A "commercial view of this unfortunate war": economic roots of an American National State in the Ohio Valley, 1775-1795

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Date: Spring 2008
From: Early American Studies(Vol. 6, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 11,130 words
Lexile Measure: 1730L

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ABSTRACT This article argues that the roots of an American national state were forged in the wars with Native Americans for control of the Ohio Valley between 1775 and 1795. It examines how the new national government's use of its fiscal-military powers shifted and accelerated an economic transformation in the region by encouraging commercial husbandry and merchant-based exchange. An expanded commercial economy, in turn, supported the federally funded military. The result was that local western economies and communities became more tightly bound to an expansionist national government.


On April 4, 1788, Harry Innes wrote to his friend the Virginia congressman John Brown. The letter testified to a long series of applications made since 1785 by local residents and officials of the District of Kentucky to the federal government, their intent being to increase the presence and mandate of federal troops in the Ohio Valley to protect settlers from Native American incursions. Innes, who served as assistant judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature in the Kentucky District of Virginia, observed that federal troops had "seen the Indians cross the Ohio in sight of their Garrisons ..., & never made an excursion." His complaint emerged in response to an intensifying conflict between settlers and Native Americans in the Ohio Valley that had been festering since the Revolutionary War. (1) Native American warriors crossing into Kentucky, Innes claimed, "duly deprived [settlers] of their property" by stealing horses and other livestock, killing or kidnapping slaves, burning homes, sinking boats on the region's rivers, and killing settlers. Already in 1788 Innes claimed that "Merchandise to the Value of above 3,000 [pounds sterling]" had been taken or destroyed. (2)

During the 1770s and 1780s settler communities and the State of Virginia largely shouldered the burdens of both defending settlements and launching crudely conceived, irregular expeditions against Native American communities. (3) Unlike the French and British imperial influences, which had preceded the American invasion into the region, the new western settlers sought to create societies that precluded Native American territorial control and excluded them from economic and political participation. (4) The bulk of emigrants sought to write onto the landscape a new economic formula that privileged agriculture over the fur trade and redirected the flow of trade from the St. Lawrence River valley to the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. As the war escalated during the 1780s, Ohio Valley residents looked to a reluctant federal government to provide them with assistance in the conflict. "The position of the Troops on the Ohio and the conduct of the commander," Innes proclaimed, "serve only to evince to us that those Troops never were intended for our protection, but to prevent Settlers on the Federal Lands." (5)

By writing to John Brown, Harry Innes intended to demonstrate broad Kentucky support for nationally directed efforts to create greater security for the region's settlers and property. Paradoxically, even as Innes argued for greater federal action in 1788, he aligned himself with Anti-Federalists in opposition to the new Constitution, which purportedly sought...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A177943622