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  • The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650–1900
  • Sumner J. La Croix
The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650–1900. By John C. Weaver. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003. 488 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Historians who engage in comparative history over long periods of time face enormous challenges. Explanations of change for one society often do not carry over to a second society, and the historian is forced to reconcile, discard, and develop new explanations and puzzle over endless inconsistencies and peculiarities of time and place. The challenge magnifies when the historian attempts, as John C. Weaver does [End Page 342] in this sweeping volume, to compare similar historical episodes across multiple societies over 250 years. Weaver's comparative history succeeds admirably in bringing together an enormous number of secondary studies for different societies and placing them in comparative context, thereby sharpening "a critical understanding of attitudes and practices about property rights, which have grown to influence the contemporary world" (p. 5). The value of Weaver's study is, however, diminished by his early decision to ignore important studies carried out by economic historians in this area and to eschew quantitative and theoretical frameworks for organizing the materials.

Weaver begins with a useful survey of how practices of land acquisition and allocation differed in British colonies from those of other European empires: Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and Russia. The main focus of the book is, however, on the land acquisition and distribution practices in British colonies and former British colonies—the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—as well as in Argentina. All are settler economies, in which European immigrants found opportunities in farming or grazing on vast tracts of land that were populated by indigenous peoples who offered various degrees of resistance to settler efforts to establish property rights in these lands.

Weaver then compares how land was acquired from indigenous people in the various settler economies and how it was allocated among competing claimants. Weaver divides land allocation into three categories: by rank, by the market, and by settler initiative. His discussion of land allocation is motivated by the thesis that "the extraction of wealth from frontiers benefited from a tension, remarkable and fateful, between defiant private initiatives and the ordered, state-backed certainties of property rights" (p. 4). National and state governments often defined de jure rules for acquiring and allocating property, while settlers and speculators often followed their self-interest by defying these rules and developing de facto rules for defining and enforcing property rights systems. Weaver is highly critical of these private initiatives, typically viewing them as schemes by which private individuals unjustly enriched themselves.

Weaver's thesis on land allocation stands in stark contrast to the thesis developed by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill in numerous articles and summarized in their recent book The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier (2005). Anderson and Hill's research focuses on the formation of property rights in the American West and concludes that property rights on the frontier tended to [End Page 343] maximize wealth when they were defined by local stakeholders who had better information on the resources at the frontier than officials and politicians in the national and state governments. They argue that the attempts by the U.S. government to define property rights in the American West often ended in disaster, with homesteaders granted too little land to run profitable farms and native Americans forced to sell their land to settlers at bargain basement prices.

Weaver's focus on the tension between private initiative and de jure property rights defined by central governments could have benefited from recognizing that private initiatives to form property rights can be efficient. This is more likely to be the case when the de jure property rights are formulated to benefit particular interests, when they ignore local circumstances and the value of the affected resources, and when central governments allocate inadequate resources to enforce the property rights effectively. On the other hand, Weaver's discussions of the opportunistic and sometimes violent actions taken...


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