Measuring America:How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy
Walker. 288 pp. $26...
Walker. 288 pp. $26...
Walker. 288 pp. $26
Reviewed by David Lindley
When you buy a house in the United States, you cross paths with surveyors. Armed with legal documents and tape measures, they approach your property to verify its dimensions and boundaries, furnishing you with an official statement of its extent. It may be the house and garden that attracted you, but it’s the ownership of a piece of land that’s fundamental.
The measurement and legal apportionment of real estate may seem an unprepossessing subject, but in the hands of journalist Linklater, the surveyor’s tale acquires a tinge of romance. In Europe, private property came into being by piecemeal amendment of ancient customs and by the gradual nibbling away of the presumed authority of monarchs. North America, by contrast, presented a vast tabula rasa waiting to be divided into neat geometrical portions–or so it seemed to the early colonists, the inhabitants they displaced having unaccountably managed to get by for generations without a clear sense of property.
Especially in nonconformist New England and Quaker Pennsylvania, the right of ordinary people to derive a living from land that was unequivocally theirs became crucial to the ethos of American society. The rectangular plots and city grids so characteristic of the United States, and so arresting even now to European visitors, sprang in large part from the sense of legal nicety and geometric orderliness prized by settlers in the northern colonies. Fanny Trollope, Anthony’s mother, deplored the private ownership of land by common people as yet more evidence of the lamentable vulgarity of the Americans; the more astute Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that it fostered democratic spirit.
Linklater’s account of the westward expansion of the United States emphasizes the physical act of measuring out the land. For him, the instrument of conquest was the 22-yard surveyor’s chain, devised in 1607 by a little-known English mathematician named Edmund Gunter. This seemingly arbitrary length is four times a rod (or pole, or perch), a medieval linear measure derived from the amount of land a man could work in a day. Ten chains make a furlong, and 10 square chains are an acre, both units relating to the work done by a team of oxen pulling a plow. More subtly, Gunter subdivided his chain into 10 units of 10 links each and established arithmetical rules that helped harmonize the old agricultural units with the beginnings of a decimal system.
Linklater somewhat overpraises the sophistication of Gunter’s chain–it is, in the end, a pretty odd standard of length–but he is right to observe how much it remains with us. Penn Square in Philadelphia is 10 chains on a side; the streets of Salt Lake City are two chains wide; across the country, city blocks and suburban plats hide neat multiples of the old feudal measure. The abrupt right-angled jogs encountered on otherwise straight midwestern roads are a consequence of trying to fit a plane grid onto a curved surface.
The core of Linklater’s book is a compelling account of the surveying of the Ohio Territory in the years after independence. The distribution of this rich tract of land among pioneers offers a model for the physical, legal, and economic development of American society. A subtheme on the consistently thwarted attempts, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s, to introduce metric measurements to the United States distracts more than it illuminates, but Linklater has nevertheless produced a charming introduction to a subject one would hardly have imagined could be so engaging.