Ohio History Journal

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Inequality Amidst Abundance:

Land Ownership in Early

Nineteenth Century Ohio




As the great trans-Appalachian West opened to settlement in the years

after the founding of the Republic, Americans saw in the virtually

unlimited lands of the interior the promise of a prosperous citizenry and a

healthy body politic. Most believed that those rights declared self-evident

in the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence must be firmly

grounded in a social fabric characterized by the widespread and equitable

distribution of land. Thomas Jefferson has long been recognized as the

most eloquent proponent of the yeoman farmer ideal, but his erstwhile

rival John Adams also made the small landholder the bedrock upon which

he thought a virtuous republic must rest. As the second president of the

United States put it early in his career, "The only possibility then of

preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public

virtue is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to

make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be

possessed of landed estates."1

The American faith in widespread and generous land ownership won

further endorsement from across the Atlantic when in 1798 the pioneer

English economist Thomas Malthus published his remarkable Essay on the

Principles of Population. The founder of the "dismal science" believed that

there existed a tendency for populations to expand more rapidly than did

the food supply, thus progressively impoverishing the "redundant" portion

of the populace. The only checks to this downward spiral were famine,

war, and pestilence which efficaciously, if cruelly, reestablished the proper

relation of people to land.2 Echoing Adams and Jefferson, Malthus argued


Lee Soltow is Professor of Economics at Ohio University.


1. As quoted in William B. Scott, In Pursuit of Happiness, American Conceptions of

Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century (Bloomington, 1977), 41.

2. T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population ora View of its Past and Present

Effects on Human Happiness (London, 1803), 190, 194. See also, Patricia James, ed., The

Travel Diaries of Thomas Robert Malthus (Cambridge, 1966).