Western Lands and the American Revolution

By Thomas Perkins Abernethy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVII
VIRGINIA'S WESTERN LAND POLICY, 1778-1779

DURING 1778 the political situation in Virginia remained much as it had been since the beginning of the War, but the land question now emerged as a definite issue in party strife. The liberal element was led by the same small group which had largely dominated Virginia politics since 1776. Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and George Wythe made up the inner circle, but such men as John Taylor, John Tyler, Senior, and the young James Madison were valuable allies. Neither Mason nor Wythe had been "forward" on the question of resistance to Britain, and both Jefferson and Henry on occasion spoke with scorn of the rank and file of Western pioneers, but this was the party of expansion and progress. Lawyers and planters, its members were inclined to look upon government with a somewhat visionary eye, and their interest in the West was not due to any feeling of kinship with frontiersmen or to the fact that they were leaders in land speculation, but to a tinge of imperialism. It is true that Jefferson had inherited his father's share in the Loyal Company, and that Mason and Lee were active in the councils of the old Ohio Company and were still trying to salvage something from this investment, but their public policy does not appear to have been affected more than incidentally by this interest.

Patrick Henry stands in a class by himself. Ostensibly he was cooperating whole-heartedly with the liberal group, but he had private connections with their conservative rivals. Being governor of the State, he did not have to show his hand in the assembly and his stand on the land question is difficult if not impossible to fathom.1

The conservatives were still led by Benjamin Harrison, Carter Braxton, Archibald Cary, and Edmund Pendleton. Substantial planters of the Tidewater section, a few of them were lawyers, but a large number were merchants as well as planters. It is worthy of particular note that not one of the liberal group had large mercantile interests, whereas many of the conservatives did. They were "practical" men, in the accepted modern

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1
George Mason to George Mercer, Oct. 2, 1778, Va. Historical Register, II, 28-31; Ballagh, Letters of Richard Henry Lee, I, 106; Henry, Henry, III, 144-148.

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