Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850 by John R. Van Atta (review)
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Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850. By John R. Van Atta. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. 312. Cloth, $54.95.)

Every generation or so, someone rediscovers the importance of the public land issue in the early republic. Nearly a century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner and his students pegged the political interplay of sections and [End Page 330] regions as the main determinant of federal land policy for the seven new western states that entered the Union between 1803 and 1821. Historians of the New Deal generation, led by Paul W. Gates, accepted Jacksonian class rhetoric more or less at face value and traced a struggle for the lands between the poor but virtuous actual settler (the frontier incarnation of the “common man’’) and the rapacious moneyed speculator. Challenging this view, later studies (including my own) questioned the depth of societal disagreement over land policy, seeing more shared assumptions than fundamental oppositions in the various policy proposals, more smoke than fire in the heated rhetoric that surrounded them, and more creeping evolution than revolutionary overthrow in the actual changes that ensued.

John Van Atta’s Securing the West creatively engages this long-running discussion. He depicts a deep struggle, extending from the first days of the republic to the eve of the Civil War, between two starkly divergent visions of western development, which we might label an ordered control model and a democratic libertarian one. The contest between them was fundamental. It “exposed intense ideological conflict and momentous class and cultural tensions’’ (3); “it was a clash of rival economic beliefs and world views’’ (141). In its early versions the control model was frankly elitist, featuring land sold in large units and at high prices in order to preclude individual venturing. The idea was to guard the frontier from becoming a place where refugee offscourings from civilized society could run riot in savage debauchery. Over the years, however, popular pressures warped the system, so that by the 1840s the government was vending land in small parcels for nearly nominal sums. Instead of evicting and prosecuting trespassers, it now promised them first grab at whatever tracts they wanted. In the offing lay the Homestead Act of 1862, offering free land to any citizen who would live on it. And as system and order in opening the public domain gave way to the rule of pell-mell, the public image of frontiersmen transmuted from the barbarian hordes feared by Revolutionary elites to the honest, industrious “actual settlers’’ extolled by Jacksonian senator Thomas Hart Benton.

The great latter-day exponent of the control model was Henry Clay, himself a product of an older West, who modernized elitist precepts to fit a democratized environment. Clay’s land policy matched his larger Whig vision—indeed, it was the heart of that vision. He did not oppose frontier settlement; but he wanted a measured, ordered opening of the public domain that would balance agriculture with industry and commerce, with the lands sold to responsible purchasers for what they were [End Page 331] really worth and the proceeds steered to fund broad programs of national improvement and uplift.

Compelling as this vision was to both Clay and Van Atta, it ultimately failed, defeated by “the aversion to central authority, the assertive individualism, and the leveling tendencies of nineteenth-century democracy.’’ The public lands were thrown open “to whoever wanted them, for whatever purpose, no matter the impact on native peoples’’ (or on natural resources). Here Van Atta echoes Clay’s own lament for the lost dream of the United States as a grand community—not an arena where motley assemblages scrabble greedily for the main chance, but a harmonious place of “consensus, order, and government,’’ the Whig version of a Great Society (241–42).

The special virtue of Van Atta’s approach is the way he sets land policy debates in a larger cultural context. In the most novel and interesting parts of the book, he ventures out to consider the broader place of the West and of western lands in Americans’ visions of their future. He looks at people like Lyman...