Immediately after the Revolution it was by no means certain that the United States would survive, much less prosper. Great cultural and political differences separated North from South and increasingly East from West; the Continental Congress and the individual states labored under massive debts; and European powers hovered at the borders awaiting opportunities and meddling in American affairs.
As a sign of just how tenuous the idea of a “United States” was, during the war no American map was published naming the new country. Following the battle at Yorktown however, Americans began to produce maps that in different ways celebrated the new United States and declared its viability as an enduring nation.
1. Sebastian Bauman / R. Scot Sculp., … Plan of the investment of York and Gloucester… Philadelphia, 1782. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Battle of Yorktown was decisive in sealing American independence and made a fitting subject for the first large-scale battle plan published in the United States. Note how the plan is almost exactly centered on “The field where the British laid down their Arms.” It was drawn by Major Sebastian Bauman, who commanded an American artillery regiment during the battle and began his survey just days after the British surrender. For its detail, accuracy and visual impact it was one of the finest maps to emerge from the Revolution.
1a. [William Faden], Plan of the SIEGE of YORK TOWN in Virginia… London, March 1, 1787. Image courtesy of the Harvard Map Collection.
This British plan of the battle is less detailed and lacks the patriotic iconography of the Bauman plan. Perhaps reflecting British sensibilities, the field of surrender so prominently featured by Bauman is nowhere to be seen.
2. W[illia]m McMurray, THE UNITED STATES… [Philadelphia, 1784.] Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
This map by McMurray was only the second American map to depict the new nation. It may be read as an implicit declaration of sovereignty over the national territory, at a time when this existed on paper only. For example, McMurray shows the Old Northwest divided into ten as-of-yet unnamed states, though there were few Americans there and the British still held key posts. More striking still is the failure to depict any native American presence between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, though they remained the dominant force in the region.
A former assistant to Geographer of the United States Thomas Hutchins, McMurray used unpublished surveys made for the Continental Army to compile a detailed depiction of the eastern part of the country. For the trans-Appalachian region he relied on published sources, notably Hutchins’ New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina (1778) and, for the region west of the Great Lakes, Jonathan Carver’s Plan of Captain Carver’s Travels in the Interior Parts of North America (1778).
It is worth comparing McMurray’s map with a contemporary British map of the United States, such as item 2b below.
2a. William McMurray, Received of Samuel Wallis… [Philadelphia], August 13, 1783. Image courtesy of Larry Caldwell.
Map making was a capital-intensive effort, and most American mapmakers and map publishers financed their projects by means of advance subscriptions. Shown here is a receipt for a subscription to one copy of McMurray’s map, probably issued to Samuel “Land King” Wallis (1730-1798), a surveyor, merchant and land speculator with large holdings in central Pennsylvania.
2b. William Faden, THE UNITED STATES of NORTH AMERICA… according to the TREATY. London,  / 1783.
This British map was first issued in 1777. It was then updated to depict the United States within the boundaries set by the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which formally recognized American independence. Its key feature is the use of color-coded lines to demarcate the territories of the United States, Great Britain, Spain and France.
Note the many Indian tribes identified in the “Old Northwest,” the region bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes. Compare this with McMurray’s map, which carves the area into ten nascent states, with no native American presence to be seen. Perhaps as a sign of lingering imperial aspirations, the engraver also allowed the label “Province of Quebec” to spill over large swathes of United States territory.
3. Andrew Ellicott (after Pierre L’Enfant), PLAN of the CITY of Washington in the Territory of Columbia… Philadelphia, 1792. Image courtesy of the Harvard Map Collection.
The site of the District of Columbia was the result of the “Compromise of 1790.” This agreement entailed Jefferson’s backing of Hamilton’s plan for federal assumption of state debts in return for the latter’s support for locating the national capital along the Potomac River. After residing in temporary quarters in Philadelphia, in 1800 the national capital was to shift to the new site.
This plan depicts a grand capital on the European model, with broad avenues, large public squares, and dramatic sightlines. Its explicit purpose was to sell land; hence the 1146 lots numbered for reference. Its unstated intent was to convey the grandeur and permanence of the national government—which at the time was all of three years old, boasted a bureaucracy of perhaps 200 employees, and rested on a Constitution that was feared as much as it was venerated.
3a. Edward Savage, George Washington PRESIDENT of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA. [London, ca. 1793.] Image courtesy of The Old Print Shop.
One of the great lifetime portraits of Washington, based on a painting commissioned from Savage by Harvard University. Savage depicts the President holding on his lap a copy of Ellicott’s plan.
4. Mathew Carey, CAREY’S AMERICAN ATLAS. Philadelphia, 1795. Images courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.
In 1794 Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey undertook an edition of Guthrie’s Geography, largely pirated from the British original but with alterations substituting an American point of view. The London edition boasts for example that “No country in Europe equals England in the beauty of its prospects, or the opulence of its inhabitants,” while Carey’s observes that “England swarms with beggars.”
Carey had a set of maps drawn and engraved for his edition of Guthrie, which he also issued separately as the American Atlas. The atlas included 21 maps, among them separate maps of each of the original states plus Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), and the Tennessee Government, which achieved statehood in mid-1796 (Illustrated here are the title page and the map of Vermont.) The maps show a great diversity of style and content, as they were based on a variety of sources and engraved by a number of hands. The Atlas was, however, the first national atlas published in this country, and its very existence was an implicit but powerful statement of national unity.