Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785-1850

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785-1850

Article excerpt

Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785-1850. By John R. Van Atta. Reconfiguring American Political History. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. [xvi], 294. $54.95, ISBN 978-1-4214-1275-7.)

In Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785-1850, John R. Van Atta explores aspects of federal land policy neglected by other historians. Whereas most scholars who study public land policies from the nation's founding to the mid-nineteenth century have focused on the mechanics of these policies and their sectional consequences, Van Atta emphasizes the social and cultural roots of the political conflicts over land policy. The result is a nuanced and rewarding book that draws on a wide range of sources to explain why the settlement of the West followed a path different from that intended by the founding generation.

Van Atta first traces the development of United States land policy, including the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. He draws on recent literature that emphasizes the importance of state-building in the politics of the 1780s and 1790s. The widespread desire to establish a stable nation-state extending westward allowed men from the North and the South, of varied political views, to agree on many fundamentals. For example, they believed that order needed to be brought to western regions, that westward migration must proceed systematically, and that landholding, as the foundation of freedom, must be widespread among white men. Strung through these shared tenets of the elite was a fear that, should the West be settled by men unlike themselves, men without moral virtue and solid republican values, it would render the region ungovernable. By living outside the law, squatters, in particular, represented the wrong class of people to build stable republican communities tied to the larger nation. A fear of "the dangerous centrifugal effects" of western territories thus helped shape land policy, regardless of which party was in power (p. …

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