How the West Was Won

In one of the essays in The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States , Gordon Wood notes that American policy concerning the Western frontier “rested on the assumption that settlement of the western territories would be neat and orderly.” If wasn’t. Far from it:

“The people moving west ignored the federal government’s Indian policies and refused to buy land at the expensive prices at which it was being offered. They shunned the speculator’s land, violated Indian treaty rights, and moved irregularly, chaotically, unevenly, jumping from place to place and leaving huge chunks of unsettled land and pockets of hemmed-in Indians behind them. The government responded, and continued to respond until the Homestead Act of 1863, in a series of desperate efforts to keep up with popular pressures. It continually lowered the price of land, increased the credit it offered, and reduced the size of the parcels of land people had to buy; and still people complained and ignored the laws. Eventually the federal government recognized the rights of squatters to preempt the land, and finally it just gave the land away. It took more than a half century for governmental leaders to come to terms fully with the reality of popular settlement of the West” (270).

Among other things, this chaotic expansion “exploded” the dreams of the Federalists, the desire to create “a strong, mercantilist, European-like state.” Jefferson swam with the current, and his success “insofar as he had any, was his unwitting surrender to these popular commercial forces” (271).

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