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Monday, December 19, 2005

Virginia Gives It Up, December 20, 1783

Today in 1783, the government of Virginia gave most of its western land holdings to the new federal government. This move, while seemingly small compared to later battles over the US Constitution, helped mold the thirteen distinct former colonies into a nation with common purpose.

The colonial charter which granted Virginia the right to exist also drew her boundaries. At the end of the Revolutionary War, these boundaries included the area that is today the state of Virginia plus all of West Virginia and much of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut all contested that land claim. For their part, Virginians claimed that since their colonial charter was older than anyone else’s, their claim superseded any that came later. In 1763, the British created the Proclamation Line, a north-south line running down the length of the Appalachian Mountains. European settlement west of the line was prohibited, so Virginia’s large land area meant very little. But with independence came the opening of the West (that is, the area between the Proclamation Line and the Mississippi) and the potential for the new states to accumulate wealth through the sale of land and the collection of taxes.

Some colonies had no western holdings, meaning that they would not get to share in the potential windfall. This became such a divisive issue that it had the potential to break apart the fragile union before it really got started. As far back as 1776, John Dickinson, a Pennsylvanian, had proposed that all the states cede their western lands to the federal government. This was intended to not only be an act of fairness, but it would also create federal land which could be granted to Revolutionary war veterans as a form of payment for their services, since many of them had fought for years with little or no pay.

Virginia opposed any such plan until 1783. With storm clouds of dissolution on the horizon, the Virginia legislature decided that a stable central government was more important than land. Thus, they became the first state to give up their claim on western property. Eventually, all the other states with land out west followed suit.

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