As a young man, George Washington (1732–99) worked as a surveyor. Looking at a landscape, he could plan its division into orderly tracts. These skills would prove useful when he became the first president of the United States in April 1789. At the time, Americans widely believed that new territory was vital to securing ongoing independence, in large part because small parcels of land could be sold to European settlers, expanding the American polity and helping pay down crushing Revolutionary War debts. As a result, President Washington made the fledgling country’s territorial expansion his chief focus. It was a perfect fit between man and mission, between a surveyor and a country that would grow from a set of colonies perched on the east coast of North America to a continent-spanning empire. Of course, this growth was far from inevitable. What would become the United States was already inhabited by as many as a million American Indians, and expanding west beyond the Appalachian mountains would be far messier than reorganising a landscape along a surveyor’s grid.
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