The First Gazelle and the Primeval Early American Entrepreneur: Land Ownership and Agriculture

When we think of the “peopling of American”(immigration from Europe) our first “take” is the desperation that drove them here as refugees. “Give us your tired, and poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me” [the New Colossus, Emma Lazarus]. But if desperation in some form drove them from their former homelands, it does not answer why they came here. They came here because in their minds pre-1800 America was the best place to make a new start and to realize their dreams and hopes. Lazarus stresses that “breathing free”, i.e. political and civil rights were key–and they were–but I take it one step deeper. In the minds of many, maybe most of these refugees was the belief and hope that the best, maybe only true way to secure and maintain “freedom” was through their ownership of land, which was key to attaining political rights, and absolutely necessary to secure their economic freedom as well. Land ownership before and after the American Revolution was the cornerstone of the first “American Dream”.

It was the plenitude of land that drew many early settlers. … If you gave [such] an American a dollar, he would buy something costing ten. … The instrument of this magic, the touchstone, was land” [99] Forrest McDonald, E Pluribus Unum: the Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790, p. 72, cited in “the Founders and Pursuit of Land”, the Lehrman Institute, p.2


In Europe land was scarce in relation to people, and therefore was expensive. Hence unable to afford their own land to farm, Europeans were compelled to work for others, either by becoming laborers for landowners in the countryside, or more often by migrating to the cities to engage in manufacturing goods in factories. [99] Gordon S. Woods, the Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, p.70

When most of the pre-1800 American immigrants came, America was a colony of Great Britain, from which many fled. What they expected to find in America was land. In these years few stayed in what were incredibly small settlements and cities. Rather they moved into the coastal hinterland, acquired land if only as a renter, and set up an agricultural household. It was that dynamic that fueled growth in the New England, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina colonies, it was that dynamic which lost in 17th century mists and fog led to the first accumulation of American domestic investment capital, i.e. wealth. It was land, the accumulation and sale of land that created America’s colonial elites–many of whom were to be the Founding Fathers, and the core members of our Federalist Tribe. With exceptions such as Robert Morris, and John Hancock, most of our founders were originally and principally agricultural elites, even our lawyer-friend John Adams, whose household economics was held together by his and Abigail’s yeoman farm.

When the Early Republic kicks off with its new 1789 Constitution, we were an agricultural nation–about one in twenty lived in a urban settlement greater than 2,500. In 1790 America’s first “modern” factory was fabricated in Pawtucket Rhode Island. Manufacturing before that included grist (flour) mills, saw mills, and machinery to serve domestic and agricultural needs (nails, plows, wagon wheels, barrels and the like). A half-century later, 1840, urbanization had skyrocketed to just over two out of twenty Americans; manufacturing, however, had grown immensely, if from a low base. More on all that later, but the point is clear: two-thirds of the Early Republic period ought to be looked at through the lens of its predominant economic base–agriculture, detailing how cities were founded and built, and manufacturing diffused. After 1790, however, that story was not confined to the thirteen (fourteen) original states, but had to be extended to the rise of entirely new states carved, we prefer conquered, from the trans-Appalachian interior.

In fact, “westernization” of population migration transformed us to a Federal Union of fifty states. Agriculture, westernization, and the rise of cities and manufacturing and were simultaneous with the formation of thirty-six new states, each with their own ways to “doing” economic development. Again Gordon Wood observes “that before the Revolution the territory of Kentucky had contained almost no white settlers. By the early 1780’s however [i.e. during the American Revolution] it had more than 20,000. By the end of the century it had grown to 220,000 people and people marveled at the fact that not a single adult had been born and grown up within its borders” [Gordon Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution, p. 309-10, 313. R. Kent Newmyer wrote:

It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of land greed in American history … Land was America’s most abundant and most-sought-after-resources. For the better part of two centuries, the vision of cheap land was the magnet that attracted millions of immigrants. It was billed as ‘free’, but it never was. First it had to be wrested from the Native Americans.. .[then] from the Spanish and French [and once again the English]. It was fought over by the rich and powerful to see who could get the most and the best. It was fought for by the poor who wanted a little piece of the action, and who, unlike the large buyers and sellers, were willing to put their lives on the line to get it. [99] R. Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court, pp. 36-8.