Land Speculators Made U.S.
While a U.S. citizen for 63 years, I’d never before heard this story of U.S. origins, told well by Christopher Blattman is his new book Why We Fight (pp. 38-41). Seems the U.S. revolution was a textbook example of war due to elite interests diverging from those of most citizens. I quote:
Born in 1732, the middle child of an undistinguished tobacco farmer, George Washington found himself on the fringes of Virginia’s elite planter society. Luckily, his older brother married into one of the colony’s most powerful families. Now the tall, lanky young man found himself with powerful patrons. Those benefactors pulled strings to maneuver Washington into a coveted public office: county surveyor.
Mapping land boundaries promised little profit in well-settled Virginia. Yet to the west, across the Allegheny Mountains, lay millions of acres of unclaimed land—assuming you ignored the native inhabitants, not to mention the French. Within days of his appointment, George Washington headed to the frontier. The young man would help his patrons lay claim to the best lands and scout some choice properties for himself. He was just seventeen.
An acquisitive zeal consumed the young Virginian and his backers. Claiming, hoarding, and flipping cheap land was an obsession across all thirteen colonies. Most great fortunes in the colonies had come from land speculation. Unfortunately for Washington and his patrons, however, France shared their bottomless appetite for territory. French troops began building a string of forts down the fertile Ohio River Valley, right around modern-day Pittsburgh. They ran straight through the claims Washington had staked.
In response, Washington’s powerful patrons maneuvered him again, this time to the head of an armed force. Tall and broad-shouldered, Washington looked the part of a military leader. He also showed real talent for command. So his wealthy backers sent him west at the head of an American and Iroquois militia. He was twenty-two.
France’s colonial forces far outnumbered Washington’s small party. The year was 1754, Britain and France were at peace, and the French hoped to seize the Ohio River Valley without a shot. As the ragtag Virginian militia marched north toward the French Fort Duquesne, the fort’s commander sent a diplomatic force to intercept Washington and parley. They wanted to make a deal.
Warned of the French party coming his way, unsure of their intent, Washington made a fateful decision: he would ambush and overpower the approaching men. He marched his forces through the rainy, moonless night and launched a sneak attack.
What happened next is unclear and disputed. Most think the French diplomatic force, taken by surprise, surrendered without a shot. Probably the inexperienced young Washington then lost control of his warriors. We know his militia and their Iroquois guides murdered and scalped most of the French party, including the ambassador. We also know that, as he sat down to write the governor an update, this political catastrophe wasn’t even the most important thing on his mind. Before getting to the night’s grisly events, Washington spent the first eight paragraphs griping about his low pay.
A British politician summed up the consequences: “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” Washington’s ambush sparked a local conflict. Two years later, it escalated into what Europeans call the Seven Years’ War. The conflict drew in all Europe’s great powers, lasting until 1763. Washington’s corrupt and clumsy land claims helped ignite a long, deadly, global conflict.
This is not the typical origin story Americans have long been taught. A more familiar tale portrays Washington as a disciplined, stoic, honorable leader. It describes a man whose love of liberty led him to risk his life and his fortune for independence. It describes a revolution with ideological origins, not selfish ones.
This nobler description is accurate. But what is also true—what biographer after biographer has described, but what schoolbooks sometimes overlook—is that land and his own personal fortune were also at the front of the first president’s mind. “No theme appears more frequently in the writings of Washington,” writes one biographer, “than his love for the land—more precisely, his own land.” Another theme is decadence. George Washington was a profligate consumer. He desired the finest carriages, clothes, and furniture. Land rich and cash poor, he financed his luxurious lifestyle with enormous loans from British merchants.
This relentless quest for wealth dominated Washington’s pre-revolutionary years. After the Seven Years’ War, he amassed huge western claims. A few he bought legitimately. In some cases, he skirted laws, shadily buying under an assumed name or that of a relative. Other lands he acquired at the expense of his own militiamen—or so some of these angry veterans claimed. As a result of this scheming, Washington died the richest American president of all time. One ranking has him as the fifty-ninth richest man in US history.
How did these private interests shape Washington’s decision to revolt against Britain, two decades later? Elsewhere in this book we will see the American Revolution had many causes, including a newfound and noble ideology of self-determination. We can’t understand the revolution without that. But we would be foolish to ignore the economic self-interest of the founding fathers, like Washington, as well as the war bias that fostered.
The greatest threat to George Washington’s wealth was continued union with Britain. By the 1770s, the British Crown had invalidated some of Washington’s more questionable landholdings. Britain also pledged most of the Ohio River Valley to Canada—including some of Washington’s most valuable claims. He would have to relinquish all he’d accumulated.
The same was true for many who signed the Declaration of Independence. Like Washington, these elites had an incredible amount to lose from British colonial policy. Most Americans at the time opposed a revolutionary war, but then most Americans couldn’t vote in those early years. The founding fathers faced a different set of risks and returns. It is no coincidence that they enjoyed privileges that British colonial policy would undermine—trade interests, vast western landholdings, ownership of enslaved people, and the local legislatures they controlled. If this colonial political and commercial class could not get Britain to revise its trade and commercial rulings, only independence could preserve their privileges.
We need to consider these elite incentives if we’re going to ask why the revolution took place. A lot of people see it as inevitable. But Canada and Australia found peaceful paths to independence from Britain. If we’re going to take the theory behind this book seriously, then shouldn’t the thirteen colonies and Britain have also found a bargain without a fight? The revolution’s slogan was “No taxation without representation.” Why not strike that deal? We will see several answers in this book. One of them, however, is unchecked private interests. These do not explain the American Revolution on their own, but they certainly made peace more fragile.
Added 8Nov: Jeff Hummel disagrees with many aspects of the above account.