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565 Million Acres, Riv Vu: It is useful to see the Louisiana Purchase as a real estate deal that signified a new kind of society where land could be owned by anyone. (Andro Linklater, 4/28/03, NY Times)
By 1803 Napoleon wanted to raise money for war with Britain, and Jefferson was prepared to pay for control of France's territory around the mouth of the Mississippi in order to guarantee free use of the river.

The American minister in Paris, Robert Livingston, had already approached the French about such a limited purchase. (Livingston, who owned some 130,000 acres in upstate New York, was himself very familiar with the American real estate market.) But a critical shift occurred on April 11, 1803, when he went to meet Talleyrand in his offices in the Rue du Bac.

Writing James Madison that evening, Livingston reported that Talleyrand had suddenly asked whether "we wished to have the whole of Louisiana." Surprised and playing for time, Livingston at first denied any interest, but Talleyrand persisted, "What would you give for the whole?" Livingston came back with an opening bid of about $3.75 million, which Talleyrand dismissed as too low. But both men knew the game being played.

Talleyrand told Livingston to consider the proposition and return with a better price, and as the maneuvering continued over the days ahead, Livingston recorded Talleyrand's promise to "give me a certificate that I was the most importunate [negotiator] he had yet met with."

With the participation of James Monroe, who arrived in Paris the next day as the American "envoy extraordinary," and the French treasury minister, Francois Barbi-Marbois, agreement was reached just 18 days later for the sale of France's possessions in North America--some 565 million acres--for about $15 million, or less than 3 cents an acre. [...]

Looking at the Louisiana Purchase as a property transaction rather than a work of diplomacy helps to explain another anomaly. Many Americans feared the new land would make the nation too big to govern and, given the prevailing view that government was authority exercised from above over an unruly populace, they had good reason for their fears. But Louisiana was to witness the development of a new kind of society.

Under Spain and France, the province had been a near-feudal domain, ruled by appointees from Europe, with the land sold only to those approved by the governor. In the United States, however, land could be owned by whoever could afford it. Since 1785, all federal land west of the Appalachians had, at Jefferson's urging, been measured out in one-mile-square sections for sale as real estate, and this grid of squares now extended into the Louisiana Purchase.

For the first time in history, land, the primary source of wealth production, could be owned by anyone: speculators, settlers, even squatters. "Power," said John Adams, with ice-cold accuracy, "always follows property." In the Old World property was distributed in a hierarchical manner with the powerful few owning most; but as America spread westward, more than one billion acres of public land, including most of the Louisiana Purchase, would pass into private hands. Power still followed property, but now it was spread democratically, and the nation it created possessed innate stability, because each property-owning citizen had a vested interest in a law-abiding society.

In his marvelous recent book, Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy, Mr. Linklater not only expounds upon the ideas he raises here, but two others that seem quite profound. The first, and it's really the main focus of the book, is how the seemingly simple act of measuring American territory into regular-sized lots created an impetus for ownership and an ease of transaction that dramatically affected the development and character of the nation. The systematic surveying of land--beginning with the survey of the Northwest Territory, led by Thomas Hutchins, first Geographer of the United States, and starting off in East Liverpool, Ohio on September 30, 1785, but eventually spreading throughout the entire Louisiana Territory and beyond, until it extended to the Pacific, Mexico, and Canada--meant that much that was then still a wilderness had been parceled out into plots of land, just waiting to be sold, rented, combined together, lived on, farmed, developed, and so on. It's easy for us to lose sight of just how revolutionary this idea was, of land as a fungible asset--rather than an inheritance, remaining semi-permanently within the grasp of a landed aristocracy--but Mr. Linklater reminds us:
Glancing down supermarket shelves, we examine the prices but have to make an effort to register the weight of a cereal box or the capacity of a carton of juice. Weights and measures are a given. A pound or a gallon, like a mile or an acre, will be the same from Florida to Alaska. And so will a bushel of wheat and a cord of wood and a hundred other units of measurement. It is a language that is picked up automatically and spoken without conscious thought.

Only when it changes, when half a gallon of cola became 2 liters in the 1990s, for instance, or a fifth of whiskey reappeared as 750 milliliters, is there a reminder that there is nothing certain about these units after all. They are not a given but an extraordinary construct, and one of the identifying marks of social life. Without the conscious decision to agree on a way of measuring, cooperative activity could hardly take place. With it, marketplaces and increasingly sophisticated economies can develop, matching barter, cash, or credit to whatever is owned by one person and desired by another.

Thus, by measuring out the wilderness, Hutchins would make it possible for someone to buy and own it. This was a revolutionary concept. For centuries the land had been lived in by the Delaware and passed through by the Miami and occupied by the Iroquois, but no one had ever owned it. No one had ever thought of owning it. The idea of one person owning land did not yet exist on the west bank of the Ohio.

Indeed, throughout most of the world and most of history, such a possibility was inconceivable. Individuals could certainly own the use of land, whole dynasties might grow up around a particular estate and the right of each generation to occupy and exploit that parcel of land would be unquestioned, but it could not be owned as a house or a bed or a pig was owned. The span of one life was too brief to possess the earth that continued forever. Territory defined the community, or society, or even the nation that lived there. A monarch or a ruler who embodied the nation might own it, but no one else. The idea that land might be treated as property belonging to an individual, to be traded, borrowed against, and speculated on like any other commodity, required a fundamental shift in thinking. The concept had been incubated in Tudor England, and taken shape in colonial America, but only with American independence, achieved just two years before Hutchinsês arrival on the Ohio, had it been fully realized. This was the magic that Hutchins would introduce into the western lands, the transformation of the wilderness into property.
It may be impossible to judge precisely how important it has been to the development and maintenance of the American Republic that so many of its citizens own land and thereby have a vested interest in everything from law and order to the tax system, but none will deny that it has been a force for conservatism, in the sense that stakeholders tend to favor predictability and stability.

If this commodification of the land was magic, Mr. Linklater tells us that the wand that effected the transformation was the remarkable creation of one Edmund Gunter, an Oxford-trained Englishman, in 1607:
The complete collection of Gunterês writing, issued in 1624, was titled The description and use of the sector, the cross-staffe, and other instruments for such as are studious of mathematical practise. By then he must have known that the last bit of the title was nonsense. The reason the book had to be in English was that his instruments were being used not by math students but by surveyors for measuring and by sailors for navigating„and unlike mathematicians, neither group could read Latin. Nevertheless, it contained so much new information on logarithms, trigonometry, and geometry that one of his contemporaries paid him this tribute: –He did open menês understandings and made young men in love with that studie [math]. Before, the mathematical sciences were lockêt up in the Greeke and Latin tongues and so lay untoucht. After Mr Gunter, these sciences sprang up amain, more and more.”

In this book Gunter first described the chain that was to bear his name. –For plotting of ground, I hold it fit to use a chaine of foure perches in length, divided into an hundred links.” The practical appeal of a chain was that, unlike a rod, it was flexible enough to be looped over a personês shoulder, and that, being made of metal, it neither stretched nor shrank as cords always did. Other kinds of chain had been devised, but the supremacy of Gunterês came from his fascination with ratios and the relationship of one set of numbers to another. As a passionate believer in the usefulness of math, he built into his chain the most advanced numerical learning of the time until it could almost be compared to a primitive calculating machine.

Four perches measured 22 yards, a strange distance that makes sense only in the context of the traditional units used for measuring land. Like all units of land measurement, a perch, also known as a rod or a pole, originally varied according to the quality of ground perch of poor soil was longer than one of fertile soil„but in the course of the sixteenth century it became standardized at 16 1/2 feet. This inconvenient length was derived from the area of agricultural land that could be worked by one person in a day„hence the variability. The area was reckoned to be 2 perches by 2 perches (33 feet by 33 feet). Thus a daywork amounted to 4 square perches. Conveniently, there were 40 dayworks in an acre, the area that could be worked by a team of oxen in a day, and 640 acres in a square mile. It was significant that all of them were multiples of 4, a number that made it simpler to calculate the area of a four-sided field.

Gunter divided the chain into 100 links, marked off into groups of 10 by brass rings. On the face of it, the dimensions make no sense: Each link is a fraction under 8 inches long; 10 links make slightly less than 6 feet, 8 inches; and the full length is 66 feet. In fact, he had made a brilliant synthesis of two otherwise incompatible systems, the traditional English land measurements, based on the number 4, and the newly introduced system of decimals based on the number 10.

The Dutch engineer Simon Stevin was the first European to publish an account of decimals in 1585, and Gunter quickly grasped the concept, using them in his logarithmic tables. Decimals make arithmetical calculation simpler because ordinary numbering is based on 10: There are single digits up to 10, and an extra column is added with each multiple of it, at 100, 1,000, and so on. In effect, the decimal point is simply moved over one place. However, for a practical activity like surveying, it is far easier to halve and quarter a distance or double and redouble it. The process can be done by eye in an instant, and the result is easily checked by measurement, or if needed by calculation.

Gunterês chain allowed either method to be used. An acre measured 4,840 square yards in traditional units and 10 square chains in Gunterês system. Thus, if need be, the entire process of land measurement could be computed in decimalized chains and links, then converted to acres by dividing the result by 10. With an understandable hint of satisfaction Gunter concluded his description of its use, –then will the work be more easie in Arithmetick.” It was that ease in calculating acreages, as much as its accuracy and straightforward practicality, that earned Gunterês chain its popularity among surveyors using the old 4-based system of measurements. Even the least competent could come close to the standards of exactness that were now expected of them.
Here we see developing a tension that takes up a good portion of the rest of the book, with Thomas Jefferson, in particular, advocating the adoption of a metric-style system, but unable to displace the more traditional, and human-based, measures.

Enjoyable as the book is, and I liked it very much, one's attention may begin to flag as the arcania of measurement systems and details of the actual measuring of America begin to overwhelm. But, just as this possibility rears its head, Mr. Linklater closes strongly with a fascinating discussion of how all the various themes of the book came together in recent times to lead to the unique resistance to the Metric System in the Anglosphere and especially in America, where that resistance continues to this day. We've seen above that the acre, like most ancient measures, was based on an utterly human scale--in this case the "area of agricultural land that could be worked by one person in a day". Metric measures exchange humanity for regularity and precision, sacrifice soul for science:
The foreignness of the metric system went deeper than names. It took uniformity to a degree that no layperson could immediately comprehend. The traditional measures had variety because they related to different activities. Cloth was measured by the ell or the aune because it was natural to hold it and stretch out the arm to full length. A journey was measured by the yard or the toise because the road was walked. Land was measured by the acre or the arpent because that represented work. The metric system forced people to separate the measure from the activity altogether and deal with an abstract unit that as [Polish historian of science Witold] Kula observed, "would be equally applicable to textiles, wooden planks, field strips and even to the road to Paris." What underlay the popular dislike of the metric system was a very modern anxiety, the sense of alienation from the natural world.
Of course there was more to it than that though, because that much should have been true of every people. Why did the Anglo-Saxons bend least willingly? One is hardly surprised that it was Jacobins, Napoleon, and the rest of the French who who were mainly responsible for imposing metrics. Thus, when Louis XVIII succeeded Napoleon:
He might have claimed to be an absolute monarch, but he ruled through a vast, centralized government machine that had grown out of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Code. It was the machine that wanted the metric system. As Napoleon himself had been forced to admit, the simplicity of calculating in decimals suited bookkeepers--and prefects, and bureaucrats, and government officials of every kind. Swallowing his reservations, Louis agreed to keep the metric system alongside the customary measures. "The important lesson France has taught the world," remarked a cynical friend of Kula, "is the effectiveness of centralized administration."

It was not wholly a coincidence that the unpopular metric system spread across Europe in concert with the growth of government bureaucracy.
No, nor can it be a coincidence that, while the French worship the civil service, the Anglo-Saxon: loathes bureaucracy--Ezra Pound: "What, gentle reader, are bureaucrats? Hired janitors who think they own the whole building"; despises easy quantification--Hillaire Belloc: "Statistics are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death"; and maintains an "[a]ffection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems"--Russell Kirk. And so, perhaps by the mysterious functioning of that "special providence" that Bismarck said God has for the United States of America, the fact that so many owned plots of land that had already been measured by a different system must have helped to make an already skeptical folk even more disdainful of the new-fangled metric system. Thereby did Edmund Gunter, whose chain had already done so much to secure American democracy, coincidentally help keep us free from that alternative device, the meter stick, tool of the centralizers and statists:
"The American style has never been to impose radical changes after state commissions decide on their superiority," observed Edward Tenner, a visiting researcher in the history of science and technology at Princeton University. "Americans even hate seeing dual mile and kilometer road signs. The metric system has been a casualty of its identification with political authority."
Amen, brother. And if we could stop New Coke, we can stop the Frenchified rationalists and their metric scam.

Lastly, Mr. Linklater ends his charming book with a famous poem, and we'd like to copy him:
The Gift Outright (1942) (Robert Frost)

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Andro Linklater Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Measuring America (Walker Books) -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Measuring America
    -ESSAY: Life, liberty, property: The source of US exceptionalism is its concept of property. The original land survey of America was as crucial as the Declaration of Independence (Andro Linklater, August 2002, Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Indexers And Indexes In Fact And Fiction edited by Hazel K. Bell (Andro Linklater, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Soldiers: Fighting Men?s Lives, 1901-2001 by Philip Ziegler (Andro Linklater, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Bitterroot by James Lee Burke (Andro Linklater, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Billy by Pamela Stephenson (Andro Linklater, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Island Of Lost Maps: A True Story Of Cartographic Crime by Miles Harvey (Andro Linklater, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Diaries, 1939-1972 by Frances Partridge (Andro Linklater, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of ENGLAND, ENGLAND, by Julian Barnes (Andro Linklater, Herald uk)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Measuring America (Andro Linklater, talk at the National Archives in Washington, DC)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Andro Linklater (The Leonard Lopate Show, February 3, 2003, WNYC)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy by Andro Linklater (Mark Monmonier, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America (Hugh Brogan, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America (Margaret Wertheim , LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America (Eric Schine, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America (Bryce Christensen, ALA)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America (Andy Beckett, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Measuring America (John Preston, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of THE CODE OF LOVE: An Astonishing True Tale of Secrets, Love, and War by Andro Linklater (Jonathan Shipley, Bookreporter)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Mr. Jefferson, What's This About a Contretemps?: For the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, the New Orleans Museum of Art is noting the occasion with an ambitious show celebrating French-American friendship. (STEPHEN KINZER, 4/30/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Westward Ho!: Two hundred years ago this month, Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, changing the shape of a nation and the course of history (Joseph Harriss, April 2003, Smithsonian)
    -ASK THE AUTHOR: The Louisiana Purchase with Roger G. Kennedy (Common Place)