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Land and the Founding Fathers

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

Western Lands and the American Revolution. By Thomas Perkins Abernethy. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. $4.00. George Mason: Constitutionalist. By Helen Hill. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.50.

Thirty years ago such a work as Thomas Perkins Abernethy’s “Western Lands and the American Revolution” could hardly have been prepared. The great body of original sources pertaining to the trans-Alleghany country of the eighteenth century was only then beginning to be uncovered. The writer of the present review was a graduate student under the late Professor Frederick J. Turner and the late Professor Clarence W. Alvord at a time when both of these eminent masters were pioneering in the field covered by the present volume. He is keenly aware of the fact, therefore, that historical scholarship has gone far since the spade work of those days, more than a quarter of a century ago. In recent years a vast quantity of pertinent manuscript material has been uncovered and many volumes of sources have been published. Much progress has also been made in the production of monographs on a variety of special subjects within the general area of Western history. A glance at Professor Abernethy’s footnotes and bibliography is illuminating in respect to the scope and character of the work of his predecessors. With the exception, however, of Professor Alvord’s “The Mississippi Valley in British Politics,” which emphasized rather the British side, no general synthesis comparable to the present one has heretofore been published.

Although Professor Abernethy has made excellent use of recent studies, he has taken the trouble to prosecute an independent study of the original sources; he obviously traveled far and wide to discover relevant manuscript sources. In this connection it must be said that he has, generally speaking, utilized all the documentary sources that are anywhere available at the present time. But it is one task to uncover the evidence and quite another to transform it into interpretative historical narrative that is at once readable and sound, That feat Professor Abernethy has achieved with distinction.

The approximate period covered by the volume is bracketed by the French and Indian War and the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. Within this period the author’s main attention is focused upon land companies, the interests of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and the policies of the Continental Congress. Professor Abernethy has also elected to discuss the political rather than the social and economic forces involved in Western expansion during the era in question. These are the main boundaries which the author has defined for his book. Inevitably he trespasses upon these limits in order to weave into his story the relation of the Western land situation to the diplomacy of the period.

The central theme of the volume is land speculation, and it relates, with much new detail, the history of the various competing companies organized for the exploitation of Western lands. The relationship of the Ohio, Vandalia, Loyal, Greenbrier, Indiana, Illinois, Wabash, and Transylvania companies to each other, with special reference to their overlapping claims and to the character of the controlling members of each, is critically examined. The political pressure brought to bear upon the British Government, the States, and the Continental Congress to validate their respective claims, as unfolded in successive chapters, is a story of absorbing interest. Western land was an object which affected not only prospective settlers and land-hungry individuals; hardly a prominent political leader of the time failed to be influenced in one way or another by the existence of the great unsettled West. Congressional and State politics alike were affected by the existence of the problem of its disposal. It is clearly impossible to understand the political situation as a whole in the period covered by this book without giving careful attention to the frontier issue. Its repercussions in the council chambers were continually evident.

“Western Lands and the American Revolution,” however, is more than a meticulously written narrative; it embodies interpretations of men and events which will doubtless meet with challenge in certain quarters, though this reviewer is convinced of the soundness of the views expressed. With respect to the diplomatic front, the author presents facts which compel a readjustment of view with respect to Franklin’s place in history; he has, on the other hand, supplied a clean bill of health for Arthur Lee. There are also other worthies of that era who are subjected to a candid portraiture. Patrick Henry, George Croghan, Archibald Cary, and George Morgan, to mention a few at random, are given startlingly fresh treatment. Morgan in particular, whose reputation was already tarnished, presents a sorry figure. Professor Abernethy has buttressed his characterizations in each instance by chapter and verse; the record thus speaks for itself. The view that Virginia was divided not on the generally accepted line of East and West, but rather between liberals and conservatives without regard to sections, will provoke many an exclamation. Equally suggestive is the statement that the Quebec Act produced no excitement in Virginia, even though it would obviously destroy that colony’s claim to the Northwest region. Professor Abernethy likewise raises doubts respecting the motives of Maryland in insisting upon limiting the boundaries of the so-called “landed states”; in this regard the influence of the land companies is clearly discerned. It was the interests supporting the same speculative companies, together with the co-operation of the Henry administration, which made possible George Rogers Clark’s occupation of the Illinois villages. The Virginia Land Act of 1779 is roundly castigated as having been an instrument wholly detrimental to the democratic method of disposing of the public lands. The author’s conclusions are significant; and for the most part they are inescapable.

George Mason, the subject of Helen Hill’s volume, “George Mason: Constitutionalist,” is tangent at one point to Professor Abernethy’s work. Mason possessed an interest in the West to the extent of being treasurer of the Ohio Company, but his chief and final contribution to the settlement of the Western land problem was the drafting of a plan for the cession by Virginia to the United States of the region northwest of the Ohio. Incidentally, in connection with her discussion of the Northwest, Miss Hill repeats the common error of ascribing the American possession of the trans-Alleghany West to its “conquest” by George Rogers Clark. The statement in question is an uncritical one, and tends further to perpetuate the fiction of the contribution of Clark to the expansion of the United States.

But Miss Hill is on more solid ground in her elaboration of Mason’s participation in the establishment of American independence and in the formulation of the Virginia and United States constitutions. His preliminary work in drafting the Fairfax Resolves, his framing of the Virginia Bill of Rights, his membership in the State Convention and in the Assembly of Virginia through the year 1780, and again in 1786, enabled Mason to leave a permanent impress upon the form of constitutional government in the United States. His legal learning, together with his political ideas, which appear to have been a mixture of conservatism and liberalism, made him a marked figure throughout the Revolutionary era. Yet, shunning politics, he persistently refused to serve his State in the Continental Congress. His only appearance on the national scene was his membership in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

It was in the Philadelphia Convention that Mason disclosed his political convictions in the fullest measure. He stood for a national government, but not for one which would coerce the States. It was, in fact, largely due to his persistence that the national government was left to operate directly upon individuals rather than upon the States. He also held out for the admission of new States upon an equality with the old. His decision, however, to withhold his signature from the Constitution was arrived at within the last two weeks of the Convention’s sessions. His determination not only to refuse to sign, but also to fight against ratification by Virginia, was predicated largely on his opposition to the compromise on slavery and to the absence of a Bill of Rights. With respect to slavery, Mason looked forward to the time when the institution would no longer exist; he wished profoundly for measures leading to the ultimate compensated manumission of slaves.

Miss Hill’s endeavor to present the life and character of Mason is on the whole successful, though not much light is cast in dark places. Her sketch of the same subject in the “Dictionary of American Biography” is probably as informative as her present work.


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