"A Lawless Rabble": Henry Clay and the Cultural Politics of Squatters' Rights, 1832-1841

By Atta, John R. Van | Journal of the Early Republic, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

"A Lawless Rabble": Henry Clay and the Cultural Politics of Squatters' Rights, 1832-1841


Atta, John R. Van, Journal of the Early Republic


Historians have long understood that the settlement of western lands influenced the character of American society. Many scholars once assumed that the Jacksonian Democratic Party, by advocating policies such as the gradual reduction of federal land prices and preemption rights, cared more about the actual peopling of the West than Henry Clay and his fellow promoters of the "American System." That view, it is now recognized, overlooked the importance of western land settlement in the political economy of Clay and other nationalists; the National Republican - and, later, the Whig - side of the land policy argument merited more attention than it had received. Today, Clay is often noted for advocating the distribution of federal land revenue among the states in the 1830s, but actually filling lands mattered as much to him as raising revenue because settlement by men of average means affected the social structure, economic stability, and moral character of the West. Though never tested as policy in Clay's time - categorized then, and later, as elitist and undemocratic - the Whig land program may well have held greater potential for a West of economic opportunity, individual advancement, and basic regard for law than any alternatives of the day.1

The idea of distributing land proceeds among the states (with special benefit to western states) became a distinct part of Clay's agenda in 1832-1833, when Congress passed, and President Andrew Jackson pocket-vetoed, the bill that would have instituted that plan to accompany the Compromise Tariff of 1833. As Whigs and Democrats continued to debate the distribution of land revenue, an equally difficult part of the western lands question lingered throughout the 1830s - preemption. A legal recognition of squatters' claims on the public domain, preemption had challenged lawmakers since the Confederation era. Could the na- tional government safely allow individuals to occupy vacant tracts of their choice - prior to registration and purchase, and perhaps even before of- ficial surveying? Might such an approach be reconciled with the planned order and precision of the land system and the avoidance of frontier chaos? Clay's consistent answer to these questions, especially after 1834, was an emphatic no. As he saw it, legitimizing squatting encouraged people of the worst character to inhabit the West. He stated in 1838 that squatters on federal territory were a "lawless rabble" who "might as well seize upon our forts, our arsenals, or on the public treasure, as to rush out and seize upon the public lands." Clay's vehemence and eventually his strategy in opposing squatters helped his enemies, as well as some Jackson-period historians, to brand the American System as more proeastern and pro-elite than it actually was. By the late 1830s, even some of the most conservative Whig statesmen, Daniel Webster in particular, accepted squatters' rights as a fait accompli, and by 1841, a large majority of westerners in Clay's own party sided with their Jacksonian adversaries on preemption.2

Why did Clay, a westerner himself, a man of political sagacity, known for centrist leadership, and famed for willingness to compromise, so persistently resist this tide? The complex answer to this question has much to do with who Clay was - as a person, politician, and policymaker, to be sure, but also as an economic thinker and promoter of ideas. More can be said about the political economy of the American System, especially the place of Clay's land-policy views within that framework, and the larger vision of western development that he saw as key to the strengthening of the Union and the steady enrichment of its citizens. Beyond the American System and its implications, however, this is a story of how an aging Whig statesman, one who still longed for the presidency, tried to confront the dramatically shifting cultural politics and social beliefs around him, and it shows why he resented Jacksonian democracy so intensely. …

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