Land speculation was a natural and common preoccupation among the Founders. For some it became an economic affliction. “Hardly a prominent man of the period failed to secure large tracts of real estate, which could be had at absurdly low prices, and to hold the lands for the natural advance which increased population would bring,” wrote Albert J. Beveridge.27 For many, such speculation would prove a hazardous preoccupation. Virginia’s Henry Lee and Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris and James Wilson ended up in jail because of their debts from speculation. Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner noted that land speculation was “a fundamental aspect of American economic life, but it had become in the last few years an extremely tricky one. General [Henry] Knox was above the knees in financial trouble because of the new settlements he had started in Maine.”28 Speculation in land became particularly rampant in the early 1790s when the stability of the new republic seemed assured. Describing the process of speculation, historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “One worked or connived to obtain a stake, then worked or connived to obtain legal title to a tract of wilderness, then sold the wilderness by the acre to the hordes of immigrants, and thereby lived and died a wealthy man. Appropriately, the most successful practitioner of this craft was George Washington, who had acquired several hundred thousand acres and was reckoned by many as the wealthiest man in America.”
Washington’s land holdings clearly affected his political outlook – first regarding England, and later regarding the United States. Washington thought big and thought about the implications of thinking big. Glenn A. Phelps wrote that Washington’s “extensive land-holdings in the West, as well as his frequent surveying expeditions to the frontier, had placed him within a circle of Virginia politicians with somewhat more enterprising, expansionist, westward-looking interests than their tidewater brethren.”59 Increasingly after the Revolutionary War, Washington’s land-holdings affected his preoccupation with the development of the Potomac River and a canal through the area where it was not navigable. Washington wrote a friend in 1785 that “unless we can connect the new States which are rising to our view in those regions, with those on the Atlantic by interest (the only binding cement, and not otherwise to be effected by opening such communications as will make it easier and cheaper for them to bring the product of their labour our markets, instead of going to the Spaniards southerly, or the British northerly), they will be quite a distinct people; and ultimately may be very troublesome neighbors to us.”
Washington foresaw America’s great westward migration and he foresaw potential wealth for himself. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote: “Washington believed that as a private citizen pursuing his own interests he could still be working for the good of the nation. He engaged without a qualm in a scheme that would benefit him financially, while it bolstered American independence in a way that he thought was crucial…
Washington also supported infrastructure projects that would increase the value of his landholdings. Here is the source, with the tip via MR commentator g. ruqt.