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Jefferson-Signed Act of Congress Enabling Revolutionary War Veterans to Settle the West
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Secretary of State Jefferson signs an act enabling Virginia to issue Northwest Territory land grants promised to veterans for their Revolutionary War service. Jefferson had already played a critical role in the creation of a national domain and the opening of the American West by orchestrating Virginia’s cession of the Northwest Territory to the United States. This act repeals a controversial 1788 Confederation Congress Act that invalidated the state’s right to lay out military bounty lands within a section of the Northwest Territory.

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Printed Document Signed as Secretary of State, An Act to enable the Officers and Soldiers of the Virginia line on Continental Establishment, to obtain Titles to certain Lands lying north west of the river Ohio, between the Little Miami and Sciota, August 10, 1790. [New York, N.Y.: Francis Childs and John Swaine]. Signed in type by George Washington as President, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and John Adams as Vice President and President of the Senate. 2 pp.

Inventory #23981       Price: $17,500


That the act of Congress of the seventeenth of July, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, relative to certain locations and surveys made by, or on account of the Virginia troops on continental establishment upon lands between the Little Miami and Sciota Rivers, north-west of the Ohio, be, and the same is hereby repealed.

And whereas the agents for such of the troops of the state of Virginia who served on the continental establishment in the army of the United States, during the late war, have reported to the executive of the said state, that there is not a sufficiency of good land on the south-easterly side of the river Ohio, according to the act of cession from the said state to the United States, and within the limits assigned by the laws of the said state, to satisfy the said troops for the bounty lands due to them, in conformity to the said laws: to the intent therefore, that the difference between what has already been located for the said troops, on the south-easterly side of the said river, and the aggregate of what is due to the whole of the said troops, may be located on the north-westerly side of the said river, and between the Sciota and Little Miami rivers, as stipulated by the said state.

Historical Background

As competing claims to the American frontier threatened national unity during the Revolutionary War, Congress encouraged the states to cede their western lands to the newly declared nation. In 1780, New York became the first state to do so. Virginia, which had, by far, the largest claim to western territory, offered its own cession in 1781, conditioned on all the other states ratifying the Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson signed that legislation as Virginia’s governor. In his January 17 letter of transmittal to the president of Congress, Jefferson wrote that he would be “rendered very happy if the other States of the Union, equally impressed with the necessity of that important convention, shall be willing to sacrifice equally to its completion. This single event, could it take place shortly, would overweigh every success which the enemy have hitherto obtained and render desperate the hopes to which those successes have given birth.”[1]

Land-poor Maryland’s objections to Virginia’s claims to vast tracts in the northwest had delayed ratification of the Articles of Confederation for almost four years. With Virginia’s offer of cession, Maryland signed the Articles two months later. Congress formally accepted the cession on March 1, 1784, following more political maneuvering. Then Congressman Jefferson and his fellow Virginia delegates signed and delivered the deed to Congress. The editors of the Jefferson Papers observe, that the cession stands “as a monument to the strength of national feeling in the post-Revolutionary period…. No other state, then or since, ever yielded so great a natural resource to the domain of the whole people.”[2]

This 1790 act, signed by Jefferson as Secretary of State, addresses a conflict that developed from a provision in the 1784 act accepting the cession. During the Revolutionary War, the Virginia legislature had set aside a large tract of land southeast of the Ohio River, in present-day Kentucky, from which to offer land bounties to officers and soldiers serving in the state militia or in the Virginia line of the Continental Army. When the state agreed to cede its claims to western lands, it did so with the caveat that territory between the Scioto and Little Miami Rivers, in present-day Ohio, be set aside in case the original bounty tract proved insufficient.

In the summer of 1787, with signs that the first tract would indeed be too small, Virginia began to lay out bounty land between the Scioto and Miami rivers. The Confederation Congress, fearing that Virginia was encroaching on its new authority, passed a resolve on July 17, 1788, invalidating any “locations or surveys” in the area until the state proved the deficiency. Virginia protested, but they also submitted the required reports. On August 4, 1788, the First Federal Congress passed this repeal of its earlier resolution.

The controversy continued though. Because this new act specified the procedures by which veterans could obtain land in the second tract, Virginia officials again argued that the federal government was impinging on their authority. Virginia veterans, meanwhile, complained that Congress had made it too difficult for them to obtain their promised grants. Congress finally responded on June 9, 1794, with an amendment to this act that eased the requirements.

Legislative measures signed by Jefferson as Secretary of State

Following a law passed on September 15, 1789, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, signed two copies of each law, order, vote, or resolution of Congress for distribution to the executive of every state. At the time this resolution was passed, there were 13 states, so it is very likely that Jefferson signed only 26 copies to be sent to the governors.

*This item is also being offered in part II of The Alexander Hamilton Collection

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