George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James Madison, 12 June 1789

To James Madison

Friday Morng [New York, 12 June 1789]

As the Communications herewith enclosed will not take much time to read; As there are matters related which to me are new; and as the information respecting land transactions, and other things in the Western Country will require to be noticed & acted upon in some way or another, I send them to you together with a Gazette with a marked paragraph containing some suggestions that have not, I believe, been touched upon in any of the Papers I gave you yesterday—but are handed to you for the same purpose that they were—i.e. merely for Consideration.


This letter is undated and was docketed by James Madison at some later date as “without date.” It was printed twice by John C. Fitzpatrick, once at the end of 1789 and once under date of 21 Oct. 1791 (Writings, 30:486n, 31:395–96). The editors of the Papers of James Madison argue convincingly for the date of 12 June 1789, based on the fact that proposals for a land office to deal with the sale of unappropriated lands in the Northwest Territory had been under discussion in the House of Representatives since 28 May and that the enclosure may well have been an article that appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser on 11 June 1789. The article, signed “A. E.,” supported the creation of the land office, and pointed out that “the revenue arising from the sale of our western lands, must from the very nature of things if attended to, be very considerable. It is here, and here only we have it in our power, to do justice to that army, which led our country to freedom and independence. It is likewise to this source, we are to look for means to cancel our domestic debt. . . .

“The policy of opening a land office for the disposal of our western lands; will in part depend upon the admission of some facts too well known to be controverted, by the most uninformed. These are, that the British and Spanish nations, both claim, and possess extensive tracts of country, adjoining the territory of the United States; and it is likewise equally as well known, that both these powers to continue to invite the citizens of the union to settle among them, by granting lands upon easy terms, and exempting them from taxation a number of years. That these offers have in a considerable degree, had the intended effect, is likewise well known. Here we find two channels open to draw off the inhabitants of the United States; and if the wealth, strength and dignity of a power, consists in any measure, in the number of subjects, these drains must be viewed as highly detrimental to the union, by the patriot and politician. And although it may be found impossible to prevent the emigration from the Atlantic states, it is a fortunate circumstance, that we have it in our power to direct the emigrants into our own territory. In the latter case if I may use the expression, they only go from one part of the building to another; but in the former, they quit the house altogether.

“I have heard but one objection to opening an office for the sale of our western lands that deserves any attention, and that is—‘such a measure will have a tendency to depopulate the Atlantic states, and thereby prevent the growth of our manufactures, so necessary to our existence as an independent people.’ This objection, however plausible, is answered both by facts and experience. It is a fact that the British, and Spanish nations, have land in the neighbourhood of the territory of the United States; and experience has taught us, that our citizens are settling them.

“Hence it is plain, that any thing we can do, by withholding our lands, cannot possibly have any tendency to detain such of our citizens as are inclined to remove. . . . We have likewise organized a government in that country—I would ask, why continue that government, without permitting that country to be peopled? . . .

“The United States have, upon the most mature deliberation, appropriated a considerable tract of country, to the use of officers and soldiers of our late army. Can any person suppose, that it would be either just or prudent, to let these people settle their lands, and continue in that detached situation, without being under the restraint of government? I think not—It would be neither prudent nor just, for these reasons—If the settlers found themselves hard pressed by the savages, they must either be compelled to quit the country, or form some alliance with the neighbouring powers. In the first case, by leaving them to the mercy of the Indians we should treat them unjustly; and such an event as the latter, I trust would give pain to every friend to the Union. There is yet one other argument in favor of establishing that government in the Western Territory, which is certainly unanswerable. By our treaty of peace with Great Britain, we came possessed of several French settlements beyond the Ohio river. The inhabitants made application to Congress, to have the advantages of government extended to them; and as they could not be attached to any one of the United States; being without the territorial claims, it became necessary to establish a distinct government in that country.”

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