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Securing the West

Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850

John R. Van Atta

Publication Year: 2014

Few issues defined the period between American independence and the Mexican War more sharply than westward settlement and the role of the federal government in that expansion. In Securing the West, John R. Van Atta examines the visions of the founding generation and the increasing influence of ideological differences in the years after the peace of 1815. Americans expected the country to grow westward, but on the details of that growth they held strongly different opinions. What part should Congress play in this development? How much should public land cost? What of the families and businesses left behind, and how would society's institutions be established in the West? What of the premature settlers, the "squatters" who challenged the rule of law while epitomizing democratic daring? Taking a broad approach, Van Atta addresses three interrelated queries: First, how did competing economic beliefs and divergent cultural mandates influence the various outcomes of this broad debate over the means, timing, and purposes of settling the trans-Appalachian West? Second, what alternative visions of western society lay behind the battles among policy makers within the government and the interested parties who would sway them? Third, why did settlement of the West take such a different course in the end from that which the earliest leaders of the republic intended? This story explores dimensions of the federal lands question that other historians have minimized or left out entirely. Van Atta draws upon a range of sources known to influence public discourse, including congressional debates, committee reports, and correspondence; editorial writings by the famous and unknown; and news coverage in various widely circulated newspapers and magazines of the period. Much of the attention focuses on Congress—the elected leaders who advocated divergent plans about western lands. In Congress, more than any other place, public leaders articulated basic concerns about the character, structure, direction, and destiny of society in the early United States. By 1830, many other important national concerns had become critically entangled with land disposition, creating points of ideological tension among rival regions, parties, and interests in the early years of the republic—particularly in Jacksonian America.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Reconfiguring American Political History


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

Over the many years it took to fi nish this book, I have run up a daunting tab of debts, most of which can never be paid. There is room here to acknowledge only a few. Both the motivation to complete the manuscript and the inspiration for its central themes of nation building and social development came from a National...

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pp. 1-7

Edmund P. Dana was a good man to know. As of 1819, he had found employment for several years as a land agent for more than 1,300 settlers headed for the northwestern frontier of the republic in hope of a new and better life. By his own account, Dana had lived for six years among the natives in the Great Lakes Region...

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Prologue: “A Great Country, Populous and Mighty”

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pp. 8-16

When Benjamin Franklin, aged 42, retired from his publishing business in 1748, he expected to devote more time to scientific and philosophical studies. Having achieved both fortune and status in Philadelphia, he now considered himself a “gentleman,” a “Man of Leisure” and disinterested reflection. In his case, this included...

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1. “Republican Notions—and Utopian Schemes”

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pp. 17-44

On November 15, 1782, as he pondered the prospects of westward expansion in post-Revolutionary America, James Madison had good reason to be worried. It was not just that American independence had yet to be finally confirmed in negotiations with Great Britain. A few weeks earlier, the Confederation Congress, where...

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2. An Embryo of Empire

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pp. 45-84

In December 1804, the Public Lands Committee of the House of Representatives received a petition, in two sections, from “inhabitants” of Randolph and St. Clair Counties, Indiana Territory—284 signatures in all. Danel Stuky and Larence Shuk featured among the names, along with two men from the Jarvis family and three...

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3. Rise of the Radical West

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pp. 85-112

In early 1822, a letter to the editor from an anonymous writer in Worthington, Ohio, arrived at the ramshackle office of the Richmond (Indiana) Weekly Intelligencer. Just to show how scarce genuine, federally minted coin had become in the West, the letter said, “[T]here is but ONE quarter of a dollar in Worthington, and...

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4. “A World within Itself ”

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pp. 113-138

Thomas Hart Benton faced a prodigious rival for the sympathies of westerners— another crafty new-state politician, equally charismatic, with a vastly different economic agenda and a desire for power that burned even hotter than Benton’s. Some people referred to Henry Clay by his nickname, “Harry of the West.” He, not Benton...

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5. Foot’s Resolution and the “Great Debate”

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pp. 139-169

In the small western town of Indianapolis, population roughly 1,900, the February 11, 1830, issue of the Indiana State Gazette reported, “A debate of immense interest to the people of the west, in relation to the public lands, has been going on for some time in both houses of Congress.” Under discussion in distant Washington...

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6. Whose West?—Alternative Visions

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pp. 170-204

If Clay and Webster could have structured society as they wished, based on the nationalist political economy of the American System, there might have been far more westerners like Dr. Daniel Drake and more profusions of capital growth like that of Cincinnati. Drake was one of the premier physicians in the West, if not...

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7. “A Lawless Rabble”

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pp. 205-231

When subscribers in Chautauqua County, New York, opened the Jamestown Journal in late April 1836, they read that a United States senator from faraway Mississippi wanted to give preference in public land sales to people who had settled illegally, characterizing them as “the finest portion of republican citizens!” Should...

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Epilogue: The West Secured?

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pp. 232-244

The framers of the original federal land system thought that to secure the West meant to replicate their most cherished values on the frontier as the waves of migration advanced. They tried to cobble together some basic plans for the gradual westward expansion of republican society, institutions, and beliefs. Those enlightened...


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pp. 245-278

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 279-284

The following discussion just touches on the wealth of sources relevant to subjects addressed in this book. Primary and secondary materials on land-policy development, broadly conceived, are massive in number and span several disciplines. The selected collections and titles listed below represent those I have found especially useful, along with recent works...


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pp. 285-294

E-ISBN-13: 9781421412764
E-ISBN-10: 1421412764
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421412757
Print-ISBN-10: 1421412756

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 5 maps
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Reconfiguring American Political History
Series Editor Byline: Ronald P. Formisano, Paul Bourke, Donald DeBats, and Paula M. Baker, Series Founders See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 876374890
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Securing the West

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Territorial expansion -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Territorial expansion -- Government policy.
  • Federal government -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Public lands -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Extension to the territories.
  • Indians of North America -- Government relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Manifest Destiny.
  • West (U.S.) -- History -- To 1848.
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