Measuring America: How the United States was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History

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"The most urgent problem facing the newly independent United States was how to pay for the war that won the country its freedom; America's debt was enormous. The nation's greatest asset was the land west of the Ohio River, but in order to sell this huge territory, it first had to be surveyed - that is, measured out and mapped. And before that could be done, a uniform set of measurements had to be chosen for the new republic out of the morass of roughly 100,000 different units that were in use in daily life." "Indeed, in his first presidential
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"The most urgent problem facing the newly independent United States was how to pay for the war that won the country its freedom; America's debt was enormous. The nation's greatest asset was the land west of the Ohio River, but in order to sell this huge territory, it first had to be surveyed - that is, measured out and mapped. And before that could be done, a uniform set of measurements had to be chosen for the new republic out of the morass of roughly 100,000 different units that were in use in daily life." "Indeed, in his first presidential address to Congress, in January 1790, George Washington put the establishment of a single system of weights and measures immediately after a national defense and a currency as the country's most urgent priority. Measuring America tells the fascinating story of how this unique system was achieved and how it has profoundly shaped our country and culture over more than two centuries." How we ultimately gained the American Customary System - the last traditional system in the world - and how Gunter's chain indelibly imprinted its dimensions on the land, on cities, and on our culture from coast to coast, is both an exciting human and intellectual drama and one of the great untold stories in American history. Measuring America reveals the colossal power contained inside the acres and miles, ounces and pounds that we use every day without ever realizing their significance. In the process, it offers readers an opportunity to see our democracy in a brilliant new light.
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Editorial Reviews

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On September 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins (1730–89) began a project that would transform the American frontier. On that day, the man designated as "the geographer of the United States" began a survey of the infant nation's public lands. Beginning in the Seven Ranges district of present-day Ohio, Hutchins set a grid that would eventually extend to Pacific Ocean, although he did not live to see its completion. This project was, however, much more than a feat of labor. The survey of public lands and their subsequent sale created a structure of land ownership unique in history. In Measuring America, Andro Linklater explains how Hutchins's survey reconfigured our country.
Margaret Wertheim
remarkable—The Los Angeles Times
The New Yorker
In 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, began the improbable task of literally measuring the expanding new nation, yard by yard. Inching west from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and equipped with Gunter's chain -- a handy surveying device stretching exactly twenty-two yards long -- Hutchins' crew chopped the tangled frontier into Enlightenment-friendly six-mile-by-six-mile townships, the effect of which can still be seen from any airplane window. Measuring America, by the British journalist Andro Linklater, tells the eye-opening story of how this "immaculate" grid gave birth to the radical notion of fixed measures (the variable cooms, kilderkins, and rundlets quickly went out the window), the uniquely American idea of land ownership (yeomen farmers were drawn westward to such would-be new states as Assenisipia and Polypotamia), and our continuing anachronistic fealty to yards, acres, and miles (Thomas Jefferson proposed using a decimal system, only to be trumped by Gunter's chain).

"The grid was to the rationalization of nature what the Declaration of Independence was to freedom," writes Case Western professor Ted Steinberg in Down to Earth, a meditation on the overlooked role of nature in American history. For Steinberg, American history began 180 million years ago, when the giant landmass Pangaea broke apart, and continues through such major events as the Laramide Orogeny (which created the Great Plains), Millard Fillmore's 1850 State of the Union address (which lamented the high price of imported Peruvian guano), and the proliferation of the boll weevil (which may have spurred the exodus of black Americans to the North).

(Mark Rozzo)
Publishers Weekly
American democracy was less a product of revolutionary war and constitutional ferment than it was of a particular way of measuring land, argues British historian Linklater in his delightful new study. Private ownership of land was a new concept in England in the 17th century, one that was grounded (so to speak) in the developing science of surveying, in particular, Edmund Gunter's simple new surveying system of squares and grids. But the idea that land could "be owned as a house or a bed or a pig was owned" was central to the new United States. Thomas Jefferson and others contended that property belonged to those who could purchase it and labor upon it. Thus, when the land west of the Ohio River was purchased by the United States, a new wave of settlers headed there with the intention of owning their own patch of land. Before the land could be sold, however, it had to be measured in roughly equal plots, and the surveyors used Gunter's method of drawing the boundaries of land in square miles. Linklater's detailed chronicle of the physical development of early America demonstrates the ways that the desire to own private property grew out of the individualism of the frontier and shaped the peculiarly American notion that the individual's right to property is both a foundation and a guarantee of democracy. 35 b&w illus. (Nov.) Forecast: Fans of Dava Sobel's Longitude (also published by Walker) and other books that examine systems of measurement as a foundation for the history of ideas will love Linklater's book. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Why do we use gallons, feet, and dollars and cents? How were these measurements created? Why do we not use the metric system, and why do so many cities and states have grids visible from the ground and the air? To answer those questions and more, British historian Linklater brings to life the creator of the system we use today, a rector named Edmund Gunter, along with a host of major personalities (Washington and Jefferson) and unknown or forgotten players (geographer Thomas Hutchins and geodesist Ferdinand Hassler). These figures play out against Linklater's elegantly drawn backdrops-national and international history, politics, economics, and business-to reveal how we came to measure as we do. Linklater also shows how as the United States expanded from the original Colonies to the West Coast over its first 100 years, our choice of measurement became part of the American psyche and legal system and also affected society. This expertly written and eminently enjoyable chronicle is highly recommended for history and history of science collections.-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sturdy prose conveys the remarkable, still inspiring story of the struggle to standardize measurements and to apply them from sea to shining sea. Linklater (The Code of Love, 2001) begins on September 30, 1785, near Liverpool, Ohio, where Thomas Hutchins began surveying the public lands of the US. "He was Robinson Crusoe," the author writes, "landed in an uncharted wilderness, and his purpose was to measure it so that it could be sold." (We learn later he was also incompetent.) The narrative then circles back to early-16th-century England and to the nascent and novel notion of land ownership. Linklater guides us confidently through Henry VIII's sale of monastery properties to Edmund Gunter's creation of the 22-yard-long surveyors' chain. He provides a primer in surveying and then recounts the long effort to standardize weights and measures. Twenty pages later, we are back in the New World where, by the mid-18th century, land had become a hot commodity. The author notes wryly that the land's previous occupants surrendered their territory after potent doses of treaty and terrorism. Linklater sometimes tells us more than we want to know (e.g., the French systems of measurement), but we learn new stories about Washington and Jefferson (especially the latter), and we struggle along with the early surveyors who crossed swamps, forests, fields, streams, rivers, and purple mountains majestic as they unrolled chains, plotted townships and states, and established the stunning grids still visible today by cross-country air passengers. Linklater emphasizes the connections between measurement and commerce (measure it first, then sell it), and although he sprinkles a few dangling participles on thelandscape of his prose, he writes with a firm command of detail and an ample measure of wit: Fanny Trollope, he observes, was "a Tory to the tip of her parasol." Immeasurably informative and lots of fun. (30 b&w illustrations, 5 maps, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616802844
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/28/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Andro Linklater studied history at Oxford University and is a full-time writer and journalist, and author of several books.

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Table of Contents

Measuring America Introduction

One: The Invention of Landed Property

Two: Precise Confusion

Three: Who Owned America?

Four: Life, Liberty, or What?

Five: Simple Arithmatic

Six: A Line Drawn in the Wilderness

Seven: The French Dimension

Eight: Democratic Decimals

Nine: The Birth of the Metric System

Ten: Dombey's Luck

Eleven: The End of Putnam

Twelve: The Immaculate Grid

Thirteen: The Shape of Cities

Fourteen: Hassler's Passion

Fifteen: The Dispossesed

Sixteen: The Limit of Enclosure

Seventeen: Four Against Ten

Eighteen: Metric Triumphant

Epilogue: The Witness Tree

Acknowledgments Appendix: General Tables of Units of Measurement Notes Bibliography Index

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