1819. Of the first class, the most important was the cession by Virginia, of all her right and title, as well of soil as jurisdiction, to all the territory within the limits of her charter, lying to the Northwest of the river Ohio. It may not be ill-timed to recur to the causes and occasions of this and the other similar grants.
When the war of the Revolution broke out, a great difference existed in different States in the proportion between people and Territory. The Northern and Eastern States, with very small surfaces, contained comparatively a thick population, and there was generally within their limits, no great quantity of waste lands belonging to the Government, or the Crown of England. On the contrary, there were in the Southern States, in Virginia and in Georgia for example, extensive public domains, wholly unsettled and belonging to the Crown. As these possessions would necessarily fall from the crown, in the event of a prosperous issue of the war, it was insisted that they ought to devolve on the United States, for the good of the whole. The war, it was argued, was undertaken, and carried on, at the common expense of all the colonies; its benefits, if successful, ought also to be common; and the property of the common enemy, when vanquished, ought to be regarded as the general acquisition of all. While yet the war was raging, it was contended that Congress ought to have the power to dispose of vacant and unpatented lands commonly called Crown lands, for defraying the expenses of the war, and for other public and general purposes. “Reason and justice,” said the Assembly of New Jersey, in 1778, “must decide, that the property which existed in the Crown of Great Britain, previous to the present Revolution, ought now to belong to Congress, in trust for the use and benefit of the United States. They have fought and bled for it, in proportion to their respective abilities, and therefore the reward ought not to be predilectionally distributed. Shall such States as are shut out, by situation, from availing themselves of the least advantage from this quarter, be left to sink under an enormous debt, whilst others are enabled, in a short period, to replace all their expenditures from the hard earnings of the whole confederacy?”
Moved by these considerations, and these addresses, Congress took up the subject, and in September, 1780, recommended to the several States in the Union, having claims to Western Territory, to make liberal cessions of a portion thereof to the United States; and on the 10th of October, 1780, Congress resolved, “That any lands, so ceded in pursuance of their preceding recommendation, should be disposed of for the common benefit of the United States; should be settled and formed into distinct republican States, to become members of the Federal Union, with the same rights of sovereignty, freedom, and independence, as the other States; and that the lands should be granted or settled, at such times, and under such regulations, as should be agreed on by Congress.” Again, in September, 1783, Congress passed another resolution, expressing the conditions on which cessions from States should be received; and in October following, Virginia made her cession, reciting the resolution, or act, of September preceding, and then transferring her title to her Northwestern Territory to the United States, upon the express condition “that the lands, so ceded, should be considered as a common fund for the use and benefit of such of the United States as had become or should become members of the confederation, Virginia inclusive, and should be faithfully and bona fide disposed of for that purpose, and for no other use or purpose whatsoever.” The grants from other States were on similar conditions. Massachusetts and Connecticut both had claims to western lands, and both relinquished them to the United States in the same manner. These grants were all made on three substantial conditions or trusts: First, that the ceded territories should be formed into States, and admitted in due time into the union, with all the rights belonging to other States. Second, that the lands should form a common fund, to be disposed of for the general benefit of all the States. Third, that they should be sold and settled, at such time and in such manner as Congress should direct.
Now, sir, it is plain that Congress never has been, and is not now, at liberty to disregard these solemn conditions. For the fulfilment of all these trusts, the public faith was, and is, fully pledged. How, then, would it have been possible for Congress, if it had been so disposed, to give away these public lands? How could they have followed the example of other Governments, if there had been such, and considered the conquest of the wilderness an equivalent compensation for the soil? The States had looked to this territory, perhaps too sanguinely, as a fund out of which means were to come to defray the expenses of the war. It had been received as a fund—as a fund Congress had bound itself to apply it. To have given it away, would have defeated all the objects which Congress, and particular States, had had in view, in asking and obtaining the cession, and would have plainly violated the conditions which the ceding States attached to their own grants.
The gentleman admits that the lands cannot be given away until the national debt is paid, because, to a part of that debt they stand pledged. But this is not the original pledge. There is, so to speak, an earlier mortgage. Before the debt was funded, at the moment of the cession of the lands, and by the very terms of that cession, every State in the Union obtained an interest in them, as in a common fund. Congress has uniformly adhered to this condition. It has proceeded to sell the lands, and to realize as much from them as was compatible with the other trusts created by the same deeds of cession. One of these deeds of trust, as I have already said, was, that the lands should be sold and settled, “at such time and manners as Congress shall direct.” The Government has always felt itself bound, in regard to sale and settlement, to exercise its own best judgment, and not to transfer the discretion to others. It has not felt itself at liberty to dispose of the soil, therefore, in large masses, to individuals, thus leaving to them the time and manner of settlement. It had stipulated to use its own judgment. If, for instance, in order to rid itself of the trouble of forming a system for the sale of those lands, and going into detail, it had sold the whole of what is now Ohio, in one mass, to individuals, or companies, it would clearly have departed from its just obligations. And who can now tell, or conjecture, how great would have been the evil of such a course? Who can say what mischiefs would have ensued, if Congress had thrown these territories into the hands of private speculation? Or who, on the other hand, can now foresee what the event would be, should the Government depart from the same wise course hereafter, and, not content with such constant absorption of the public lands as the natural growth of our population may accomplish, should force great portions of them, at nominal or very low prices, into private hands, to be sold and settled, as and when such holders might think would be most for their own interest? Hitherto, sir, I maintain Congress has acted wisely, and done its duty on this subject. I hope it will continue to do it. Departing from the original idea, so soon as it was found practicable and convenient, of selling by townships, Congress has disposed of the soil in smaller and still smaller portions, till, at length, it sells in parcels of no more than eighty acres; thus putting it into the power of every man in the country, however poor, but who has health and strength, to become a freeholder if he desires, not of barren acres, but of rich and fertile soil. The Government has performed all the conditions of the grant. While it has regarded the public lands as a common fund, and has sought to make what reasonably could be made of them, as a source of revenue, it has also applied its best wisdom to sell and settle