Did land speculators build the United States?

In “Land Speculators Made US,” Overcoming Bias, blogger and George Mason University economist Robin Hanson wrote on Nov. 5, 2022:

As a US citizen for 63 years, I have never heard this story of US origin before, says Christopher Blattman in his new book. why we fight (pp. 38-41). The American Revolutionary War seems to be a textbook example of elite interests being diverted from the majority of citizens.

He then quotes Blattman at length.

Blattman is an economist, not an expert on 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 had written on the American Revolution, that he might have a somewhat different view of how to think of George Washington. In fact, Jeff’s long article that I asked him to write for EcoLib, among other things, highlights the problem with the Blattman/Brian Kaplan view that the colonies could have achieved a free society through a 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 War: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace. The book is highly recommended by Tyler Cowen, and can be an excellent book in some cases. But based on Amazon’s description, the French and Indian War is just one brief example of many in the book, 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 claims in the quote are correct, but they are marred by some gross simplifications and exaggerations. And Robin titled the post, “Land Speculators Made the US,” especially exaggerated.

Yes, western land speculation played a noticeable role in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, but it was hardly a primary factor in the latter. Even in the case of the French and Indian War, expansion into western lands was pushed as much by private British settlers as by the British government by speculators organized into companies like the Ohio Company of Virginia.

In fact, Washington’s campaign that provoked the French and Indian War had more support from the British cabinet than from Virginia’s legislature, the House of Burgesses. The most definitive, fairly recent account of that battle is by 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 for further reference. The War That Made America, A Short History of the French and Indian War (2005).

British and French disputes over North American territory were hardly new. Before the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, the French and British had already fought three other wars in the colonies: King William’s War (known in Europe as the Battle of Augsburg), 1688–1697; Queen Anne’s War (War of the Spanish 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. One could even plausibly argue that the war was in part instigated by Canada’s new aggressive governor, the Marquis Duquesne, who, despite opposition from Canadian settlers living in New France, began occupying the region with new forts and driving out British Indian traders. . Before Washington began his military campaign, he had previously traveled to the region in late 1753, confirmed the growing French military presence, and unsuccessfully ordered the local French commander to leave.

During Washington’s subsequent military operations in the region, it is still uncertain 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 accredited British observers. It is true that Washington’s overall reporting of the incident was misleading. But to say, as Blattman does, that Washington “lost control of its warriors” is to deny Indians any thoughtful, self-interested agency. Various tribes were disputing control of the area among themselves or in a complex environment of alliances with the British or French. The leader of Washington’s Indian contingent, Tanaghrison, who initiated the massacre, was a representative of the imperial Iroquois Confederacy, which had long claimed the area and claimed sovereignty over local tribes. Although the Iroquois were formerly allies of the French, they strongly objected to French incursions into the region and switched sides. Tanaghrison clearly understood that killing the wounded French commander would ensure war between the British and the French, overcoming any reluctance on their part.

(Not to be too pedantic, but Francis Jennings wrote two excellent books on the complex activities of the Indians during this period: The obscure Iroquois empire And Empire of Destiny: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years’ War in the Americas.)

Some of Blattman’s criticisms of Washington’s character are fair and hardly new; You can find a similar critique of Washington in Rothbard Conceived in freedom. But Blattman generally gives too much credit for Washington’s role. Neither individual was absolutely decisive in the outbreak of war. For the American Revolution, it was not Washington who led Virginia to independence, but men like Patrick Henry, who had great appeal among Virginia’s lower classes. In fact, many of the Virginia elite took the field unwillingly, some of whom ended up as loyalists.

Finally, Bateman’s claim that “most Americans at the time opposed the Revolutionary War” is misleading at best. Many cite a letter from John Adams in which he alleged that one-third of the population supported the Revolution, one-third opposed it, and one-third were neutral. But a closer examination reveals that he was referring to the French Revolution. There were no modern opinion polls at the time, but the best historical evidence suggests that between 45 and 60 percent of the population supported the revolution, and somewhere between 15 and 20 percent opposed it, leaving the rest neutral. Of course, these ratios vary from region to region and may change over time.

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

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

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 dignitaries spoke well of the book, not one of them was or is a historian.

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