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Securing the West

Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850

Few issues defined the period between American independence and the Mexican War more sharply than westward settlement and the role of the federal government in that expansion. In Securing the West, John R. Van Atta examines the visions of the founding generation and the increasing influence of ideological differences in the years after the peace of 1815.

Americans expected the country to grow westward, but on the details of that growth they held strongly different opinions. What part should Congress play in this development? How much should public land cost? What of the families and businesses left behind, and how would society's institutions be established in the West? What of the premature settlers, the "squatters" who challenged the rule of law while epitomizing democratic daring?

Taking a broad approach, Van Atta addresses three interrelated queries: First, how did competing economic beliefs and divergent cultural mandates influence the various outcomes of this broad debate over the means, timing, and purposes of settling the trans-Appalachian West? Second, what alternative visions of western society lay behind the battles among policy makers within the government and the interested parties who would sway them? Third, why did settlement of the West take such a different course in the end from that which the earliest leaders of the republic intended?

This story explores dimensions of the federal lands question that other historians have minimized or left out entirely. Van Atta draws upon a range of sources known to have influenced the public discourse, including congressional debates, committee reports, and correspondence; editorial writings by the famous and unknown; and news coverage in various widely circulated newspapers and magazines of the period.

Much of the attention focuses on Congress—the elected leaders who advocated divergent plans about western lands. In Congress, more than any other place, public leaders articulated basic concerns about the character, structure, direction, and destiny of society in the early United States.

By 1830, many other important national concerns had become critically entangled with land disposition, creating points of ideological tension among rival regions, parties, and interests in the early years of the republic—particularly in Jacksonian America.

About the Author

John R. Van Atta teaches history and constitutional law at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is author of The Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins.


Van Atta’s study of the multifaceted discussions taking place in Congress and throughout the nation provides a welcome level of sophistication, with implications for our understanding of nineteenth-century American governance far beyond the context of land policy.

- Stephen J. Rockwell - H-SHEAR

Solidly researched, well written, and cogently argued.

- Robert M. Owens - Middle West Review

...[Securing the West] quite ably and engagingly synthesize[s] and present[s] the concerns of policy makers while avoiding what might have been a parade of subtly differing public land distribution bills.

- Tamara Venit Shelton - The Journal of American History

A compelling account of how this issue [of land] went to the heart of the competing, shifting visions Americans had of their new country and its future.

- American Historical Review

Van Atta's emphasis on the social implications of the development of western land policies makes several important historiographic contributions.... Most important, Van Atta's analysis of the larger moral and cultural nuances involved in western land politics further illustrates the significance of the region in the development of the United States.

- Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Johns Hopkins University Press
Reconfiguring American Political History
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