The lengths at which a nation was formed

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.

Against this background, English mathematician Edmund Gunter invented in the early 1600s his indispensable surveyor's tool, the chain, a literal chain of fixed dimensions whose 22 yards would "become integral not only to the game of cricket (it is the length of the pitch), but to the town planning of almost every major city in the United States." When in 1785 Capt. Thomas Hutchins, first Geographer to the United States, and his team of surveyors set out from East Liverpool in Ohio to begin the herculean task of surveying the Midwest, they carried Gunter chains and impressed its length into the very fabric of the nation. Many of our city blocks are multiples of this antiquated measure.

Like most traditional units, Gunter's chain derived from the dimensions of the human body, but the great survey of America two centuries later was taking place at a critical moment in the history of ideas when traditional measures were being challenged by systems based on scientific discoveries. This seminal transition and its philosophical implications constitute Linklater's secondary theme, placing the science of measurement into a sweeping story of social change. In France, the new metric system took its primary unit from the size of the Earth: Officially a meter is supposed to be one 10-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, although, because of an error in the original meridian measurements, there is a fractional deviation from this ideal. The determination of the meter in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution and the story of its long hushed-up error are the subjects of Ken Alder's "The Measure of All Things," which beautifully complements Linklater's book.

In contrast to the Earth-based meter, Jefferson proposed a unit of length from the force of gravity, which, as Linklater notes, was a scientifically sounder approach. Among the many strengths of this richly textured book is the illumination Linklater sheds on the scientific side of Jefferson's character and the degree to which, in his eyes, standardized measurement was an essential pillar of democracy. Freed from the vicissitudes of local customs, America's nascent citizens would be protected from devious real estate speculators and unscrupulous merchants; as Jefferson saw it, standardized units would serve as a foundation for a truly democratic marketplace in property, in goods and, finally, in scientific ideas. As both writers stress, a universal system of measures was as critical to the project of modern science as any theoretical framework.

There is, however, a dark side to this triumphal tale, for measurement has also been one of the chief agents of Western imperialism. As Hutchins' surveyors advanced across the land, their invisible grid laid the foundation legally as well as conceptually for the claim of ownership. In Linklater's words: "The entire edifice of the law -- and with it every sheriff and U.S. marshal who ever became a white-hatted movie hero -- was on the side of property." Given that "the Native Americans had nothing to show that they owned the land," the new Americans felt quite at liberty to take it. "New England, like the Old, would belong to those who could measure and enclose it."

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