Did Land Speculators Make the United States of America?

In “Land Speculators Made US,” Overcoming Bias, November 5, 2022, George Mason University economist and blogger Robin Hanson writes:

Although a US citizen for 63 years, I had never before heard this story of American origins, beautifully told by Christopher Blattman is his new book Why we fight (pp. 38-41). It appears that the American Revolution was an example of a war of text due to the interests of the elite diverging from those of the majority of citizens.

He then goes on to quote Blattman at length.

Blattman is an economist, not a specialist in early American history. So I sent the link to Jeff Hummel, who is a historian who has written extensively on early American history. I suspected, given what Jeff has written about the American Revolution, that he might have somewhat different views on how to think about George Washington. In fact, Jeff’s long article I had him write for Econlib exposes, among other things, the problem with the Blattman/Bryan Caplan view that the colonies could have achieved a freer society by bloody revolution.

Here is Jeff’s response to me.

I read Hanson’s post, which is actually a long quote from Christopher Blattman Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. The book is highly recommended by Tyler Cowen and in some ways it can be an excellent book. But according to Amazon’s description, the French and Indian War is just one concise example among many in the book, which range from Colombia to Liberia. Blattman, therefore, hardly qualifies as an expert on the French and Indian War or the American Revolution. About half of the statements in the quote are correct, but they are peppered with some gross oversimplifications and exaggerations. And Robin’s title to the post, “Land Speculators Made the US,” is particularly exaggerated.

Yes, Western land speculation played a notable role in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, but it was not the primary factor in the latter. And even in the case of the French and Indian War, expansion into western lands was being driven both by British private settlers and the British government and by speculators organized in companies like the Ohio Company of Virginia.

In fact, Washington’s expedition that led to the French and Indian War had more support from the British cabinet than from Virginia’s legislature, the House of Burgesses. The most definitive and fairly recent account of this war is Fred Anderson Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (2001). Unfortunately, my copy is buried somewhere inaccessible, but I have access to Anderson’s later for reference The War America Fought, A Brief History of the French and Indian War (2005).

The British and French dispute over territory in North America was hardly new. Before the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, the French and British had already fought three other colonial wars: King William’s War (known in Europe as the War of the League of Augsburg), 1688-1697; Queen Anne’s War (War of Succession), 1701-1713; and King George’s War (War of the Austrian Succession), 1740-1748. The last of these ended just six years before the outbreak of the French and Indian War.

Before the outbreak of the French and Indian War, the forks of the Ohio were not firmly controlled by either power. It can even be plausibly argued that the war was in part brought about by Canada’s aggressive new governor, the Marquis Duquesne, who, despite opposition from Canadian settlers living in New France, began the occupation of the region with new forts and drove out the British Indian traders. . Before Washington embarked on his military expedition, he had previously traveled to the region in late 1753, confirming the increased French military presence and unsuccessfully ordering the local French commander to leave.

During Washington’s subsequent military incursion into the region, it is still unclear who fired the first shot. The French claimed that Washington’s troops fired first, and used this claim as propaganda, while Washington claimed that the French fired first, which was confirmed by other observers, certainly British. It is true that Washington’s overall report on the incident was misleading. But to claim, as Blattman did, that Washington “lost control of its warriors” is to deny any thoughtful and self-interested agency to the Indians themselves. Several tribes disputed the control of the area in a complex environment of alliances, among themselves or with the British or French. The leader of Washington’s Indian contingent, Tanaghrisson, who initiated the massacre, was a representative of the imperialist Iroquois Confederacy, which had also long claimed the area and claimed sovereignty over the local tribes. Although the Iroquois had previously been allied with the French, they strongly opposed the French incursion into the region and were changing sides. Tanaghrisson clearly understood that killing the wounded French commander would guarantee a war between the British and the French, overcoming any reluctance on his part.

(Not to get too pedantic, but Francis Jennings has written two excellent books on the muddled activities of the Indians during the period: The ambiguous Iroquois empire i Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years’ War in America.)

Some of Blattman’s criticisms of Washington’s character are justified and hardly new; you can find similar criticism of Washington in Rothbard’s Conceived in freedom. But Blattman gives too much credit to Washington’s role overall. No individual was absolutely decisive in the outbreak of any war. In terms of the American Revolution, it was not Washington who led Virginia down the path to independence, but rather individuals like Patrick Henry, who had great appeal among the lower ranks of Virginia. Indeed, many of Virginia’s elite were drawn into the fray rather reluctantly, and some ended up loyalists.

Finally, Bateman’s claim that “most Americans at the time opposed a Revolutionary War” is misleading at best. Many cite a letter from John Adams in which he allegedly stated that one-third of the population supported the Revolution, one-third opposed it, and one-third were neutral. But a close examination shows that he was referring to the French Revolution. There were no modern opinion polls at the time, but the best historical evidence finds that 45 to 60 percent of the population supported the Revolution, and 15 to 20 percent opposed it , and the rest was neutral. Of course, these proportions varied from region to region and could change over time.

Historical events are complex and cannot always be reduced to simple stories.

Jeff’s article on the American Revolution, “Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities,” covers some of this ground.

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After carefully reading Jeff’s comment, I went to the Amazon site for Blattman’s book and noticed something interesting that supports one of Jeff’s points: Although many reputable people said good things about the book, neither one of them was and is not a historian.

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