02 January 2021

A Revolutionary University, the Natural World and the Policy Focus for Our Founding Fathers

Jefferson asked that his three proudest accomplishments be captured on his tombstone. President was notably absent, while "father of the University of Virginia" was included.

To me, the most remarkable thing about this new university was simply this: it was the first university in the history of the West that was not originally founded as a school of divinity.

The United States' first president had been a land surveyor. Jefferson's university was designed to focus students on the natural - and not the supernatural - world. The founding fathers were Enlightenment thinkers who sought to observe and explain the natural world. Land - this world - was their focus.
Americans went to war with the British for a host of reasons but a big and often overlooked reason was that the British in 1763 forbade colonial settlement west of the Alleghanies. Land speculators like George Washington weren't terribly excited about this. Throwing off British rule was one way to expand holdings further west.

As president, Jefferson funded Lewis and Clark's expedition to explore this vast continent. It is easy to gloss over the fact that this new country initially hugged a strip of land along the Atlantic ocean that was about one quarter of the land mass the US now occupies. As proof that Jefferson's interest in the continent was not just academic, he spent a sum double the new country's federal budget to make the Louisiana Purchase. By the time Lincoln took office, the "lower 48" defined this country.

What defined policy from the presidency of Washington the land speculator to the presidency of Lincoln the inventor? (Abe is still the only president to hold a patent.) Land. It's exploration, conquest and monetization. (Farming and gold were obvious ways but by no means the only. By the end of the 1800s, Michigan's lumber industry would have created a billion dollars more in value than the California gold rush. This new continent was rich in opportunities to become rich.)

European serfs were legally bound to the land, unable to move. They didn't own land; land owned them. This new country offered possibilities of ownership that had literally been outlawed for their parents.
The serfs were freed gradually throughout Europe but serfdom was not completely ended until terribly late. The last of the serfs in Scotland were freed in 1799, the last in France in 1789, in Germany in 1830. Chinese immigrants (by 1870, they made up 9% of California's population) fled similarly bleak prospects for this new land of opportunity. It was truly revolutionary for these former serfs and sons of serfs to come to the US to own land and a flood of immigrants came; the population Lincoln governed was six times larger than the one Jefferson presided over. Land was the magnet that drew these immigrants.

With the ascent of Lincoln and his new Republican Party, a new force would shape and be shaped by Americans but most of what you need to know about the policy and politics that succeeded from the founding of the country to the founding of the Republican party could be answered by the question of what got the country more land or extracted more value from that land. It was both that simple and that complicated (and messy and violent).

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