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Saber and Scroll

Abstract

In 1783, the Confederation Congress of the United States formed a committee to recommend policies for the disposal of lands ceded by Great Britain to the United States at the conclusion of the American War of Independence. After much debate during the spring of 1784, a significantly amended report became the Land Ordinance Act of 1784. The liberal democratic principles expressed by the Act ensured the success of Republicanism, which made individual liberty and unalienable human rights the central ideal of post-war American society. As applied to the political geography of the new nation brought into existence by the Treaty of Paris (1783), these principles manifested themselves in four very distinct ways. First, the concepts of public domain and private land ownership emerged as land became a commodity to be bought and sold. Next, the physical geography of the states created by the subdivision of the Western Territory and their representative form of government fueled the cause of Republicanism. Third, the Act elevated colonial agrarianism and encouraged the capabilities of individual farming, giving Jefferson’s land policy a popular base in the agriculturally dominant west. Finally, the policy proposed a land division scheme, which was more democratic than the incumbent schemes, as it defined equal sized lots that simplified revenue collection.

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