Contradicting historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “frontier thesis,” Linklater (Measuring America, 2002, etc.) claims it was America’s borders that shaped our national character.
Pioneers on the borderless frontier, Turner maintained, hated government control and craved the liberty provided by open, free land. Not so, insists Linklater. True, settlers grabbed free land wherever they could, but what they yearned for above all was legal title to their property. Once they’d acquired their land, each wave of settlers immediately set to work establishing a system to provide law and order and to recognize their claims. From 1783 on, new states rushed to send out surveyors to establish their borders, then mark out sections to record, sell and tax. This was critical, Linklater points out, because land sales provided virtually 100 percent of a state’s revenue. The author reintroduces a major historical character, unknown today but familiar to the founding fathers and early presidents: astronomer and surveyor Andrew Ellicott. Quickly acquiring a reputation for dazzling precision, he spent 40 years roaming the nation, laying out borders that stand to this day and in the process making political decisions that also stand. Ellicott (not Pierre L’Enfant) surveyed the new capital, Washington, and drew the original map that appears in history books. Marking our borders proved to be a surprisingly contentious process. Moving into the 19th century, Linklater reminds us that it was less slavery itself than disputes over its boundaries that inflamed both sides. Campaigning in 1860, Lincoln denied an interest in abolition but stressed keeping slavery within a defined area.
An ingenious premise delivered in lively, accessible prose backed by impressive research.