Front Page Titles (by Subject) AN ESSAY ON THE EXTENT AND VALUE OF OUR WESTERN UNLOCATED LANDS, AND THE PROPER METHOD Of disposing of them, so as to gain the greatest possible Advantage from them. [ First published in Philadelphia, April 25, 1781.] - Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects
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AN ESSAY ON THE EXTENT AND VALUE OF OUR WESTERN UNLOCATED LANDS, AND THE PROPER METHOD Of disposing of them, so as to gain the greatest possible Advantage from them. [ First published in Philadelphia, April 25, 1781.] - Pelatiah Webster, Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects 
Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects, published during the American War, and continued up to the present Year, 1791 (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1791).
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AN ESSAY ON THE EXTENT AND VALUE OF OUR WESTERN UNLOCATED LANDS, AND THE PROPER METHOD Of disposing of them, so as to gain the greatest possible Advantage from them.
IN my several treatises on finance, I have all along endeavoured to open and explain the great general principles of the subject, viz. improvement of the revenue, and economy in the expenditures. In this Essay I mean to confine myself to one particular source or object of public wealth, out of which great revenue may be obtained by proper and timely wisdom and care, I mean, our vacant, unsettled lands. I will endeavour to arrange, as clearly as I can, what I have to say on this subject, under the following heads, viz.
I. The whole territory or extent of the Thirteen States is the aggregate of them all, i. e. the territory or extent of each of the States added together, make the whole territory or extent of right and dominion of the United States; and, of course, whatever is comprehended within the boundaries of each State, now makes a part of our Commonwealth.
This is to be considered as our present possession, our present decided right, which is guarantied to us by the treaty with France (Article XI.) together with any ‘additions or conquests, which our Confederation may obtain during the war, from any of the dominions now or heretofore possessed by Great-Britain in North-America;’ so that by conquest we may extend our dominion further, if we can; and, in this case, we shall have the guarantee of the treaty aforesaid for our security; but if this cannot be done, our present possessions are absolutely and unconditionally guarantied to us, with liberty, sovereignty, and independence, absolute and unlimited, in and over the same.
And as the great interests of France and our Commonwealth will always make the perpetual union of them necessary, so these powers united will be able to afford such a sure mutual protection to the whole dominions of each other, as will render them wholly secure and free of danger from any other powers whatever; so that we may safely compute on all the advantages of our present possessions, and turn our thoughts on the ways and means of making the best of them; while, at the same time, we have a rich and valuable chance of acquiring by conquest new dominions, and having, of course, such new acquisitions covered by the same guarantee which now secures our present possessions.
Nobody can pretend to deny that our present possessions comprehend all the lands included within the boundaries of the Thirteen States, as the same existed at the time our independence first began; but it will be strongly urged that they cannot extend beyond them, so as to cover any lands not included within the bounds of some one of the States, unless we can make a claim to a further extent by conquest; indeed, I do not see how we can otherwise support a claim to independence, sovereignty, and dominion over any thing which was not within our bounds at that time: therefore, it follows,
1. That wherever we fix the exterior limit or bounds of any one of the States, there we fix the bounds of our Commonwealth; and it will be urged against us, that all beyond is not our territory, our right, or dominion: and, therefore,
2. It is our interest to extend the exterior boundary of each of our States as far as we fairly can; and, of course, any attempt (arising from envy or any little disputes) to abridge or reduce the limits of any of the States to lines short of their true extent, and so prevent their covering the whole territory to which their original charters, or usual prescriptive titles, give them right, is the height of folly and absurd policy, and operates directly against the great interests of the Commonwealth.
And here I cannot but take notice of the madness, short-sighted policy, and public mischief, of a late pamphlet, entitled Public Good, which, by very weak and trifling arguments, attempts to limit the territory of Virginia to a very inconsiderable part of its original and true extent. I think some note of disapprobation should be fixed on that treatise, left it should be produced in future debates, as a proof of the general sense of the States at this time.
There is, indeed, as is well known, some obscurity of description to be found in all the ancient charters of these States, which, by that means, admit of a latitude of construction; but most of these are reduced to a determinate certainty by subsequent acts, decisions, usages, &c. and, I conceive, that for most obvious reasons.
II. The boundaries of the several States are to be taken and ascertained from their original charters, with such construction as has obtained by subsequent usage, judicial decisions, or any other acts of the crown or the inhabitants, which tend to give them a determinate and fixed definition. If, in any case, no light can be drawn from such usage or subsequent acts, the particular boundaries must depend on the words of the charters, with such reasonable construction as shall give them their greatest effect, and be most adequate to the original intention of them, or, in law language, so ut res magis valeat quam pereat; by which rule of construction, there can be no doubt but Virginia, having boundaries sufficiently fixed on the sea-coast, is to extend west, and carry her breadth to the South-Sea, or at least as far as the dominion of the crown extended, at the time when American independence first began.
Two things are sufficiently clear,
1st. That all the States are so bounded on each other, that there are no strips of land lying between any two of them; and,
2d. That their western boundary is the South-Sea, or at least the western boundary of the dominions of the crown, at the commencement of our Commonwealth.
So that the country or territory of the Thirteen States, is clearly bounded on the west as aforesaid; on the south, by the south line of Georgia (about N. lat. 30° 22″) on the east, by the sea, including the islands lying in the offing of the coast; and north, by the north line of the Province of Maine, New-Hampshire, and the Massachusetts State (about N. lat. 45) its length, north and south, is about 1000 miles; and its breadth, east and west (if it extends no farther than the Mississippi river) about 600 miles on the southern part, and 1250 miles on the northern part.
The contents of which are somewhat more than 810,000 square miles; more than equal to those of France, Spain, Germany, and Italy, and much more valuable in respect of air, climate, soil, timber, fossils, fisheries, harbors, rivers, &c. with all conveniency for transportation, both by maritime and inland navigation.
It is further to be noted here, that with respect to Virginia, and some other governments, which either never had any charters, or whose charters have been surrendered to the crown, that the soil and jurisdiction of them were both in the crown, and therefore the King ever claimed right to make new grants of soil, and carve out and establish any new jurisdictions or governments which he thought expedient, and on this principle actually did carve Maryland and part of Pennsylvania out of Virginia; how justly I am not to say; but this does not hinder Virginia from taking her departure from her true eastern boundary on the seacoast, and covering all the lands within her limits (not included in these carvatures) to her utmost western boundary.
It is, indeed, to be observed here, that ascertaining the boundaries of any State, does not prove the title or right of such State to all lands included within such boundaries. There is a distinction to be made between those lands which have been alienated by the crown, the title of which, at the date of our independence, was not in the crown, but vested in particular persons, either sole or aggregate, and those which remained in the crown, the title of which the crown then held in right of its sovereignty, which was a right vested in the supreme authority, in nature of a trust for the use of the public.
There is no doubt but every right and title of all persons and bodies politic are as effectually secured and confirmed to the owners, to all intents and purposes, under the Commonwealth, as they were formerly under the crown; but it cannot be admitted that any individual or bodies politic should acquire new rights by the Revolution, to which they were not entitled under the crown, i. e. each State has right to claim, hold, or alienate whatever property or estate it had right to obtain, hold, or alienate, whilst it was a colony under the crown; but cannot have right to claim, hold, or alienate any estate, the claim, tenure, or alienation of which was then the right of the crown.
But every such estate being then held by the crown in right of sovereignty, or its supreme power, in trust for the use of the whole community or body politic, of which it was the supreme power, must pass, by the Revolution, into the supreme power of our Commonwealth, i. e. into the Congress, and be vested in them in trust for the public use of the body politic, of which they are the supreme power; and the right of tenure and alienation must be vested in them alone.
Indeed, in all revolutions of government which have ever happened in Europe, and perhaps in the whole world, all crown-lands, jewels, and all other estate, which belonged to the supreme power which lost the government, ever passed by the revolution into the supreme power which gained it; and all such estate always became vested in the latter occupant, in the same condition and under the same limitations to which it was subject under the tenure of the former occupant.
Nor can I see the least pretence of reason, why we should depart from a rule of right grounded on the most plain and natural fitness, adopted by every nation in the world under like circumstances, and justified and confirmed by the experience and sanction of ages. I think that nothing but our unacquaintedness with the heights to which we are risen, the high sphere in which we now move, and an incapacity of viewing and judging of things on a great scale, could give rise to so extravagant an idea, as that one State should be more entitled than another to the crown-lands, or any other property of the crown, which ever was in its nature public, and ought to continue so, or be disposed of for the use and benefit of the whole public community; or that one State should acquire more right, or property, or estate than another, by that Revolution which was the joint act, procured and perfected by the joint effort and expense, of the whole. We have too long and too ridiculously set up to be wiser than all the world besides, and too long refused to be instructed by the experience of other nations.
III. The vast territory of the Thirteen States above described, and containing something more than 500,000,000 acres of land, is mostly wild and uncultivated; a strip only adjoining to the sea, and not containing more than one-third, or at most two-fifths, of the whole, and that by far the poorest part of the soil is any how become private property and settled; the rest remains a large extent of the richest wild lands in the world, to be disposed of and cultivated in future time; and the part which I call settled, is so far from being filled with inhabitants, that it does not contain more than one-tenth part of the people which the soil, in a state of perfect cultivation, would support; the frontiers are every where thinly settled, and, of course, very liable to the inroads of the enemy, and very difficult to defend.
IV. Six only of the States have a large western extent of unsettled lands, viz. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, North and South-Carolina, and Georgia; the other seven are limited within much narrower bounds.
V. Tho’ the title and right of the said six States to their whole western extent should be indisputable, yet the preservation and use of it are secured to them, and the whole must for ever be defended, by the arms and at the expense of the States-general. The quotas of this expense ought to be proportioned to the value and extent of the thing secured and defended by it; qui sentit commodum, sentire debet quoque onus: but if the quotas of the said six States should be increased in proportion to the great extent of their territory, or even the value of the same, it would bring such a very pressing weight on the present inhabitants, as might be beyond their strength, or at least very inconvenient to them.
For here it is to be considered, that the expense of the war is not to be estimated merely by the cash it has cost; but the devastations of the enemy, the loss of lives, &c. are to be brought into the account; and when the estimate comes to be made on these principles, it will rise very high on such parts of the interest defended as could lose no lives, because it had no inhabitants; and was incapable of devastation, because it had no improvements which could be destroyed.
Besides, as all the States have exerted themselves with equal ardor, danger, and effort in carrying on the war, it is but reasonable they should all share alike in the advantages resulting from it. To these might be added many more strong reasons why the said six States should cede or grant their western uncultivated lands to the States-general, to remain a common stock, till they can be disposed of for the good of the whole.
But I deem it needless to urge this matter farther, because I am informed that a general conviction of the expediency of this measure prevails thro’ all the States, and that it is freely agreed on the part of the said six States, to make such a cession or grant to the States-general, as above mentioned, and that the same will soon be done.*
We will suppose, then, that this is done, and the right and title of these western uncultivated lands vested in the States-general; what is to be done with them? i. e. how are they to be managed, in order to obtain the greatest national benefit possible from them?
Some people think we ought to sell or mortgage them to foreign States, for money in our present distress. But I have many reasons against this method. The first is,
That it is capable of the most demonstrative proof, that no importation of money can help us, even if it was given to us, much less if our lands are to be mortgaged for it. We are in much more danger from the plenty of money coming from all quarters in upon us, than from any scarcity of it; our salvation must arise from the wealth and virtue which abounds in the country, not in hunting abroad for money.
Besides, I abhor the very idea of strangers having their paw on any of our lands in any shape whatever: and,
Further, they would bring mighty little in this way, i. e. very little present benefit, tho’ enough of future trouble; it would be like killing the goose that laid an egg every day, in order to tear out at once all that was in her belly. But every idea of this sort is painful to me; I wish not to dwell longer on it, but beg leave to propose a method which appears to me more for our advantage.
I. Let the ceded territory be divided from the unceded by the plainest lines, and let it be kept in its present uncultivated state, and preserved from the intrusion of any settlers whatever, by the most rigid and effectual prohibitions, till the lands adjoining are fully settled: then,
II. Survey out townships of six, eight, or ten miles square, contiguous to the settled country, and sell the lands at vendue to the highest bidder, on the following conditions:
1. That none be sold at less than a Spanish dollar per acre.
2. That every purchaser be obliged to settle and improve his purchase within two or three years, or forfeit his lands; the particular regulations of which should be published at the time of sale, and be rigidly executed; and when the first course or tier of townships are sold, and the settlement of them secured, lay out another tier, sell them in like manner, and so on thro’ the whole. This method will have the following advantages, viz.
1. All the lands sold will bring at least a dollar per acre; and if we admit, as above computed, those 300,000,000 acres of our western territory to become the public property of the States-general, and allow 100,000,000 acres for lakes, ponds, beds of rivers, barrens, &c. there will remain 200,000,000 acres of good land to be sold; which, at a dollar per acre, will produce 200,000,000 hard dollars for the treasury of the United States; the annual interest of which, at 5 per cent. will be 10,000,000 dollars per annum: a sum much more than sufficient to defray the whole public expenses of the Thirteen States, in a time of peace, and, of course, a large surplus to be expended on a navy, roads, canals, and many other improvements of our country, with a sufficient sum to be laid up for a time of war.
2. This method will push our settlements out in close columns, much less assailable by the enemy, and more easily defended, than extensive, thin populations; there will be people here for defence near the frontiers; they will have the inducements of a near interest to animate them to the service; their course of life and acquaintance with the country will render them much more fit for the service, than people drawn from the interior parts of the country; and the necessary force may be collected and put into action much quicker, and with much less expense, than if the same was drawn from distant parts.
These and many more and great advantages will naturally result from our pushing out our settlements in close columns, which cannot be expected or hoped for from a vastly extended frontier thinly inhabited.
Add to this, that every new beginner makes his first improvement in company of near neighbours, and at but small distance from older settlements, much more easily than he could do alone in a wilderness, where he could receive no helps from neighbours, let his necessity be ever so great.
3. This method would obviate one abuse very hurtful to new settlements, most injurious to the individuals who first migrate and bear the hardships of first cultivation, and which greatly retards the population and improvement of a new country, viz. large quantities of land lying unimproved in the hands of non-residents or absentees, who neither dwell on the land, nor cause it to be cultivated at all, but their land lies in its wild state, a refuge for bears, wolves, and other beasts of prey, ready to devour the produce of the neighbouring farmers, bears no part of the burden of first cultivation, and keeps the settlers at an inconvenient distance from each other, and obstructs the growth and riches of the townships in which it lies; whilst the owner, by the rise of the land, makes a fortune out of the labor and toils of the neighbouring cultivators. This is a most cruel way of enriching one man by the labor of another, and so very hurtful to the cultivation of the country, that it ought to be restrained by the most decisive measures.
4. This method will give every inhabitant of the Thirteen States an equal chance of availing himself of any advantage of procuring lands for the accommodation of himself or family; whilst, at the same time, the ceding State will reap great benefit from the produce and trade of the adjoining settlements, which will, at the same time, become 2 secure barrier to their frontiers, against the incursions of an enemy on that side.
5. In this method we can extend our laws, customs, and civil police as fast and as far as we extend our settlements; of course, our frontier people will enjoy every benefit of civil society and regular administration of justice; which cannot take place with equal perfection in the great extent of a thin settled frontier.
6. Another thing very necessary to be observed in the whole management of this affair is, to cultivate a good and friendly correspondence with the Indian natives, by a careful practice of justice and benevolence towards them. They are an innumerable race of people, probably extending over a vast country to the west seas, and very great advantages may be derived from their trade, if we can gain and preserve their confidence.
Whereas nobody ever yet gained any thing by an Indian war. Their spoils are of no value; but their revenge and depredations are terrible. It is much cheaper to purchase their lands, than to disposses them by force; and justice in all cases is more profitable than violence and wrong.
It may be noted here, that many inhabitants are already on the lands supposed to be ceded. What is to be done with them? I answer—if their continuance is matter of uneasiness to the Indians, and is likely to produce broils with them, they are by all means to be removed. For it is unreasonable that the public tranquillity should be endangered for the sake of the convenience of a few people, who, without the least pretence of right, have fixed themselves down on lands not their own.
But notwithstanding this, if their continuance will not endanger the public security, let them keep their possessions on express condition, viz. that, when the townships in which their possessions shall be included when the future surveys shall be made, shall be sold, they shall pay as much for their lands as the other purchasers of the same township pay on an average for theirs, excluding every idea of favor, to which they may think themselves entitled for their first migration and cultivation. For I esteem all this very wrong and injurious to the public, which rather deserves punishment than reward.
But there is another objection more forcible, which, I suppose, will be pretty readily made to my scheme, viz. all the benefits of this scheme are future, are a great way off; but we want present supplies, to relieve the present necessities of our country. This was Esau’s argument, when he fold his birthright for a mess of pottage, and is certainly a very good one, when really grounded on fact; for no doubt a man had better give his whole fortune, for one meal of victuals, than starve to death for want of it; but I think wise men will examine this fact very closely, and be very decidedly convinced, that the supposed present necessity is really great enough to induce us to forego all the fore-mentioned advantages for the sake of the pittance, the trifle of money which those lands would now bring, if sold or mortgaged at present for the utmost they would bring, attended with all the shocking and mortifying disadvantages of giving any foreigners a footing in our country, and a claim upon our most essential and central interests.
But I think the objection itself is grounded on an error; for I think the present advantages resulting from my plan greater than could arise from any kind of mortgage or alienation of these lands; for I consider them like a rich, valuable, and sure reversion, which never fails to give the owner a great estimation, credit, and respectability in the eyes of his neighbours, tho’ he receives no pernancy of present profits; but if this reversion was sold or mortgaged for a trifle, and soon dissipated (as doubtless would be our case) the owner would appear in a light more contemptible, and in every view much more disadvantageous, than if he had never owned the right.
It cannot be too often repeated, that we are not capable of being saved, or even helped, by the importation of foreign money; it will destroy our industry, it will introduce luxury; the increase of quantity and ease of acquirement will depreciate it, and thereby defeat its own uses.
This is as true as the diurnal rotation of the earth, but, like it, not obvious to the perceptions of every mind. Unhappy for us! the nature of money, and the radical essence of the public finance, depend on principles too latent for easy comprehension; and what makes the matter more dangerous, like many delusive appearances in the natural world, is, they seem to be perfectly easy and obvious, when they are least understood; and therefore it has been observed in all ages, that they work like magic under the direction of unskilful men, ever producing effects the least expected, as well as failing of those most sanguinely computed upon.
Their operations, like other doctrines which depend on an infinity of relations, are governed by so many co-operating causes, that their delineation is very difficult, and their demonstration intricate, and not to be understood without a long and deep attention.
They make a part of the great law of proportions, which nature never fails to regulate and adjust with perfect exactness, but which the greatest and strongest intellects, with the most nervous attention, can but imperfectly comprehend.
Therefore, in this, as in all other branches of physical knowledge, our safest cue and surest principles must be drawn from experiment. But to return to my subject—
I do not apprehend the actual pernancy of profits from our western lands, when disposed of according to my plan, so very distant as many may imagine. The argument of analogy, from what has been to what will be, is generally allowed to be a good one. If, therefore, upon this rule of reasoning, we may suppose that the increase of population in our country shall continue the same in time to come as we have experienced in time past, viz. that the number of souls double once in 25 years, it will appear very probable that our own eyes may live to see the commencement of a great demand and rapid sale of our western territory. The number of souls in the Thirteen States in 1775, was generally computed at 3,000,000. [Some people of great observation were of opinion, this number was much exceeded.] On the aforesaid scale of computation, the number of souls in these States, at the end of the next century, will amount to 96,000,000; enough to extend over the whole territory of our Commonwealth, and more than Spain, France, Germany, and Italy now contain.
7. I will here subjoin one thing more, which may perhaps be thought worthy of some consideration, viz. that in surveying and granting the western lands, all saltlicks, and mines of metallic ores, coals, minerals, and all other valuable fossils (in all which the country greatly abounds) may be reserved and sequestered for public use: a great revenue may grow out of them: and it seems unreasonable that those vast sources of wealth should be engrossed and monopolized by any individuals. I think they ought to be improved to the best public advantage, but in such manner, that the vast profits issuing from them should flow into the public treasury, and thereby inure to the equal advantage of the whole community.
The foregoing considerations open to view such great objects, such prospects of vast population and national wealth, as may at first sight appear chimerical, illusory, and incredible. A great minister of state was formerly so astonished at the very mention of the vast supplies predicted by the prophet Elisha, that he, with amazement mixed with unbelief, exclaimed, “If the Lord would make windows in heaven, might this thing be!” But I mean to subject this Essay to the most rigid examination. Please to review every proposition, and closely examine every argument and inference I make, and if they do not justify the conclusion, reject them; but if you find the facts alleged, true, the propositions just, and the inferences fairly drawn, do not start at your own good fortune, or shrink from the blessings which Heaven pours on your country. The boundaries herein described, by which the contents of our territories are computed, are taken from Mitchel’s map, published in 1755, at the request of the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations, and is chiesty composed from draughts, charts, and actual surveys of different parts of the English colonies and plantations in America, great part of which have been lately taken by their Lordships’ orders, and transmitted to the plantation-office, as is certified by John Pownal, secretary of said office, and is perhaps a map of the best authority and greatest accuracy of any extant. The facts are of public notoriety. The computations are all made on obvious principles, and may be corrected by any body, if wrong. The sentiments are my own, and are cheerfully submitted to the most rigorous scrutiny that can consist with truth and candor. The subject is very large; I do not pretend to exhaust it, or that this Essay is a finished piece; it is a sketch only, a draught of outlines, which, I hope, will be allowed to deserve at least a candid attention. I wish it might be sufficient to produce a full conviction, that it cannot be the interest of the United States either, 1st. to suffer such vast and valuable blessings to be ravished from us by our enemies; or, 2d. to consent to their being sold and alienated to foreigners, for any little, trifling present considerations; such foolish bargains must originate in very narrow views of the subject, and terminate in shame and loss, and in every stage be marked with mortification, disputes, and embarrassment.
I will conclude by just observing, that this Essay is wholly confined to one branch only, to one single resource, of our public revenue; only one item of our national wealth: an income vast indeed, not drawn at all from the purses of the people, but capable of being so conducted, that every individual who chooses to be interested in it, may find a good profit resulting from the concern. I do not doubt but if the whole great subject was properly surveyed by a mind capable of such reflections, many other sources of revenue might be found, of vast utility to the public, and in no sense injurious, but highly profitable, to individuals. So to graft the revenue on the public stock, so to unite and combine public and private interests, that they may mutually support, feed, and quicken each other, is the secret art, the true spirit of financiering; but we must never lose sight of this one great truth, viz. that all resources of public wealth and safety are only materials put into our hands for improvement, and will prove either profitable or hurtful according to the wisdom or folly with which they are managed. Ruin may grow out of national wealth, as well as from national poverty. Perhaps it may require more great and good talents to support an affluent fortune than a narrow one. Affluence has at least as many dangers as indigence. All depends on the characters of the men who manage them. The happiness and wretchedness of nations depend on the abilities and virtue of the men employed in the direction of their public affairs. And I pray God to impress a due sense of this great and most important doctrine on the minds of all electors, and others concerned in the appointment of public officers.*
[* ] The foregoing ideas and arguments were such as were suggested at the time when this Essay was first published, and were matters of much conversation and discussion both in and out of Congress, but have all been long since adjusted and settled.
The boundaries of the Union were defined in the treaty of peace with Great-Britain, in Feb. 1783, and extended much beyond the limits here proposed.
And the affair of the great western extent of the six States was accommodated to general satisfaction, by cessions of such parts of them to Congress as lay beyond their settlements, since which the lands so ceded have been considered as public property, and as such subject to the disposal of Congress, for the benefit of the whole Union.
[* ] It may be worth notice here (tho’ it does not immediately belong to the subject of the foregoing Essay)
1st. That the first Congress under the New Constitution met at New-York, March 4, 1788; and, after two long sessions, adjourned to Philadelphia. The first session which was held there was on Dec. 4, 1790; and the session concluded on March 3, 1791.
2d. That eleven States only had adopted the New Constitution at the time of the first session of Congress under it; but the two deliberating States, viz. North-Carolina and Rhode-Island, soon acceded, and their delegates were admitted in Congress.
3d. That two new States, viz. Kentucky and Vermont, were admitted into the Union in Feb. 1791: so that the American Union now consists of fifteen States.