Government Lands, Squatters’ Claims, and David Crockett

David Crockett Birthplace State Park, Greene County, Tennessee

James M. Hohman asks, in a recent article, “What Do Libertarians Want from Government Land?” Given the amount of land owned by the various levels of government, it’s a serious question. The simple answer is to sell it all. But what will convince the public to support the sale of public lands? Consider this: If people make improvements to unused public land without legal title for their activity, have they earned a claim to that property through their labor on it? Almost two hundred years ago, the United States Congress, the State of Tennessee, and Representative David Crockett battled over this problem.

Davy Crockett is remembered in film and history as the king of the wild frontier and heroic defender of the Alamo. In life, he went by David. Representative David Crockett’s career in the U.S. Congress is largely overlooked in his own legend and in American history. Crockett won three non-consecutive terms of office (1827-31, 1833-35) promising to secure titles to property for the many residents of western Tennessee who were squatting on their plots. 

The backstory to that territory is somewhat convoluted. As a condition of statehood in 1796, Tennessee was required to set aside a large plot of unsettled territory within its borders. The Tennessee territory was itself claimed by North Carolina through colonial-era documents. As a condition of statehood, Tennessee was admitted to the Union with some western lands reserved to the federal government for the satisfaction of debts owed to North Carolina’s Revolutionary War veterans, who were paid in land, instead of currency, for their service. By the early 1820s, those claims had been made good and quite a lot of acreage remained in the reserved territory. The remaining acreage in federal possession became a hot topic in the Tennessee legislature, where State Representative David Crockett served for a term.

Andrew Jackson’s political machine in the Tennessee legislature wanted the federal government to return the western territories to the state, so Tennessee could sell the land on the open market. The funds from the sale would be earmarked for a state university. What embodied Tennessee more than the state legislature? Of course, Crockett and the squatting residents of the frontier territory disagreed.

Crockett and others had moved into the unoccupied lands to carve a living out of the wilderness that no one else was using. Crockett enjoyed that wilderness and frontier lifestyle anyway, but failures in business had forced his hand. It stands to reason his fate was common in the territory. Those who had failed elsewhere moved into the empty territory to rebuild their lives. Some had certainly managed to do so, and they entrusted Crockett as their state representative and congressional delegate. Those people in western Tennessee understood that they could not afford to purchase the lands they had lived on, worked on, and improved. The cash-poor residents could not compete with land speculators. They argued that they should not be made to, nor should they be evicted from the lands they had improved through their own labors. As their voice in Congress, Crockett argued that their labor and improvements on the land earned them the right of first offer for the land, set at a price they could afford. His signature bill in Congress aimed to codify the policy.

In itself, Crockett and the squatters of western Tennessee is an interesting moment in politics for its juxtapositions. The great egalitarian Andrew Jackson shows no concern for the common man scratching out a living on the frontier of his home state. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and Crockett found allies for his efforts in banker Nicholas Biddle and Whig Henry Clay. 

The Jackson Machine in Tennessee mainly represented the land-owing plantation class. They were willing to open the sale of lands to speculators to raise state funds for a university, knowing that the university itself was proposed for the wealthy. Farmers’ sons were needed on the farm and would get little use out of the public university in the foreseeable future. Crockett opposed public universities for that reason. In fact, he opposed the military academy at West Point for the same reason: it was also used by the rich more than the public in general. He reasoned the wealthy ought to pay for their academies and universities, rather than make the public pay for them. Selling property allowed the already wealthy to fund a university without raising taxes on themselves or anyone else. To them, it was free land exchanged for free money used for public benefit.

To Crockett, if an individual’s labor made improvement to an unclaimed lot, that rendered a claim of ownership. This sentiment was common on the frontier and in wilderness areas where there simply were plentiful tracts of land without owners or residents. Legal title or not, improvements to a wilderness yielded a moral claim on that property. The position echoes a core principle of Lockean liberalism developed in his Second Treatise of Government: ownership of property is created out of nature by the labor of individuals. Individuals stake their claim to own land by the sweat of their brow. This philosophy seems suited to a country with vast tracts of unimproved land, and is certainly consonant with Jeffersonian individualism. In that frontier territory of western Tennessee, the federal government was claiming land it did not use and had no use for. Nor did the Jackson Machine in the state legislature labor with its own hands in that territory, but it wanted ownership of the land for itself to sell to speculators, with the proceeds to fund a public university, largely to be attended by its own children. Crockett simply wanted that land to go to those who built their farms and homes on it.

Like Crockett’s squatters, the federal government was cash-poor and had debts to soldiers that required satisfaction. After the Revolutionary War, the easiest way for the government to pay those debts was with unclaimed land. That payment method was certainly more popular than levying taxes. After the debts at issue were paid, it stood to reason that the unclaimed land ought to be open to settlement. Who should make the arrangements and how? Squatters such as Crockett had arrived early, but largely under terms of necessity. Legally, that may be irrelevant, but morally and politically it may sway the public. Crockett’s Lockean position, that the land belongs to those who work it, rang with justice to his conscience and his interests. One could argue that the squatters had cheated others of the equal opportunity to acquire their plot of that territory by seizing it prior to its being open. Probably the least justifiable argument is the Jackson Machine’s aim to use public policy for their (all-but) private benefit. They would sell the land to speculators, driving the price up so cash-poor squatters (whose labor had increased the value of the land) could not afford it, then use the proceeds to fund the higher education of the few. In terms of justice, Crockett’s Lockean principle seems most compelling under the existing circumstances.

Crockett saw more than justice in the matter, however. He also argued for a certain sense of national prosperity and purpose. Property enables prosperity along with stability. Property-holders do not join radical movements because they are too busy minding their own interests. Multiplying the number of propertied, self-supporting individuals instead of landless vagabonds yielded national benefits, in place of problems.

The squatters of western Tennessee had cut paths through the wilderness, thereby constructing crude roads. They had to clear fields for houses and farms. They had built docks on the rivers, streams, and creeks. They cleared those river-ways of natural debris impeding shipping. They had begun the process of turning wilderness into frontier and frontier into civilization, a service to others who might settle the land. Their taming of the frontier strengthened Tennessee as a state, and the country as a whole. Representative Crockett, however, never could build a legislative coalition in Congress around his land bill. His bill failed in each of his terms in office. After being defeated for re-election in 1835, he sought better prospects in Texas, which leads into the part of the story that remains well-known.

Western Tennessee in the 1830s was far different from America in the 2020s. Nonetheless, the government still owns land and comes into conflict with people who make use of it. According to data compiled by Congressional Research Service in 2020, the U.S. government owns 640 million acres of land, mostly in the western states. Indeed, much of the western states are owned by the U.S. government. Approximately 80 percent of land in Nevada is administered by federal bureaucracies. In Nevada, disputes between the federal government and ranchers made national news in 2014 over what became known as the Bundy Ranch Standoff. The standoff and resulting trials are a tangled affair, but one set of criminal charges were eventually thrown out of court with prejudice by a U.S. District Judge.

Prior to the standoff, conflict had unfolded over a few decades. Ranchers in the area had been grazing cattle on land owned by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau of Land Management fined ranchers for unauthorized grazing and ordered cattle seized. Ultimately, the Bureau was not able to seize the cattle, but that did not end the conflict. The question of who should own the land and for what uses remains to be decided. The government has legal title to the land and the ranchers seek its use without paying grazing fees. It’s another complicated story of individuals making use of land without title. 

Should the government have the title in the first place? Given that people make use of the land, why should the government keep the title? But if the government relinquishes its title, to whom does the land go? In principle, a sale makes more sense than simply giving the land to people using it without title. Certainly, an open sale is a simple way to divest the government of property and turn it over to individuals. If the ranchers cannot afford to purchase the land at a public auction, what trouble will ensue? If the ranchers insist on their claim without legal title, are they nothing more than bandits on the property? Government will advocate for its rightful stewardship of the land, but the public may sympathize with the local people making use of it. Instead of bureaucrats being paid by the public to keep land unused, let local people earn their living on it. In some cases, it might be the best argument for government divestment of its public property. Maybe one such example gets the ball rolling in that direction.