Monday, June 16, 2008

Guess who? An American speaks out in 1767

I spend a lot of time teaching social studies teachers around the country better ways to teach American history.

(No, Dana, I don't spend my time trying to convince them to vote Libertarian.)

One of the issues I deal with all the time is the false dissonance we create for students between then and now.

Specifically, I'm talking about self-interest and dis-interest in our political leaders.

We see Bill and Hillary, Dubya, McCain, Obama, and all other high-level politicians presented in terms of their own self-interest. Dubya invaded Iraq for oil, right? So his oil-invested, Saudi-loving family could profit when gas prices went up....

We assume today that all politicians are bought and paid for, until they prove otherwise.

But we too often teach that the Founders, or great 19th Century politicians like Henry Clay or Abraham Lincoln were passionate, unselfish patriots who sacrificed their own self-interest for the greater good.

I'm not--like Dana does when he wants to get people thinking--a big fan of correcting this by referring to the Founding Fathers as the Founding Foreskins, but I do think we need to make students aware that self-interest and the national interest have always been dynamics balanced against each other by our political leaders.

This is critical, because if we present our Founders as noble demi-gods and our current leaders as self-interested political hacks, then our students can legitimately ask the question, "When did it change? When did self-interest begin corrupting our leaders?"

And as a teacher you can't answer that, because that self-interest has always been there.

So, for fun, here's a quotation from a future founding father in 1767, regarding land speculation in the West (which at the time was modern West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, etc.). You'll need to know that the King's Proclamation the speaker cites is the Proclamation of 1763, in which the King restricted colonial settlement from infringing on Indian lands west of the Alleghenies. This act was resented by land speculators who had already forked out thousands of pounds for deeds to huge chunks of currently Indian land on the western side of that proclamation line, and who stood to lose their fortunes if people couldn't move west and push the Indians out.

Our speaker, therefore, said:

His purpose was “attempting to secure some of the most valuable lands in the King’s part, … the Indian lands upon the Ohip, a good way below Pittsburgh…. Ordinary or even middling lands would never answer my purpose or expectation…. No, a tract to please me must be rich … and, if possible level…. [Obtaining such lands] could be accomplished after awhile, notwithstanding the proclamation that restrains it at present…. [It is but] a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when the Indians consent to our occupying the lands.”

I'll give you one clue: in 1794 the speaker, after the Battle of Fallen Timbers had broken Indian power in the region, opening it up for settlement (following two successive costly defeats to the US Army in 1790 and 1791), this individual then placed for sale nearly 30,000 acres of land in the Ohio Territory that he had acquired the deed to in the late 1760s. He would receive nearly $90,000 for these seven tracts of land (think, in today's terms, about $2.5-3.5 million).

Who was he?


Brian said...

Thomas Jefferson, proposed in 1784 a plan for carving out new states in the vast territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Part of the proposal dealt with the radical idea of surveying the land into square tracts. The appeal of this idea was to eliminate the numerous legal battles caused by overlapping claims, common in the states that used the metes and bounds surveying system. Jefferson's proposal was modified through the legislative process and eventually turned into the Land Ordinance of 1785. And the property was turned over to the "Military Distirct of Virginia." Which was established following the revolutionary war as a way to being the westward expansion of the contintential United States to the Mississippi river, as a result of the Indians siding with the British during the conflict with the United States. Am I correct?

Brian said...

I don't think that qualifies as self interest. Maybe state's interest- after all it was for all of the Virginians, West Virginia territory, Mason and Dixon and their surveyors and and new colonists.

It was not too different from Bolivar's annexation of Gran Colombia after the Battle of Carabobo and the national independence of Colombia in 1810 and Venezuela on July 5, 1811. When the soliders of Bolivar were given lands in the newly liberated territory much to the consternation of the latifundia owners. Just as the old landowning families of Virginia always resented the poor whites of West Virginia.

tom said...

Our speaker, therefore, said:

His purpose was “attempting to secure some of the most valuable lands in the King’s part, …

Who was he?

Nobody important, just some obscure army colonel named George Washington. He said this in a letter to some other guy named William Crawford.

Brian said...

Damn, got it wrong. I was thinking of the Virginia Military District letters.