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In Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850, John Van Atta examines the evolution of federal western land policies. From the republican-infused ideals of the Revolution to the antebellum congressional debates over distribution, Van Atta traces the political, economic, and cultural implications of the ever-shifting western land policies and their consequences on the “character of American society” (p. 205).
Van Atta begins his analysis of western land policies with the “original” blueprint for land distribution, which emerged out of the republican idealism of the Revolution. Rooted in the desire for an orderly and egalitarian settlement of the West that eschewed the aristocratic privilege of Britain’s speculator-friendly policies, America’s first land policies sought to populate the region with virtuous, republican farmers. Under Federalist leadership, this original land policy was replaced with a Hamiltonian vision for western land development, which emphasized a deceleration of settlement, ending squatting, and asserting federal control. Driven by fears of overexpansion, Indian warfare, lawlessness, and the alleged threat to eastern economic development, Hamilton and his Federalist allies crafted a “socially elitist” philosophy of western land development (p. 51). The Federalist policies sparked a backlash from westerners who criticized federal control of lands and the perception of anti-western sentiment in the East. After the Republican ascendency in 1800, Jeffersonian Republicans again altered western land policy (i.e., the Land Act of 1800) by accelerating land sales in an effort to pay off the national debt and fund western internal improvements.
Following the Panic of 1819, land policies again underwent alteration as land reformers like Thomas Hart Benton and Jeremiah Morrow sought to avoid a western backlash caused by high levels of debt and to reverse the region’s moral decay. Morrow’s Land Act of 1820 and [End Page 737] Benton’s 1824 graduation legislation ended credit sales and auctions in order to curtail rampant speculation and to ensure regional settlement by morally upstanding individuals. Land reformers introduced the controversial concepts of graduation, the lowering of land prices the longer they remained unsold, and preemption, upholding the claims of original settlers, to the debates over western lands. Once again, westerners and their political allies (e.g., Virgil Maxey) opposed federal control of western lands and revenue.
The debate over western lands intensified during the John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson administrations as Henry Clay’s western vision clashed with the agrarian-centered reforms promoted by Benton. Van Atta argues that historians have overlooked the critical role western land played in Clay’s American System. Clay’s western policies were rooted in protectionism (i.e., tariffs), the establishment of home markets, balancing manufacturing and agriculture, and using land sales to fund national internal improvements. As Adams’s treasury secretary Richard Rush implemented Clay’s vision, western political leaders (e.g., Ninian Edwards) flirted with nullification as a strategy to challenge federal control of western lands. The sectional nature of the debate deepened during Jackson’s presidency after Connecticut congressman Samuel A. Foot introduced legislation that would temporarily halt western land sales in an effort to maintain the eastern labor pool and protect New England manufacturing. Despite Van Atta’s assertion that there was no real New England anti-western bias, both western and southern political leaders condemned the Foot proposal and accused the Connecticut congressman of harboring hostility toward the West. Benton and his supporters alleged that the Foot proposal would harm western agriculture, slow migration, and disrupt the natural settlement process. The specter of nullification emerged once again during the “Great Debate” between Daniel Webster and states’ rights proponent Robert Hayne, as Hayne protested federal control of western lands and Webster sought to keep the West from developing in the image of the slave South.
In the final two chapters, Van Atta examines the continuing efforts [End Page 738] to morally reform the West and to address the issue of squatter’s rights. Inspired...