Forty Acres and a Rule

By Eric Schine


How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States

and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy

By Andro Linklater

Walker -- 310pp -- $26

When one of a book's main characters is an obscure surveying tool dating from Elizabethan times known as Gunter's chain, it's natural to wonder: Can this volume be very interesting? As it turns out, Andro Linklater's Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy succeeds brilliantly, viewing the familiar story of westward expansion through an unusual lens.

Interweaving history, biography, and science, Linklater delivers a fast-moving account of how, beginning shortly after the American Revolution, the nascent federal government surveyed and, together with land speculators, sold Western lands. Sadly, the survey provided a rationale for pushing Native Americans from their territory, even as proceeds from the sale helped pay off debts from the war. But Measuring America is much more than a tale of determined trailblazers. It's a story of how, through the act of measurement, the Founding Fathers transformed the very concept of land, making it a readily tradable commodity and setting the stage for America's special brand of populist entrepreneurialism.

At the same time, Linklater, a journalist who lives in Britain, delves deeply into one of the most heated scientific debates of that era, one that continues to befuddle Americans: How best to measure the physical world? Should the young nation formally adopt traditional English weights and measures? They were, after all, already being employed by farmers and merchants. Or would it be better to turn to the far more logical metric system, which had been invented by Enlightenment scientists in their quest for precise calibration of the earth.

Linklater celebrates the teams of intrepid surveyors who set off through mosquito-infested swamps and virgin forests. As they did, the book relies heavily on Gunter's chain. Measuring 66 feet, it was ideally suited for marking off an acre--or 10 square chains. At the same time, the chain's 100 links encouraged people to think about measurement in terms of decimals. In this way, Gunter's chain anticipated the metric system, which, in the final years of the 18th century, was gaining an increasing number of adherents, including Thomas Jefferson.

Ever since English settlers landed in the New World, they had been throwing Gunter's chain over their shoulders and setting off into the woods to parcel out irregularly shaped farms. Then in 1784, Jefferson proposed a more methodical approach. A new government survey of the freshly acquired Northwest Territory--which we know today as the Midwest--would employ the chain to impose on the landscape a perfect grid composed of 640-acre parcels. The survey grew into a massive undertaking that took more than a century to complete and ultimately encompassed billions of acres from the Appalachians to the Pacific.

The years of toil paid off. As the survey inched across the country, a horde of settlers followed, buying from the General Land Office pieces of the grid for as little as $1 an acre. Parcels were sold in plots as small as 40 acres, fulfilling Jefferson's dream of a nation of republican farmers. Land speculators, though, were often a step ahead of the farmers, buying grants from Revolutionary War veterans that let them snatch up millions of acres for pennies on the dollar. The survey facilitated the creation of a new market, since uniform pieces of the grid were "ideal for buying, trading, and speculating," writes Linklater. "Speculation, or, as the nineteenth century called it, capitalism, and democracy went together."

In the end, more than 1 billion acres of land were transferred from the U.S. government to private hands. The surveyors' legacy is still visible to air travelers. "The showpiece of their efforts lies in the Great Plains," writes Linklater, "where the checkerboard of squares permeates the landscape, the economy, the very outlook of those that live there."

If the survey was one of Jefferson's crowning achievements, his failure to secure the metric system must have been a bitter disappointment. Jefferson expended considerable political energy on a bid to impose science upon the then-unruly business of measuring not just land but wheat, timber, tobacco, and other commercial stuff of the era.

In a tragicomic development that could have been lifted from a 19th century opera bouffe, Linklater recounts the implausible tale of how Jefferson and America lost an early opportunity to promote the metric system. To convince a skeptical nation of the system's virtue, in 1794 the President-to-be invited one of France's leading scientists, Joseph Dombey, to hobnob with American officials. But the scientist's ship, along with Dombey's impressive set of metric weights and measures, was blown off course and landed in the West Indies, which were feeling the aftershocks of the French Revolution. Perceived as a radical, Dombey was arrested by the royalist governor of Guadeloupe. He never reached the U.S.

The book does have shortcomings. Colorful anecdotes appear too infrequently, while much space is given over to metric-system minutiae. Linklater also moves a bit too expeditiously through the shameful process of removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Even so, he succeeds at a difficult undertaking. Measuring America more than measures up.

Associate Editor Schine lives in Brooklyn on a lot measuring a quarter chain by one-and-a-half chains.

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