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The lengths at which a nation was formed

January 12, 2003|Margaret Wertheim | Margaret Wertheim is the author of "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet."

Measuring America

How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy

Andro Linklater

Walker & Co.: 310 pp., $26

On Jan. 2, 1790, when George Washington stood for the first time to address the newly formed Congress, he put before his fellow representatives the matters he thought most urgently in need of attention. Heading the list, naturally, were defense and the economy; the third order of business was the need to establish a uniform system of weights and measures. Acting on Washington's suggestion, the House of Representatives requested that the new secretary of State draw up a plan for such a system and that was, consequently, the first job awaiting Thomas Jefferson when he arrived in New York several months later.

It was a task to which Jefferson was ideally suited, combining as it did his dual commitments to rationality and democracy. Over the next year, he devised from scratch a complete decimal system of measurements, which he expected to become the standard for the nation. Jefferson's system preceded the introduction of the French metric system by half a decade and, as Andro Linklater reveals in his remarkable new book, "Measuring America," it was, on the whole a more rational system. Yet ironically, the United States is the one major nation that has not adopted a decimal system, for on this critical issue, Jefferson, a man so accustomed to getting his way, did not prevail, and the fledgling nation devolved instead to reliance on a hodgepodge of antiquated units.

The linchpin of Jefferson's system was to be his unit of length, just as the meter is the linchpin of the metric system. The paramount importance of this unit, as opposed to, say, the unit of weight, lay in its relationship to land and, more particularly, to the desire of the newly federated states to sell off the land west of the Mississippi River. Deeply in debt from the War of Independence, the 13 original states saw in that vast uncharted territory the solution to their economic woes. But before this treasure could be sold off, it had to be surveyed and divided into clearly identified separately titled parcels. As the Founding Fathers astutely perceived, land could become the engine of a radical new economy, hence the urgency of Jefferson's task.

In "Measuring America," Linklater traces with unusual elegance and a keen wit the epic story of measuring our nation, charting the process by which, with each length of the surveyor's chain, new states were literally bought into being. Underlying this process was the transformation of wilderness into property, for beyond the specifics of America's formation Linklater also examines the history of the idea that land could be owned like any other commodity. That concept, so foundational to American self-perception, was not inevitable; it required "a fundamental shift in thinking." Though Americans perfected the idea that land ownership raised private property to the status of a sacred doctrine, enshrining it in the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, we did not invent the concept: The first settlers brought it with them from England.

Before the 16th century, almost nobody owned land except European kings and heads of state. In most tribal societies, land could be owned no more than the wind or sky. In Europe under the feudal system, everyone beneath the king was a tenant with only rights of access, not title, to the land. Henry VIII precipitated the shift toward individual ownership of fields and dales when, in 1538, he shut down England's monasteries. Their vast land holdings -- some half-million acres in all -- automatically reverted to the crown and became available for sale. Ostensibly done in the name of religious freedom, Henry's closure was in reality a ploy to raise money for a navy to defend England from the French. For the first time in history, Linklater tells us, huge tracts were exchanged for cash and formally became private property.

Eager to know precisely what they had purchased, the wealthy nobles and merchants who bought these tracts turned for clarification to the emerging science of surveying. Until the 16th century, what mattered was not the size of land per se, but how much it would yield and ultimately how many people it would feed. In 1086, when William the Conqueror instituted the great Doomsday Book survey of England, his commissioners noted the dimensions of estates in such units as virgates and hides: a virgate was enough land to support one person, a hide enough to support a family. Since this varied with the richness of the soil, the size of a virgate was flexible, being smaller for rich soil. But "once land was exchanged for cash, its ability to support people became less important than how much rent it could produce." To ascertain the value of rent an estate could charge, it was essential to know its exact size, which called for a uniform measure.

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