as Morris had in New York, or set up land companies that would sell small lots to settlers. These ventures took longer to mature, but were better regarded by lawmakers and, at least theoretically, yielded higher end prices.”122 While dreaming of financial riches across the Atlantic seaboard, Morris began construction on an expensive new home in Philadelphia – designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of the nation’s capital. As a result of construction delays and financial problems, the mansion would never be finished.

Morris also speculated in the South – buying over six million acres. Morris picked a bad time to expand his investments – as European bankers increasingly tightened or shut off credit. Biographer Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer noted: “In 1795 Mr. Morris laid a plan for increasing his land holdings in Georgia by purchasing the tract presented by that state to the Comte D'Estaing, who commanded a French squadron sent to aid the colonies during the Revolution. The Count had just been put to death by the guillotiners in Paris. He died without children. His natural heir was the Comte de Colbert, who had inquired about the property through Mr. Pinckney, our Minister to England, who in turn directed the inquiry to Robert Morris as an eminent authority on the value of lands in America. Morris asked his agent in London, William Constable, to negotiate with the heirs, whoever they might be, for the purchase of the claim for about £4000 or £5000. His own name must not be used in the transaction, but Gouverneur Morris, then in Europe, and his son William, might be taken into the business. The latter, if need be, could be sent to Georgia to attend to the recovery of the tract. Mr. Morris did not know what the property was worth. That it had a higher value than the price he proposed to pay, he was fairly well convinced.”123

Morris’ problems had started first – in Europe. Expenses were mounting at a time when credit was contracting and the demands of Morris’s creditors were increasing. Morris biographer William Graham Sumner noted: “In his [later] petition in bankruptcy, he dated his misfortunes from the failure of two houses in London and Dublin, in 1793....The habit of dealing with large sums on paper when he was public financier, the glory of giving credit to the United States by his personal indorsement, the discovery that he could with facility circulate his personal notes as currency, and the prestige which he had enjoyed were enough to turn the head of any man. Sad as it is to believe it, we cannot resist the conviction that he was ruined by the moral reaction which he underwent from his experience in the public service. We cannot overlook the fact that he was forced to use devices on behalf of a bankrupt treasury of which he expressed detestation as an honourable merchant. Having stooped to these things, like other men in similar cases, he speedily became habituated and reconciled to them.”124

Morris’s solution to his problems was not to retrench but to expand. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer noted: “Robert Morris's financial misfortunes did not descend upon him suddenly, which leads us to wonder why he did not take effective steps to ward off the disaster. But he had started on his downward course, and one event after another contributed to hasten the speed with which he was carried to the end. He had assumed the ro1e of the rich man of America, and it was costly to keep his place. One speculation followed another until he could go no farther. No more taxes could be paid, no more land could be mortgaged, no more could be sold, and while every one knew that his vast tracts had great prospective worth, the state of the times, financially, encouraged no investor to submit to the waiting and the risk.”125 Morris seemed to believe that the solution to his problems to expand his problems even after those problems had become unmanageable. Morris biographer Charles Rappleye wrote: “In moments that can only be called delusional, Morris even continued buying land – thirty thousand acres in Ohio, in 1796, and 44,000 acres in the Shenandoah Valley the following year.”126

Morris remained outwardly calm, but he understood the implications of the imprisonment in New Jersey of U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson for unpaid debts in 1798. Upon release for payment of a relatively trivial $300 debt, Wilson went to North Carolina to evade creditors for his projects in New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Malaria, however, caught up with Wilson and cost him his life in August. Back in their home state of Pennsylvania, Morris himself refused to open the door to creditors of his suburban house– calling the home “Castle Defiance.” Eventually by February 1798, the pressure from creditors became too great, and Morris arranged for his own arrest and imprisonment in the Prune Street Jail in Philadelphia. He soon has his own room and furnished it an extravagant style. He called his accommodations the “Hotel with Gated doors.” Wilsonwould remain there for more than three years. After Congress passed a bankruptcy law in 1800, Morris was released in 1801. Biographer Charles Rappleye noted that Morris “believed to the end that his lands would find buyers and that his creditors would be made whole. His titles were often iffy, but no more so than those of his rivals. By and large, the underlying value was there.”127 Greed was Morris’s downfall. In 1800, Morris recalled: “I shall begin with the lands purchased in the Genesee country, acknowledging that if I had contented myself with those purchases and employed my time and attention in disposing of the lands to the best advantage, I have every reason to believe that at this day I should have been the wealthiest citizen of the United States. That things have gone otherwise I lament, more on account of others than on my own account, for God has blessed me with a disposition of mind that enables me to submit with patient resignation to his dispensations as they regard myself.”128

Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton

Even those in federal service under President Washington were diverted by the lust for land. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote that Secretary of War Henry "Knox devoted more attention to his land investments in Maine than to his War Department duties, Madison was forever conniving to become independently wealthy through land ventures, and even Hamilton sometimes took a plunge. Independence had expanded opportunities for land speculation, for the Congress and several states governments had acquired vast expanses of former Crown and proprietary lands as public domains."129 Historian Jerry W. Markham wrote that "Knox and William Duer formed an association called the Eastern Land Associates to purchase large tracts of land. Knox and Duer acquired rights to some four million acres in Maine in 1791. Those holdings constituted most of the arable land there that was not already being farmed."130 In the midst of the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794, noted James Thomas Flexner, “Knox, who had speculated unwisely in real estate on the Maine frontier, regarded it as a matter of his personal economic life or death to get to Maine and try to bail his affairs out.” Washington wrote Knox: “I consent to your pursuing your plan, and wish you a good journey and a safe and speedy return.”131 Flexner wrote: “Eager not to bankrupt his old friend, Washington let Knox go, concocting for him a face-saving mission to inspect arsenals.”132 Knox’s departure from Philadelphia at a critical moment in the nation’s history, however, seemed to cool his long and warm partnership in Washington.

Knox’s land speculations were costly and burdensome. They had begun with an inheritance by Knox’s wife Lucy Flucker. Knox sought to add to the approximately half-million acres of Maine land that his wife had inherited or bought from her family, the so-called “Waldo Patent,” a 36-square mile piece of prime property north of Penobscot Bay. Historian Alan Taylor wrote that "On the eve of the Revolution, Lucy's parents owned three-fifths of the Waldo Patent. Loyalists, the Fluckers fled to England during the war. The commonwealth confiscated their property but, because of General Knox's influence, honored Lucy's claim to one-fifth. Despite their loyalism, the other Waldo heirs escaped confiscation of their two-fifths by quietly remaining in the commonwealth for the war's duration."133 According to Knox biographer Noah Brooks, “The tract of land now in possession of Knox was known as the Waldo patent, and to it Knox added by purchase many thousand acres. The domain (some thirty miles square) lay between the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers, and included the greater part of what is now the territory of Knox, Waldo, Penobscot, and Lincoln counties. The Waldo patent was originally issued to General Samuel Waldo, the maternal grandfather of Mrs. Henry Knox. This soldier was appointed a brigadier-general by William Shirley, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, in 1744. He was in command of the forces raised in the province for the reduction of Louisburg, and when that important fortified post surrendered to the British colonial arms, he continued to garrison Louisburg until relieved by the regular troops. ‘All of which was greatly to the detriment of his private fortune,’ says General William Pepperell, acting Governor of Massachusetts, in a certificate attached to Waldo's petition to the King of England, praying for a grant of wild land by way of compensation for his services. Before the grant could be issued and confirmed, General Waldo died, and his heirs...petitioned the King for confirmation of the royal grant. This secured, the so-called Waldo patent became the property of the heirs; and eventually the share of the Flucker family, and then the entire tract, came into possession of Lucy Flucker Knox and her husband, partly by inheritance and partly by purchase.”

Knox was also one of the members of the speculative organisation known as the Eastern Land Associates, Henry Jackson, Royal Flint, and other friends of the General being united with him in the purchase of a tract of wild land bought of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in 1792, and bounded on the south by lands which they had previously purchased; on the west by a line six miles from the east branch of the Penobscot River; on the east by the Schoodic River; north by the Canada line. For this immense tract the purchasers were to pay the Commonwealth twenty-five cents an acre, of which gross sum $5000 was to be paid within thirty days, and the remainder in payments of $30,000 per annum; bonds and securities were given by the buyers for the faithful performance of this contract.

Speculation in the wild lands of Maine was then rife, and extravagant stories of the hidden wealth of the region had induced many settlers and purchasers to take up as many acres as they could secure "by hook or by crook."134

By nature, Knox was a planner and a builder. For him, real estate may have been an escape from the pain of losing several young children to diphtheria and other illnesses during this period. Knox biographer Mark Puls wrote: “As he looked over the Waldo patent, he envisioned workers toiling in a variety of enterprises: lumberyards, fisheries, cattle breeding, brickmaking, farm, shipbuilding, lime burning, and other crafts.” But that required money and led Knox to make investments with money he didn’t have. Puls wrote: “Henry continued to have faith in the inevitable profitability of the estate and had few reservations about spending future earnings on present expenses...During one hospitable mood, he opened his house to the entire Tarratine clan of the Penoscot Indians and set out a banquet of beef, pork, corn, and bread. The Indians stayed for several days until Knox’s pantry became bare.”135

Even Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was affected by the mania for acquiring land, according to biographer John C. Miller: “Hamilton chose to invest his money in land, thereby tacitly admitting the defeat of his plans for building up American manufactures with the aid of domestic capital. Despite all that he had done to encourage industrialism, the shortest way to wealth in the United States still lay in land and commerce rather than in manufactures.” Speculation in land claimed victims – including Hamilton. Miller wrote: “Hamilton bought heavily in lands near Oswego and settled down to wait for the price to up as immigrants and capital poured into the country. But the European war kept the immigrants and much of the capital at home – with the result that Hamilton was faced with the disquieting possibility that the sheriff would get his lands before the settlers arrived.”136 Hamilton, whose economic program had fueled America’s economic resurgence in the 1790s, died broke. Hamilton biographer William Graham Sumner wrote: “His investments were chiefly unimproved land in western New York. His debts were $55,000. A subscription was made by his friends. A number of leading federalists at Boston had, a few years before, bought lands in Pennsylvania, owned by [Thomas] Pickering, as a mode of relieving him of the investment and setting him free to take office. They now transferred these lands to Hamilton's executors for the benefit of his family.”137

Some Founders invested close to home. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay’s wealth was centered in “the lands in and around New York City that he had inherited from his father or purchased on his own,” wrote Jay biographer Walter Stahr. “Alexander Hamilton’s son, writing many years later, said that Jay purchased lots in New York City ‘and as his means enabled him to hold his lots’ this ‘speculation made him rich.’ Hamilton, by contrast, purchased lands in upstate New York, investments which did not appreciate during his lifetime.”138 James Hamilton wrote: “"At a dinner party in New York, shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War, at which were present Messrs. G. Morris. John Jay, R. Harrison, John Delafield, Robert Lenox, Nicholas Low, I. O. Hoffman, and Alexander Hamilton, the question was discussed whether the purchase of wild lands or of lots in the suburbs of the city would be the more profitable investment. John Jay was in favor of New York. and made purchases there, and as his means enabled him to hold his lots, his speculation made him rich. Hoffman also bought land in the vicinity of the city. Some of the others, including my father, took the opposite view, and invested in the lands in the northern counties of the State. The wild lands were purchased at a few cents the acre, but they were not settled very rapidly. After the death of Hamilton, it was found...his means were not equal to the payment of his debts, and several of his friends advanced money for that purpose, taking those lands in payment.”139 Always comfortable but never rich, at the end of his life, former Chief Justice and New York Governor Jay turned his attention primarily to religion rather than speculation.

Thomas Jefferson and the Northwest

Unlike his fellow Founders, Thomas Jefferson confined his land gathering to his immediate neighborhood in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia – where he hoped to gather as well his intellectual friends such asJames Madison and James Monroe. Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall wrote: “While he was in Baltimore [in 1782], he had been visited by Gov. Abner Nash of North Carolina, who had offered to make Jefferson a partner in a land scheme. The governor and his friends were buying escheated Loyalist lands at rock-bottom prices for resale at high prices for resale at high prices once the war ended. On March 11, Jefferson rejected the offer as ‘one of those fair opportunities of bettering my situation which in private prudence I ought to adopt.’ If he had been ‘a private man’ he would have accepted the offer ‘without condition or hesitation.’ But he was well aware that the Loyalists could be a topic on the table for negotiations with the British. He would do nothing that could ‘lay my judgment under bias.’”140

Jefferson prepared Virginia for settlement of both Kentucky and the Old Northwest. Historian Dumas Malone wrote that in Jefferson’s draft constitution for Virginia that he composed in June 1776, Jefferson “proposed that such colonies as should be established in Virginia’s domain west of the mountains should be ‘free and independent of this colony and of all the world.’” But according to Malone, Jefferson “did not render his greatest services to the Northwest as the chief executive of Virginia, but as a member of Congress a few years later. He made a signal contribution to the political development of the region after his State had formally ceded it to the Union, and his governorship was then only an unpleasant memory.”141 For a curious man, Thomas Jefferson did not wander very far west. Biographer Dumas Malone wrote: “Although Jefferson never went farther west than the Shenandoah Valley nor farther south than his own Virginia, he was speaking of the whole of the Republic when he replied ‘The world will here see such an extent of country under a free and moderate government as it has never yet seen.” But there was a distinct western orientation to his politics and policies which culminated in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.”142 Jefferson’s experiences as Virginia’s governor from 1779 to 1781 helped form his attitudes about western expansion. Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall wrote: “The west continued to mesmerize Jefferson, and worry about Virginia’s immeasurable frontier was a constant drain on his time and the state’s meager resources. One thousand scarce Virginia’s troops were tied down under Clark. Frontier traders refused Virginia’s increasingly worthless currency. Congress kept up its pressure. Unless Virginia yielded its claims, Maryland would not sign the Articles of Confederation, which had been stalled in Congress since 1776. Finally, in January 1780, Jefferson yielded. Virginia’s western lands would become part of the United States. He ordered Clark ‘to withdraw to the [southern] side of the Ohio’ all but vital defense forces and to build a fort there to secure the Mississippi trade. Then he won Assembly approval for a force of Virginia regulars – a first – to attack and subdue the Shawnees: ‘The same world will scarcely do for them and for us,’ he wrote. Clark and his Virginians defeated the Shawnees that summer and built Fort Jefferson just below the mouth of the Ohio, honoring Jefferson’s perseverance in his first western policy, the crowning achievement of his troubled governorship. The fort, undersupplied and repeatedly attacked, held out for another year, then had to be abandoned.”143

Jefferson’s interests were more inquisitive than acquisitive. Jefferson, for example, tried to recruit explorer John Ledyard to investigate the American west. Jefferson’s lack of personal experience did not diminish his philosophical disposition toward the West. Even his beloved home reflected his orientation. According to Michael Knox Beran, Jefferson “built his house to face the west, the sunlit future that he hoped to shape and into which he longed to escape.”144 Willard Sterne Randall wrote: “From writing the first draft of the Northwest Ordinance with its ban on slavery in the vast new federal territories to his (quite unconstitutional) Louisiana Purchase, which doubled American territory, Jefferson always had his eyes on the prize of cheap land as the key to American freedom and economic independence from the Old World he so distrusted. All his life, Jefferson faced west, pushing the United States to the Pacific Rim nearly two centuries ago.”145

In the process Jefferson developed a political following in the Ohio valley. Indeed, according to biographer Randall, President Washington was advised “to bring Jefferson into the cabinet to cement the loyalty of the west. Jefferson had fought to give farmers on the Virginia frontier an equal footing in the state’s government and had championed the carving-out of Kentucky from Virginia territory as governor.”146 As Max Farand noted: “The western country and its people presented no easy problem to the United States: how to hold those people when the pull was strong to draw them from the Union; how to govern citizens so widely separated from the older communities; and of most immediate importance, how to hold the land itself.”147 Thomas Jefferson and his ally, Pennsylvanian Albert Gallatin, understood land as a key to American democracy and economic growth. Economic historian Charles Sellers wrote: “Pragmatically Jefferson recognized that the country was not ready ‘yet’ to let the landless appropriate enough uncultivated land to meet their needs. But ‘it is not too soon,’ he insisted, ‘to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land.’”148

One of the most troublesome problems facing the Continental Congress in the 1780s was the disposition of land west of the Alleghenies to which multiple colonies had claims. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “The goal whose pursuit blocked ratification of the Articles was the ownership of the western lands. The question had meaning in many places, for several states were ‘landless,’ having no claims or only nebulous claims to western areas, and most of these landless states had as much population as their arable land, under existing technology, could support.”149 Historian Irving Brand wrote: “As early as 1776, Maryland threw out the challenge ‘that the back lands claimed by the British crown, if secured by the blood and treasure of all, ought in reason, justice and policy, to be considered as a common stock, to be parceled out by Congress into free, convenient and independent governments, as the wisdom of that body shall hereafter direct.” Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware would not ratify the Confederation without a cut in the great western treasure.”150 Historian Willard Sterne Randall noted: “Virginia’s annexation of the best Illinois country had far-reaching consequences. First, it nearly wrecked the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the first United States constitution, delaying the process for nearly four years after land-poor Maryland objected to the huge unauthorized acquisition by her already dominant neighbor, Virginia. Jefferson finally broke the logjam by ceding Virginia’s claims to the United States government in 1780.” Randall wrote: “Expanding Virginia into territories that it could not defend or hold characterized Jefferson’s grand efforts that did not at the time seem to work.”151

Jefferson’s neighbor and friend, James Madison, pushed a congressional motion that “contained the whole substance of national land policy as maintained in coming centuries. Under it, state after state was added to a Union that ultimately stretched from ocean to ocean. The public domain was set up and opened to settlement; national forests and national parks were established – the basic title vested and remaining in the entire American people instead of in the states so added.” Madison biographer Irving Brant wrote that on the “first day he attended the [governor’s] council, Madison joined in approving a step by Governor [Patrick] Henry to promote American occupation of the West. Colonel David Rogers was ordered to recruit thirty soldiers and go by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans for a load of goods. He bore a letter to Spanish Governor Galvez requesting a loan to Virginia and asking him to consider ‘whether by uniting West Florida to the Confederation of the States of America, the English settlements will not be reduced to an extremity.’ Two weeks earlier the council had sanctioned Henry’s plan to send Colonel George Rogers Clark with three hundred men to attack the British post of Kaskaskia (Illinois) and thus gain control of the upper Mississippi Valley.”152 Jack Rakove wrote of Madison that concerning “the cession of Virginia’s western lands to the Union – he acted as a delegate in the strict sense, faithfully defending the conditions that the state assembly insisted must be met in order for its cession to be completed.”153 In congressional debates over national sovereignty over the western territories, Madison summarized U.S. rights to the western territories.

1. United States are to be considered in many respects as one undivided independent nation, inheriting those rights which the king of Great Britain enjoyed as not appertaining to any one particular state, while he was what they [the United States] are now, the superintending governor of the whole.

2. The king of Great Britain has been dethroned as king of the United States, by the joint efforts of the whole.

3. The very country in question hath been conquered through the means of the common labors of the United States.154


During the 1790s, the population west of the Appalachians more than doubled. Historian Arthur Burr Darling noted: “The estimated white population of the Northwest Territory in 1790 had been only 3,000, but there were some 15,000 by 1795: and the census of 1800 revealed a population in Ohio alone of 45,365. The numbers in Georgia, then a frontier state, increased form 82,548 in 1790 to 161,414 in 1800. Kentucky’s population rose from 73,677 to 222,955. Tennessee increased from 35,691 to 105,602.”155 Politicians concentrated on how to secure economic links and political loyalty from westerners. The Constitution came first and then an effective national government was required. Washington, as usual, had the most national outlook. Washington scholar Glenn A. Phelps wrote: “To make all of this work – the canal, westward expansion, provision for bounty lands, immigration policy – Washington believed that it was essential that Congress have plenary authority to administer the western lands. The states could not be permitted to have anything at all to do with the matter. For one thing, administration of the western lands for the common national interest would remove one source of perpetual jealousy among the states.”156

With expansion, America boomed. “A fabulous commercial boom set the stage for market revolution when these avid enterprisers were fortuitously presented with almost unlimited opportunities for profit,” wrote Charles Sellers. “Commercial boom swelled American exports from $20.2 million in 1790 to $108.3 million in 1807. Domestically produced exports more than doubled from $19.9 million to $48.7 million.”157 Conflict with the British would undermine that boom and lead to the War of 1812. That war would fittingly end with a battle in New Orleans – aged after a peace treaty had already been signed. Europe’s problems helped feed American growth, but Europe’s political problems personified by Napoleon interfered with financing that growth.” Sellers wrote: “For some sixty-five years preceding 1820, Europe was unable to feed itself and relied increasingly upon American wheat, flour, beef, and pork. As wheat prices rose in response, more farmers at ever greater distances from the market discovered that they could profitably enlarge their marketable surplus despite the high cost of transportation. Between 1772 and 1819, the profitable wagoning distance for wheat doubled to over one hundred miles. A wheat exporting belt spread form the lower Connecticut to the lower James and inland to Virginia’s lower Shenandoah valley.”158 As Washington had foreseen, adequate transportation to America’s emerging interior was vital to the country’s economic growth.

Founders like Washington helped ignite the western march toward cheap land, but they did not control it. Nor did they necessarily benefit from it. Historian Bernard Bailyn wrote: “The expansion of settlement that took place in North America after 1760 is a dramatic story that can be seen as a whole only from a very high vantage point. It began with the movement to the frontiers of isolated and family community groups moving here and there along a thousand-mile perimeter in search of new locations – a few hundred isolated clusters of people, at first, pulling loaded carts and sledges and driving wagons along Indian paths across the foothills and through the gaps in the first mountain barriers to the west, polling rafts loaded with farm equipment, animals, and household gods, and paddling canoes into the interior. Soon these movements of separate groups, which at first left no visible mark on the settlement maps of British North American, began to multiply, flowed together to form substantial human streams, and ended as a flood of migrants pouring west, north, and south outward from well-settled areas to form new centers of community life.”159

America’s diplomatic stresses conflicted with economic expansion, but they did not interrupt the inexorable move west. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 would move the frontier west and opened up new lands for cultivation. This process, ironically, undermined the financial position of some of America’s Founders – particularly three Virginia friends and neighbors – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. The Louisiana Purchase was negotiated by Monroe under the direction of Jefferson as president and Madison as secretary of state. All of them had been too generous to their families and too extravagant in their personal spending and spent too much time in government service All of them died in virtual bankruptcy. As Madison wrote 1825, he was “living very much throughout on borrowed means.”160 Madison biographer Kevin R. Gutzman noted: “Madison traced Virginia’s economic decline to several causal factors. Most prominent, in his thinking, was the opening of a huge inland empire of virgin land to American farmers. That land produced far more than the exhausted land of Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia with the same effort, and that production drove down the price of Virginia’s agricultural products.”161

Still, it was Jeffersonians like Madison – rather than Federalists like Hamilton – who reaped the political advantages of western expansion. Historian Bernard A. Weisberger wrote: “By identifying themselves as the friends of the family farmer against the rich speculator, the Republicans had not only locked in the votes of Kentucky and Tennessee but gained a distinct edge among farmers everywhere who were considering a move to the West.” Weisberger wrote of the Land Act of 1800: “The passage of the act, which made it easier to buy a western farm, was made possible by the vigorous efforts of Albert Gallatin, by then the key Republican member of the House....He and [prime sponsor William Henry] Harrison, both aristocrats-turned-politicians, between them gave western commoners what they were clamoring for – easy access to ownership of that ‘great plenty.’”162 Gallatin had more personal experience on the frontier because he had settled in western Pennsylvania and sought to establish a commercial presence there while entering politics. The bustling frontier that these men helped create never brought them wealth. Historian John Ferling wrote: “Each of the three Republican presidents...chipped away at Federalist land legislation, steadily bringing down the price of western lands, until under the Land Act of 1820 a farmer could acquire eighty acres for about $130, a sum that was easily obtained by most who practiced husbandry. Jefferson had bloodlessly acquired and made accessible a vast domain, a feat that some-Ultra-Federalists had dreamed of accomplishing through the use of force. What is more, the revenue generated by land sales and the tariff eliminated the necessity of direct federal taxation.”163

Theirs was a political legacy to all Americans, not a personal legacy to their heirs.


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