A LAND TOO VAST
Early settlers to America were notably uneasy because of its limitless spaces. No matter how many people sailed over they barely left a mark given the vastness of the land. There was too much “wilderness”, a place occupied by the Devil and his minions, where individuals could all too easily descend into savagery. With so much space, Indians could roam free, prove elusive, but still threaten isolated communities at any time. Servants and slaves could run away and find plenty of room to elude captors. Moreover, British government officials feared the colonists would spread out far and wide and settle in areas so remote as to be ungovernable. To that point, Tom Paine, author of the famous revolutionary era pamphlet “Common Sense”, wrote how absurd it was for a huge continent to be governed by a distant island.
But size also had its advantages. Because land was remarkably plentiful, enterprising folks could acquire large plots for themselves and thus more independent land-holding farmers sprang up here than existed in any other part in the world (and once they owned land they could vote!) Newcomers, moreover, had a choice of where to settle. If Massachusetts somehow didn’t suit them there was New York or Pennsylvania, Virginia or South Carolina, or elsewhere. Quakers banned from Massachusetts could nevertheless find sanctuary in Pennsylvania or Delaware. The larger the territory the greater the opportunity for diverse economic pursuits – fishing, fur trapping, iron mining, lumbering, cattle raising, wheat cultivation, also tobacco and rice. Later on the West, whose true dimensions remained unknown, until Lewis and Clark and many other explorers ventured out there to map its vastness, would excite millions of would be pioneers eager to stake their claims to these distant lands.
The Founding Generation had trouble with America’s outsized dimensions. The political philosophers they read preferred small homogeneous territories where a commonality of interest prevailed. Jefferson himself considered a population of 30,000 to be about right for effective governance. His contemporaries could not help but notice the divergences that existed among the 13 original states and the clash of interests that followed. James Madison, however, observed that while the nation’s large territory produced a broad range of interests these would neutralize each other and prevent the emergence of a tyrannical central government. And so our forefathers established a central government, one that was not very powerful and allowed the states to retain significant local authority. They also made provision for the entry of new states into the union, thus increasing the likelihood that the United States of America would in time grow even larger.
And so it did, becoming among the largest (by land mass). What were some of the consequences of such immense size? One pressing need was to figure out how, despite the vast distances, to knit the country together. Accordingly the U.S. put immense resources into constructing transportation and communication networks, starting with canals, turnpikes, railroads and the telegraph and later developing extensive road networks, telephone technology, the airplane and the automobile.
Our size virtually guaranteed that we could not be conquered (not that anyone tried). What power could possibly overrun and occupy so vast an expanse? Because we expanded from coast to coast, we enjoyed immense stretches of coastline and therefore could become an important maritime and trading nation. Given our size, we increased the chances of having natural endowments aplenty. Indeed, we had it all – water, lumber, fertile soils (located in different climate zones) minerals of every variety, navigable rivers, oil, gas and gold. Because there was so much land we could set aside large chunks of it and create a national park system for generation after generation to enjoy.
America thus grew into its borders, filled in most of the livable spaces and yet remained in the end, one of the least densely populated nations of the world. With 318 million people (no other nation is in the 300 million bracket) we are quite comfortable with our population numbers. Some nations are difficult to manage because they have too many people (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil) and some remain largely inconsequential because they have too few (Netherlands. Denmark, Belgium, Austria, etc.) No longer do we worry that America is too big. We are, most assuredly, just the right size.