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immigration, our mobility of thought, our ardor of initiative, our
mildness and our prosperity, all are but incidents or products of this
prime historical fact.*

* Lecture by J. Franklin Jameson before the Trustees of the
Carnegie Institution, at Washington, in 1912, printed in the "History
Teacher's Magazine," vol. IV, 1913, p. 5.

It is seldom that one's attention is so caught and held as by the happy
suggestion that American interest in land or rather interest in American
land - began with the discovery of the continent. Even a momentary
consideration of the subject, however, is sufficient to indicate how
important was the desire for land as a motive of colonization. The
foundation of European governmental and social organizations had been
laid in feudalism - a system of landholding and service. And although
European states might have lost their original feudal character, and
although new classes had arisen, land-holding still remained the basis
of social distinction.

One can readily imagine that America would be considered as El Dorado,
where one of the rarest commodities as well as one of the most precious
possessions was found in almost unlimited quantities that family estates
were sought in America and that to the lower classes it seemed as if a
heaven were opening on earth. Even though available land appeared to be
almost unlimited in quantity and easy to acquire, it was a possession
that was generally increasing in value. Of course wasteful methods of
farming wore out some lands, especially in the South; but, taking it by
and large throughout the country, with time and increasing density of
population the value of the land was increasing. The acquisition of
land was a matter of investment or at least of speculation. In fact, the
purchase of land was one of the favorite get-rich-quick schemes of the
time. George Washington was not the only man who invested largely in
western lands. A list of those who did would read like a political
or social directory of the time. Patrick Henry, James Wilson, Robert
Morris, Gouverneur Morris, Chancellor Kent, Henry Knox, and James Monroe
were among them.*

* Not all the speculators were able to keep what they acquired.
Fifteen million acres of land in Kentucky were offered for sale in 1800
for nonpayment of taxes. Channing, "History of the United States," vol.
IV, p. 91.

It is therefore easy to understand why so much importance attached to
the claims of the several States and to the cession of that western land
by them to the United States. But something more was necessary. If
the land was to attain anything like its real value, settlers must be
induced to occupy it. Of course it was possible to let the people go out
as they pleased and take up land, and to let the Government collect
from them as might be possible at a fixed rate. But experience during
colonial days had shown the weakness of such a method, and Congress was
apparently determined to keep under its own control the region which
it now possessed, to provide for orderly sale, and to permit settlement
only so far as it might not endanger the national interests. The method
of land sales and the question of government for the western country
were recognized as different aspects of the same problem. The Virginia
offer of cession forced the necessity of a decision, and no sooner
was the Virginia offer framed in an acceptable form, in 1783, than two
committees were appointed by Congress to report upon these two questions
of land sales and of government.

Thomas Jefferson was made chairman of both these committees. He was then
forty years old and one of the most remarkable men in the country. Born
on the frontier - his father from the upper middle class, his mother "a
Randolph" - he had been trained to an outdoor life; but he was also
a prodigy in his studies and entered William and Mary College with
advanced standing at the age of eighteen. Many stories are told of his
precocity and ability, all of which tend to forecast the later man of
catholic tastes, omnivorous interest, and extensive but superficial
knowledge; he was a strange combination of natural aristocrat and
theoretical democrat, of philosopher and practical politician. After
having been a student in the law office of George Wythe, and being
a friend of Patrick Henry, Jefferson early espoused the cause of
the Revolution, and it was his hand that drafted the Declaration
of Independence. He then resigned from Congress to assist in the
organization of government in his own State. For two years and a half he
served in the Virginia Assembly and brought about the repeal of the
law of entailment, the abolition of primogeniture, the recognition
of freedom of conscience, and the encouragement of education. He was
Governor of Virginia for two years and then, having declined reelection,
returned to Congress in 1783. There, among his other accomplishments,
as chairman of the committee, he reported the Treaty of Peace and, as
chairman of another committee, devised and persuaded Congress to adopt a
national system of coinage which in its essentials is still in use.

It is easy to criticize Jefferson and to pick flaws in the things that
he said as well as in the things that he did, but practically every
one admits that he was closely in touch with the course of events
and understood the temper of his contemporaries. In this period of
transition from the old order to the new, he seems to have expressed the
genius of American institutions better than almost any other man of his
generation. He possessed a quality that enabled him, in the Declaration
of Independence, to give voice to the hopes and aspirations of a rising
nationality and that enabled him in his own State to bring about so many

Just how much actual influence Thomas Jefferson had in the framing
of the American land policy is not clear. Although the draft of the
committee report in 1784 is in Jefferson's handwriting, it is altogether
probable that more credit is to be given to Thomas Hutchins, the
Geographer of the United States, and to William Grayson of Virginia,
especially for the final form which the measure took; for Jefferson
retired from the chairmanship and had already gone to Europe when the
Land Ordinance was adopted by Congress in 1785. This ordinance has been
superseded by later enactments, to which references are usually made;
but the original ordinance is one of the great pieces of American
legislation, for it contained the fundamentals of the American land
system which, with the modifications experience has introduced, has
proved to be permanently workable and which has been envied and in
several instances copied by other countries. Like almost all successful
institutions of that sort, the Land Ordinance of 1785 was not an
immediate creation but was a development out of former practices and
customs and was in the nature of a compromise. Its essential features
were the method of survey and the process for the sale of land. New
England, with its town system, had in the course of its expansion been
accustomed to proceed in an orderly method but on a relatively small
scale. The South, on the other hand, had granted lands on a larger scale
and had permitted individual selection in a haphazard manner. The plan
which Congress adopted was that of the New England survey with the
Southern method of extensive holdings. The system is repellent in its
rectangular orderliness, but it made the process of recording titles
easy and complete, and it was capable of indefinite expansion. These
were matters of cardinal importance, for in the course of one hundred
and forty years the United States was to have under its control nearly
two thousand million acres of land.

The primary feature of the land policy was the orderly survey in advance
of sale. In the next place the township was taken as the unit, and its
size was fixed at six miles square. Provision was then made for the sale
of townships alternately entire and by sections of one mile square, or
640 acres each. In every township a section was reserved for educational
purposes; that is, the land was to be disposed of and the proceeds used
for the development of public schools in that region. And, finally, the
United States reserved four sections in the center of each township to
be disposed of at a later time. It was expected that a great increase
in the value of the land would result, and it was proposed that the
Government should reap a part of the profits.

It is evident that the primary purpose of the public land policy as
first developed was to acquire revenue for the Government; but it
was also evident that there was a distinct purpose of encouraging
settlement. The two were not incompatible, but the greater interest of
the Government was in obtaining a return for the property.

The other committee of which Jefferson was chairman made its report of a
plan for the government of the western territory upon the very day that
the Virginia cession was finally accepted, March 1, 1784; and with some
important modifications Jefferson's ordinance, or the Ordinance of
1784 as it was commonly called, was ultimately adopted. In this case
Jefferson rendered a service similar to that of framing the Declaration
of Independence. His plan was somewhat theoretical and visionary,
but largely practical, and it was constructive work of a high order,
displaying not so much originality as sympathetic appreciation of what
had already been done and an instinctive forecast of future development.
Jefferson seemed to be able to gather up ideas, some conscious and some
latent in men's minds, and to express them in a form that was generally

It is interesting to find in the Articles of Confederation (Article
XI) that, "Canada acceding to this confederation, and joining in the
measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to
all the advantages of this Union: but no other colony shall be admitted
into the same unless such admission be agreed to by nine States." The
real importance of this article lay in the suggestion of an enlargement
of the Confederation. The Confederation was never intended to be a union
of only thirteen States. Before the cession of their western claims it
seemed to be inevitable that some of the States should be broken up into
several units. At the very time that the formation of the Confederation
was under discussion Vermont issued a declaration of independence from
New York and New Hampshire, with the expectation of being admitted into
the Union. It was impolitic to recognize the appeal at that time, but
it seems to have been generally understood that sooner or later Vermont
would come in as a full-fledged State.

It might have been a revolutionary suggestion by Maryland, when the
cession of western lands was under discussion, that Congress should have
sole power to fix the western boundaries of the States, but her further
proposal was not even regarded as radical, that Congress should "lay
out the land beyond the boundaries so ascertained into separate and
independent states." It seems to have been taken as a matter of course
in the procedure of Congress and was accepted by the States. But the
idea was one thing; its carrying out was quite another. Here was a great
extent of western territory which would be valuable only as it could
be sold to prospective settlers. One of the first things these settlers
would demand was protection - protection against the Indians, possibly
also against the British and the Spanish, and protection in their
ordinary civil life. The former was a detail of military organization
and was in due time provided by the establishment of military forts and
garrisons; the latter was the problem which Jefferson's committee was
attempting to solve.

The Ordinance of 1784 disregarded the natural physical features of the
western country and, by degrees of latitude and meridians of longitude,
arbitrarily divided the public domain into rectangular districts, to the
first of which the following names were applied: Sylvania, Michigania,
Cherronesus, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Illinoia, Saratoga, Washington,
Polypotamia, Pelisipia. The amusement which this absurd and thoroughly
Jeffersonian nomenclature is bound to cause ought not to detract from
the really important features of the Ordinance. In each of the districts
into which the country was divided the settlers might be authorized by
Congress, for the purpose of establishing a temporary government, to
adopt the constitution and laws of any one of the original States. When
any such area should have twenty thousand free inhabitants it might
receive authority from Congress to establish a permanent constitution
and government and should be entitled to a representative in Congress
with the right of debating but not of voting. And finally, when the
inhabitants of any one of these districts should equal in number those
of the least populous of the thirteen original States, their delegates
should be admitted into Congress on an equal footing.

Jefferson's ordinance, though adopted, was never put into operation.
Various explanations have been offered for this failure to give it a
fair trial. It has been said that Jefferson himself was to blame. In the
original draft of his ordinance Jefferson had provided for the abolition
of slavery in the new States after the year 1800, and when
Congress refused to accept this clause Jefferson, in a manner quite
characteristic, seemed to lose all interest in the plan. There were,
however, other objections, for there were those who felt that it was
somewhat indefinite to promise admission into the Confederation of
certain sections of the country as soon as their population should equal
in number that of the least populous of the original States. If the
original States should increase in population to any extent, the new
States might never be admitted. But on the other hand, if from any cause
the population of one of the smaller States should suddenly decrease,
might not the resulting influx of new States prove dangerous?

But the real reason why the ordinance remained a dead letter was that,
while it fixed the limits within which local governments might act,
it left the creation of those governments wholly to the future. At
Vincennes, for example, the ordinance made no change in the political
habits of the people. "The local government bowled along merrily under
this system. There was the greatest abundance of government, for the
more the United States neglected them the more authority their officials
assumed."* Nor could the ordinance operate until settlers became
numerous. It was partly, indeed, to hasten settlement that the Ordinance
of 1785 for the survey and sale of the public lands was passed.**

* Jacob Piat Dunn, Jr., "Indiana: A Redemption from Slavery,"

** Although the machinery was set in motion, by the appointment
of men and the beginning of work, it was not until 1789 that the survey
of the first seven ranges of townships was completed and the land
offered for sale.

In the meantime efforts were being made by Congress to improve the
unsatisfactory ordinance for the government of the West. Committees were
appointed, reports were made, and at intervals of weeks or months the
subject was considered. Some amendments were actually adopted, but
Congress, notoriously inefficient, hesitated to undertake a fundamental
revision of the ordinance. Then, suddenly, in July, 1787, after a brief
period of adjournment, Congress took up this subject and within a week
adopted the now famous Ordinance of 1787.

The stimulus which aroused Congress to activity seems to have come from
the Ohio Company. From the very beginning of the public domain there
was a strong sentiment in favor of using western land for settlement by
Revolutionary soldiers. Some of these lands had been offered as bounties
to encourage enlistment, and after the war the project of soldiers'
settlement in the West was vigorously agitated. The Ohio Company of
Associates was made up of veterans of the Revolution, who were looking
for homes in the West, and of other persons who were willing to support
a worthy cause by a subscription which might turn out to be a good
investment. The company wished to buy land in the West, and Congress had
land which it wished to sell. Under such circumstances it was easy to
strike a bargain. The land, as we have seen, was roughly estimated at
one dollar an acre; but, as the company wished to purchase a million
acres, it demanded and obtained wholesale rates of two-thirds of the
usual price. It also obtained the privilege of paying at least a portion
in certificates of Revolutionary indebtedness, some of which were worth
about twelve and a half cents on the dollar. Only a little calculation
is required to show that a large quantity of land was therefore sold at
about eight or nine cents an acre. It was in connection with this land
sale that the Ordinance of 1787 was adopted.

The promoter of this enterprise undertaken by the Ohio Company was
Manasseh Cutler of Ipswich, Massachusetts, a clergyman by profession who
had served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War. But his interests and
activities extended far beyond the bounds of his profession. When the
people of his parish were without proper medical advice he applied
himself to the study and practice of medicine. At about the same time
he took up the study of botany, and because of his describing several
hundred species of plants he is regarded as the pioneer botanist of New
England. His next interest seems to have grown out of his Revolutionary
associations, for it centered in this project for settlement of the
West, and he was appointed the agent of the Ohio Company. It was in this
capacity that he had come to New York and made the bargain with Congress
which has just been described. Cutler must have been a good lobbyist,
for Congress was not an efficient body, and unremitting labor, as well
as diplomacy, was required for so large and important a matter. Two
things indicate his method of procedure. In the first place he found
it politic to drop his own candidate for the governorship of the new
territory and to endorse General Arthur St. Clair, then President of
Congress. And in the next place he accepted the suggestion of Colonel
William Duer for the formation of another company, known as the Scioto
Associates, to purchase five million acres of land on similar terms,
"but that it should be kept a profound secret." It was not an accident
that Colonel Duer was Secretary of the Board of the Treasury through
whom these purchases were made, nor that associated with him in this
speculation were "a number of the principal characters in the city."
These land deals were completed afterwards, but there is little doubt
that there was a direct connection between them and the adoption of the
ordinance of government.

The Ordinance of 1787 was so successful in its working and its renown
became so great that claims of authorship, even for separate articles,
have been filed in the name of almost every person who had the slightest
excuse for being considered. Thousands of pages have been written in
eulogy and in dispute, to the helpful clearing up of some points and to
the obscuring of others. But the authorship of this or of that clause is
of much less importance than the scope of the document as a working plan
of government. As such the Ordinance of 1787 owes much to Jefferson's
Ordinance of 1784. Under the new ordinance a governor and three judges
were to be appointed who, along with their other functions, were to
select such laws as they thought best from the statute books of all the
States. The second stage in self-government would be reached when the
population contained five thousand free men of age; then the people were
to have a representative legislature with the usual privilege of
making their own laws. Provision was made for dividing the whole region
northwest of the Ohio River into three or four or five districts and the
final stage of government was reached when any one of these districts
had sixty thousand free inhabitants, for it might then establish its own
constitution and government and be admitted into the Union on an equal
footing with the original States.

The last-named provision for admission into the Union, being in the
nature of a promise for the future, was not included in the body of
the document providing for the government, but was contained in certain
"articles of compact, between the original States and the people and
States in the said territory, [which should] forever remain unalterable,
unless by common consent." These articles of compact were in general
similar to the bills of rights in State Constitutions; but one of them
found no parallel in any State Constitution. Article VI reads:
"There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said
territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party
shall have been duly convicted." This has been hailed as a farsighted,
humanitarian measure, and it is quite true that many of the leading men,
in the South as well as in the North, were looking forward to the time
when slavery would be abolished. But the motives predominating at the
time were probably more nearly represented by Grayson, who wrote to
James Monroe, three weeks after the ordinance was passed: "The clause
respecting slavery was agreed to by the southern members for the purpose
of preventing tobacco and indigo from being made on the northwest side
of the Ohio, as well as for several other political reasons."

It is over one hundred and forty years since the Ordinance of 1787 was
adopted, during which period more than thirty territories of the United
States have been organized, and there has never been a time when one or
more territories were not under Congressional supervision, so that the
process of legislative control has been continuous. Changes have been
made from time to time in order to adapt the territorial government to
changed conditions, but for fifty years the Ordinance of 1787 actually
remained in operation, and even twenty years later it was specifically
referred to by statute. The principles of territorial government today
are identical with those of 1787, and those principles comprise the
largest measure of local self-government compatible with national
control, a gradual extension of self-government to the people of a
territory, and finally complete statehood and admission into the Union
on a footing of equality with the other States.

In 1825, when the military occupation of Oregon was suggested in
Congress, Senator Dickerson of New Jersey objected, saying, "We have not
adopted a system of colonization and it is to be hoped we never shall."
Yet that is just what America has always had. Not only were the first
settlers on the Atlantic coast colonists from Europe; but the men who
went to the frontier were also colonists from the Atlantic seaboard. And
the men who settled the States in the West were colonists from the older
communities. The Americans had so recently asserted their independence
that they regarded the name of colony as not merely indicating
dependence but as implying something of inferiority and even of
reproach. And when the American colonial system was being formulated in
1783-87 the word "Colony" was not used. The country under consideration
was the region west of the Alleghany Mountains and in particular the
territory north and west of the Ohio River and, being so referred to in
the documents, the word "Territory" became the term applied to all the

The Northwest Territory increased so rapidly in population that in 1800
it was divided into two districts, and in 1802 the eastern part was
admitted into the Union as the State of Ohio. The rest of the territory
was divided in 1805 and again in 1809; Indiana was admitted as a State
in 1816 and Illinois in 1818. So the process has gone on. There were
thirteen original States and six more have become members of the Union
without having been through the status of territories, making nineteen
in all; while twenty-nine States have developed from the colonial
stage. The incorporation of the colonies into the Union is not merely a
political fact; the inhabitants of the colonies become an integral part
of the parent nation and in turn become the progenitors of new colonies.
If such a process be long continued, the colonies will eventually
outnumber the parent States, and the colonists will outnumber the
citizens of the original States and will themselves become the nation.

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Online LibraryMax FarrandThe Fathers of the Constitution; a chronicle of the establishment of the Union → online text (page 4 of 13)