Title: The Public Land Problem
Author: Thomas Paine
Date: 1784
Source: America, Vol.4, pp.18-26

This attack by Thomas Paine on Virginia’s unlimited claims to western territory followed closely upon an appeal to Congress from the settlers of Kentucky, denying the rights of Virginia to govern what was known as the Illinois country, or Northwest Territory, as a dependency, and asking to be taken into the Union as a State. The aforesaid territory, including Kentucky proper, had been acquired by conquest of Colonel George Rogers Clark the year before Paine wrote this remonstrance.
Following the British defeat at Yorktown, the conflicting claims of other colonies and land companies, and the refusal of Maryland otherwise to join the Union, led Virginia, in 1784, to cede the disputed territory to the Confederation—largely as a result of public opinion growing out of this article—reserving only a small portion for her war veterans.

THE condition of the vacant western territory of America makes a very different case to that of the circumstances of trade in any of the States. Those very lands, formed, in contemplation, the fund by which the debt of America would in a course of years be redeemed. They were considered as the common right of all; and it is only till lately that any pretension of claims has been made to the contrary….

. . . in the year 1609, the South-Virginia company applied for new powers from the Crown of England, which were granted them in a new patent, and the boundaries of the grant enlarged; and this is the charter or patent on which some of the present Virginians ground their pretension to boundless territory….

But whether the charter, as it is called, ought to be extinct or not, cannot make a question with us. All the parties concerned in it are deceased, and no successors, in any regular line of succession, appear to claim. Neither the London company of adventurers, their heirs or assigns, were in possession of the exercise of this charter at the commencement of the Revolution; and therefore the State of Virginia does not, in point of fact, succeed to and inherit from the company….

But if, as I before mentioned, there was a charter, which bore such an explanation, and that Virginia stood in succession to it, what would that be to us any more than the will of Alexander, had he taken it in his head to have bequeathed away the world? Such a charter or grant must have been obtained by imposition and a false representation of the country, or granted in error, or both; and in any of, or all, these cases, the United States must reject the matter as something they can know nothing of, for the merits will not bear an argument, and the pretention of right stands upon no better ground….

The claim being unreasonable in itself and standing on no ground of right, but such as, if true, must from the quarter it is drawn be offensive, has a tendency to create disgust and sour the minds of the rest of the states. Those lands are capable, under the management of the United States, of repaying the charges of the war, and some of which, as I shall here after show, might, I presume, be made an immediate advantage of.

I distinguish three different descriptions of lands in America at the commencement of the Revolution. Proprietary or chartered lands, as was the case in Pennsylvania. Crown lands, within the described limits of any of the crown governments; and crown residuary lands that were without or beyond the limits of any province; and those last were held in reserve whereon to erect new governments and lay out new provinces; as appears to have been the design by Lord Hillsborough’s letter and the president’s answer, wherein he says “with respect to the establishment of a new colony on the back of Virginia, it is a subject of too great political importance for me to presume to give an opinion upon; however permit me, my lord, to observe, that when that part of the country shall become populated it may be a wise and prudent measure.”

The expression is a “new colony on the back of Virginia;” and referred to lands between the heads of the rivers and the Ohio. This is a proof that those lands were not considered within but beyond the limits of Virginia as a colony; and the other expression in the letter is equally descriptive, namely, “We do not presume to say to whom our gracious sovereign shall grant his vacant lands.” Certainly then, the same right, which, at that time, rested in the crown rests now in the more supreme authority of the United States….

It must occur to every person on reflection that those lands are too distant to be within the government of any of the present States….

It is only the United States, and not any single State, that can lay off new States and incorporate them in the union by representation; therefore the situation which the settlers on those lands will be in, under the assumed right of Virginia, will be hazardous and distressing, and they will feel themselves at last like aliens to the commonwealth of Israel, their habitations unsafe and their title precarious….

It seldom happens that the romantic schemes of extensive dominion are of any service to a government, and never to a people. They assuredly end at last in loss, trouble, division and disappointment. And was even the title of Virginia good, and the claim admissible, she would derive more lasting and real benefit by participating it than by attempting the management of an object so infinitely beyond her reach. Her share with the rest, under the supremacy of the United States, which is the only authority adequate to the purpose, would be worth more to her, than what the whole would produce under the management of herself alone, and that for several reasons.

First, because her claim not being admissible nor yet manageable, she cannot make a good title to the purchasers, and consequently can get but little for the lands.

Secondly, because the distance the settlers will be at from her, will immediately put them out of all government and protection, so far, at least, as relate to Virginia; and by this means she will render her frontiers a refuge to desperadoes, and a hiding place from justice; and the consequence will be perpetual unsafety to her own peace and that of the neighboring States….

Lastly, because she must sooner or later relinquish them, and therefore to see her own interest wisely at first, is preferable to the alternative of finding it out by misfortune at last….

I have already remarked that only the United States and not any particular State can lay off new States and incorporate them in the union by representation; keeping, therefore, this idea in view, I ask, might not a substantial fund be quickly created by laying off a new State, so as to contain between twenty and thirty million of acres, and opening a land office in all the countries in Europe for hard money, and in this country for supplies in kind at a certain price….

If twenty millions of acres of this new State be patented and sold at twenty pounds sterling per hundred acres they will produce four million pounds sterling, which, if applied to continental expenses only will support the war for three years should Britain be so unwise to herself to prosecute it against her own direct interest and against the interest and policy of all Europe. The several States will then have to raise taxes for their internal government only, and the continental taxes as soon as the fund begins to operate will lessen, and if sufficiently productive will cease….

I shall now enquire into the effects which the laying out of a new State, under the authority of the United States, will have upon Virginia.

It is the very circumstance she ought to and must wish for when she examines the matter through all its cases and consequences.

The present settlers being beyond her reach, and her supposed authority over them remaining in herself, they will appear to her as revolters, and she to them as oppressors; and this will produce such a spirit of mutual dislike that in a little time a total disagreement will take place, to the disadvantage of both.

But under the authority of the United States the matter is manageable, and Virginia will be eased of a disagreeable consequence.

Besides this, a sale of the lands, continentally, for the purpose of supporting the expense of the war, will save her a greater share of taxes than what the small sale she could make herself, and the small price she could get for them, would produce.

She would likewise have two advantages which no other State in the Union enjoys, first, a frontier State for her defense against the incursions of the Indians; and the second is, that the laying out and peopling a new State on the back of an old one, situated as she is, is doubling the quantity of its trade.

The new State, which is here proposed to be laid out, may send its exports down the Mississippi, but its imports must come through Chesapeake Bay, and consequently Virginia will become the market for the new State; because, though there is a navigation from it, there is none into it, on account of the rapidity of the Mississippi.

There are certain circumstances that will produce certain events whether men think of them or not. The events do not depend upon thinking, but are the natural consequence of acting; and according to the system which Virginia has gone upon, the issue will be that she will get involved with the back settlers in a contention about rights till they dispute with her her own claims, and, soured by the contention, will go to any other State for their commerce; both of which may be prevented, a perfect harmony established, the strength of the States increased, and the expenses of the war defrayed, by settling the matter now on the plan of a general right; and every day it is delayed the difficulty will be increased and the advantages lessened….

As the laying out new States will some time or other be the business of the country, and as it is yet a new business to us; and as the influence of the war has scarcely afforded leisure for reflecting on distant circumstances, I shall throw together a few hints for facilitating that measure, whenever it may be proper for adopting it.

The United States now standing on the line of sovereignty, the vacant territory is their property collectively, but the persons by whom it may hereafter be peopled will have an equal right with ourselves; and therefore, as new States shall be laid off and incorporated with the present, they will become partakers of the remaining territory with us who are already in possession. And this consideration ought to heighten the value of lands to new emigrants; because, in making purchases, they not only gain an immediate property, but become initiated into the right and heirship of the States to a property in reserve, which is an additional advantage to what any purchasers under the late government of England enjoyed.

The setting off the boundary of any new State will naturally be the first step, and as it must be supposed not to be peopled at the time it is laid off, a constitution must be formed, by the United States, as the rule of government in any new State, for a certain term of years, (perhaps ten) or until the State become peopled to a certain number of inhabitants; after which, the whole and sole right of modeling their government to rest with themselves.

A question may arise, whether a new State should immediately possess an equal right with the present ones in all cases which may come before Congress.

This, experience will best determine; but at first view of the matter it appears thus: That it ought to be immediately incorporated into the Union on the ground of a family right, such a State standing in the line of a younger child of the same stock; but as new emigrants will have something to learn when they first come to America, and a new State requiring aid rather than capable of giving it, it might be most convenient to admit its immediate representation into Congress, there to sit, hear, and debate, on all questions and matters, but not to vote on any till after the expiration of seven years.

I shall in this place take the opportunity of renewing a hint which I formerly threw out in the pamphlet “Common Sense,” and which the several States will, sooner or later, see the convenience, if not the necessity, of adopting; which is, that of electing a Continental Convention, for the purpose of forming a Continental Constitution, defining and describing the powers and authority of Congress.

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