28 October 2012

George Washington - Land Speculator

The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hodgeland, 2006, Excerpts

Washington felt he knew the Forks well. He’d been getting immensely frustrated with the major project of his life, western land speculation. In five decades, that speculation had given him a total of sixty thousand acres across the Appalachians. He’d deployed land scouts with instructions to break and get around laws limiting tract size. He’d threatened and bullied people who were eyeballing plots to which, by virtue of having eyeballed them first, he claimed title. When the royal proclamation of 1763 prohibited land purchases west of the mountains, he told his agent to buy there anyway. The War of Independence legitimized his titles by overturning royal injunctions. After the revolution, he showed no patience for illegal possession: he spent much energy bringing actions against squatters, disdaining their idea that title – or at least affordable rents – should be offered to those willing to live on and improve the land.

Making Mount Vernon pay for itself was always a problem. He needed full rent. He had a constant need for cash. He’d hoped to gain solvency through collections of western rents and then – when canals and roads were supported by the government and built by his own company, when Indians were suppressed by the United States Army, when regional government became what he called well toned – make a fortune by selling those lands.

But his hopes for the west were growing dreary, his patience thin. The land was still squatted on; rents were uncollected The absence of cash in the west was well known to Washington: he had to accept grain and other barter as rent, which always sold for less than he knew it was worth.

The whole problem was becoming encapsulated for Washington in the western people’s resistance to the tax law, which hadn’t been enforced anywhere over the mountains, from Kentucky to the Northwest Territory. Failure to collect a national tax imposed an embarrassing limit on the national reach. Tax resistance weakened big creditors’ confidence in the financial stability of the United States, which had promised to pay bondholders interest derived from excise revenues. To make up the shortfall, Hamilton had been forced to propose new federal taxes: excises on snuff, sugar, and carriages, as well as stamp taxes and new import duties. Because such taxes shifted burdens back to eastern merchants and creditors, now even federalists were worried about excessive taxation.

The western land bubble would soon burst for everybody if lands appeared not to be under effective control of the United States.

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