Cover image for Measuring America : how an untamed wilderness shaped the United States and fulfilled the promise of democracy
Measuring America : how an untamed wilderness shaped the United States and fulfilled the promise of democracy
Linklater, Andro.
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Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Co., 2002.
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310 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm
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E161.3 .L46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Measuring America is the fascinating, provocative, and eye-opening story of why America has ended up with its unique system of weights and measures--the American Customary System, unlike any other in the world--and how this has profoundly shaped our country and culture. In the process, 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.

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. Its greatest asset was the land west of the Ohio River, but for this huge territory to be sold, it had first 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. English, Scottish, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and other settlers had all brought their own systems with them (more than 100,000 different units are reckoned to have been in daily use), and in his first address to Congress, George Washington put the establishment of a single system of weights and measures immediately after a national defense and a currency as the United States' most urgent priority.

The debate on this vital measure took place at a critical moment in the history of ideas, when the traditional, subjective view of the world was being increasingly challenged by objective, scientific reasoning. Thomas Jefferson--supported by Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe, even Hamilton--championed the new idea of a scientific 10-based system derived from some universal constant such as time or the size of the earth. Such an alliance should have ensured a decimal America, but ranged against them was the invisible genius of Edmund Gunter, the seventeenth-century English mathematician whose twenty-two-yard surveying chain, introduced in 1607, had revolutionized land ownership in Britain and was still used by every surveyor in America--including Thomas Hutchins and his successors in charge of the land survey on the Ohio frontier.

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. At a time when the metric system may finally be unstoppable, Andro Linklater has captured the essential nature of measurement just as the Founding Fathers understood it. Sagely argued and beautifully written, Measuring America offers readers nothing less than the opportunity to see America's history--and our democracy--in a brilliant new light.

Author Notes

Andro Linklate was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on December 10, 1944. He was the youngest child of the novelist Eric Linklater. He attended Belhaven Hill school in Dunbar, East Lothian, and then Winchester College, before studying modern history at New College, Oxford. He taught at a London comprehensive school until he was asked to complete the history of the Black Watch regiment that his father had been writing at the time of his death in 1974. It was published three years later and was well received. His other works include Amazing Maisie and the Cold Porridge Brigade, Wild People, The Code of Love, Measuring America, The Fabric of America, An Artist in Treason, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die, and Owning the Earth. He died from a heart attack on November 3, 2013 at the age of 68.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Make room on the library shelf for the never-before-told saga of the survey that converted the vast wilderness west of the Ohio River into a commodity marked out for government sale. In chronicling this saga, Linklater brings to life a host of compelling personalities--Edmund Gunter, the indifferent rector who gave American surveyors a revolutionary new measuring chain; Thomas Hutchins, the national geographer whose character of perfect integrity could not hide his miserable ineptitude; Ferdinand Hassler, the government appointee so monomaniacal for accuracy that he brushed snuff into his eyes to stimulate optical acuity; Joseph Dombey, the unlucky martyr who died in a Montserrat prison while trying to bring metric measures to America. But above the fascinating personalities loom huge political and economic issues. With spare lucidity, Linklater probes the conflicting pressures in the process that turned unmapped tribal lands into a plotted grid of properties for purchase, bringing much-needed revenue into the federal coffers but also setting loose a frenzy of land speculation. At the heart of this overheated process, Thomas Jefferson deployed his multifaceted genius against the greed of the speculators, heroically striving to make the unprecedented land sale foster the freedoms of democracy and the cause of progressive reform. But in Jefferson' s failure to guide America away from Gunter's traditional four-based measures toward a more rational decimal system, Linklater limns one of history's great missed opportunities. At a time when America finds itself a foot-and-pound island in a metric sea, the fascinating story of this missed opportunity holds considerable relevance for America's commercial future. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Invention of Landed Property The imposing library of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London is strategically situated. In one direction its tall windows look over the street to Whitehall, where the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns ruled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in another they gaze across Parliament Square toward the House of Commons, power base of the rising class of landed gentry who during those two centuries challenged the royal authority. It is just possible to imagine the atmosphere of righteous indignation and pervading apprehension that accompanied the struggle between the two, but in the small, leather-bound books kept in the institution's library, the reality that gave rise to the battles remains vividly alive. In the earliest, such as Master John Fitzherbert's The Art of Husbandry , published in 1523, a surveyor still filled his original, feudal role as the executive officer of a landed nobleman. His duty was primarily to oversee (the word surveyor is derived from the French sur [over] and voir [see]) the estate. He was to walk over the land and make a note of the boundaries-the "buttes and bounds"-of the tenants' holdings, and then to assist in drawing up the official record or court roll of what duties they owed. A model report, Fitzherbert suggested, would record that the land of a particular tenant "lyeth between the mill on the north side, and the South Field on the south, butteth upon the hyway, and conteyneth xii perches and x fote [feet] in bredthe by the hyway, and ix perches in length, and payeth ... two hennes at Christmas and two capons at Easter." To "butt" upon something is to encounter or meet it, for which the equivalent word was mete . This ancient method of surveying, which identified the boundary of an estate by the points where it met other boundaries or visible objects, thus became known as "metes and bounds." Even in 1523, English landlords were engaged in a practice that was to transform the feudal order. There were infinite variations in feudalism, but this was its heart-that the land was the state, and only the head of state could own it outright. The dukes and barons, the king's tenants-in-chief, technically held their broad acres of the Crown in return for the dues or service they paid, and their vassals held their narrower farms from the great lords in return for rent or service, and so on down to the villeins who often had no land at all but exchanged goods, service, or rent for the right to work it. What the sixteenth-century manuals inadvertently reveal, as they detail the surveyor's duties, is how that order was subverted from within. Under the old system, tenants farmed narrow strips, or rigs, of land, often widely separated so that good and poor soil was distributed evenly among those who actually worked the land. For centuries, impatient land users had attempted to consolidate the strips into single compact fields that could be "enclosed" by a fence or hedge so that crops were not trodden down or herds scattered, but the pattern remained fundamentally intact. In the early sixteenth century, however, a period of savage inflation occurred, and every lord and tenant tried to squeeze the maximum profit from the land. Repeatedly, Fitzherbert stressed the need for the surveyor to realize that enclosed land was more valuable than the strips and common pasture because it could be made more productive. The urgency was unmistakable, yet essentially the old values were still in place. Then in 1531 came the publication of The Boke Named the Governour by Sir Thomas Elyot, which gave advice on the education of rulers and landowners. An essential part of their training was to learn how to draw so that, according to Elyot, they could make a map or "figure" of their estates. In this way, they would have a clear picture of what they owned, or as Elyot put it, "in visiting his own dominions, [the governor] shall set them out in figure, in such wise that his eye shall appear to him where he shall employ his study and treasure." In the course of the sixteenth century, it became a habit of English landowners to have their estates and the surrounding countryside measured and then mapped. By 1609 John Norden could insist in the Surveior's Dialogue that "the [map] rightly drawne by true information, describeth so lively an image of a Manor ... as the Lord sitting in his chayre, may see what he hath, where and how it lyeth, and in whose use and occupation every particular is." There was a special significance in making this part of the surveyor's duty, because in that era only the rulers of states and cities made maps. A map was a political document. It not only described territory but asserted ownership of it as well. In 1549 a map of Newfoundland and the North Atlantic seaboard detailing Sebastian Cabot's discoveries was displayed in the Privy Gallery at Whitehall outside the royal council chamber, so that foreign ambassadors waiting to see the sovereign would know of England's claims overseas. When the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius produced the first modern atlas in 1570, his Theatrum orbis terrarum , with the freshly discovered territories of the New World and the newly explored Pacific and Indian Oceans, he took care to dedicate it to his sovereign, Philip II of Spain, and to ensure that Philip could find in it his own claims across the ocean. Consequently, when the sixteenth-century English landowners ordered a map of their estate, they were implicitly asserting a claim to ownership in a way that only rulers of states and kingdoms had been able to make. For a long time only landowners in England made such a claim. Surveying manuals were published in the German states, but there were hardly any estate maps until late in the seventeenth century. Sweden produced its first national map in the sixteenth century, but it was 100 years later before noblemen began measuring and mapping their estates. In sixteenth-century France, the Jesuits taught math and all the theory needed by a surveyor, but no plats, or plans parcellaires , of aristocratic land were drawn before 1650. The first Spanish maps appeared as early as 1508, but another 200 years passed before it became the custom for Spanish lords to measure their lands. Only in the economically sophisticated Netherlands, where the mathematician Gemma Frisius wrote the first manual on mapmaking, A Method of Delineating Places , in 1533, were farms, especially those close to cities, measured and mapped, yet even there the aristocrats' landed estates remained feudal. But in England, estate maps were so common that an inventory of Henry VIII's possessions made at his death in 1547 showed he had "a black coffer covered with fustian of Naples [which was] full of plattes." If there is a single date when the idea of land as private property can be said to have taken hold, it is 1538. In that year a tiny volume was published with a long title that began, "This boke sheweth the maner of measurynge of all maner of lande ..." In it, the author, Sir Richard Benese, described for the first time in English how to calculate the area of a field or an entire estate. He was probably borrowing from Frisius, but his values were purely English. Noting that sellers tended to exaggerate the size of a property whereas buyers were inclined to underestimate it, he advised the surveyor to approach the task in a careful and methodical manner. "When ye shall measure a piece of any land ye shall go about the boundes of it once or twice, and [then] consider well by viewing it whether ye may measure it in one parcel wholly altogether or else in two or many parcels." Measuring it in "many parcels," he explained, was necessary when the field was an uneven, irregular shape; by dividing it up into smaller, regular shapes like squares and oblongs and triangles it became easy to calculate accurately the total area. The distances were to be carefully measured with a rod or pole, precisely 16 1/2 feet long, or a cord. And finally, the surveyor was to describe the area in words, and to draw a plat showing its shape and extent. Like the maps, this interest in exact measurement was also new. Until then, what mattered was how much land would yield, not its size. When William the Conqueror instituted the great survey of England in 1086, known as the Domesday Book, his commissioners noted the dimensions of estates in units like virgates and hides, which varied according to the richness of the soil: a virgate was enough land for a single person to live on, a hide enough to support a family, and consequently the size shrank when measuring fertile land, and expanded in poor, upland territory. Other Domesday units like the acre and the carrucate were equally flexible, but so long as land was held in exchange for services, the number of people it could feed and so make available to render those services was more important than its exact area. Accurate measurement became important in 1538 because beginning in that year a gigantic swath of England-almost half a million acres-was suddenly put on sale for cash. The greatest real-estate sale in England's history occurred after king Henry VIII dissolved a total of almost 400 monasteries, which had been acquiring land for centuries. He justified his action on the grounds that these houses of prayer had grown depraved and corrupt, but tales of drunken monks and lecherous nuns served to conceal a more mundane purpose: Henry needed money to pay for England's defenses. Upon the monasteries' dissolution, all their land, including some of the best soil in England, automatically reverted to their feudal overlord, the king. These rich acres were then sold to wealthy merchants and nobles so that a navy could be built to defend England's shores against the French. The sale of so much land for cash was a watershed. Although changes were already under way, with feudal services often commuted for rents paid in coin, and feudal estates frequently mortgaged and sold, up to that point the fundamental value of land remained in the number of people it supported. From then on the balance shifted increasingly to a new way of thinking. Prominent among the purchasers of church property were land-hungry owners, like the duke of Northumberland, who had been enclosing common pastures, but far more common were the landlords who had done well from the rise in the market value of wool and corn, and chose to invest in monastery estates. In Norfolk, Sir Robert Southwell attracted attention because of the mighty pastures he carved out from common land for his fourteen flocks of sheep, each numbering around 1,000 animals, but others who did the same on a smaller scale almost escaped notice. In the neighboring county of Suffolk, the Winthrop family, who acquired and enclosed hundreds of acres of monastic and common land, might have remained in the background had the grandson, John, not sailed for America in 1630 as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company. The new owners and their surveyors realized that the monasteries' widely separated rigs and shares of common land would become more valuable once they were consolidated into fields. Their predecessors, the old abbots and priors, had understood landownership to be part of a feudal exchange of rights for services. But those who had bought their land knew that ownership depended on money passing hands, and that the old ways had to change if they were to maximize the return on their investment. "Jesu, sir, in the name of God what mean you thus extremely to handle us poor people?" a widow demanded of John Palmer, an enclosing landlord in Sussex who, having bought the monastic estate on which she lived, had evicted her from her cottage. "Do ye not know that the King's grace hath put down all the houses of monks, friars and nuns?" Palmer retorted. "Therefore now is the time come that we gentlemen will pull down the houses of such poor knaves as ye be." As enclosures and rising rents forced thousands of villeins and farm laborers away from the manors that once supported them, resentment against the new owners grew rapidly. Sir Thomas More launched a particularly bitter attack on pastoralists like Southwell: "Your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now as I hear say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves." There were popular uprisings in many parts of England, forcing Henry VIII and his successors to introduce bills in Parliament to prevent enclosure. It was a pointer to the growing influence of the landowners that few were passed. The hidden hand in this gigantic upheaval was provided by the survey and plat that recorded the new owner's estate as his property. The emphasis in Benese's book on exact measurement reflected the change in outlook. Once land was exchanged for cash, its ability to support people became less important than how much rent it could produce. And to compare the value of rent produced by different estates, it was essential to know their exact size. The units could no longer vary; the method of surveying had to be reliable. The surveyor ceased to be a servant and became an agent of change from a system grounded in medieval practice to one that generated money. Some at least became uneasily aware of what they were doing. In the Surveior's Dialogue , Norden specifically blamed the act of measuring itself for helping to destroy the old ways and held surveyors responsible as "the cause that men [lose] their Land: and sometimes they are abridged of such liberties as they have long used in Mannors: and customes are altered, broken, and sometimes perverted or taken away by your means." What the new class of landowners required of their suveyors above all was exactness, and the sudden increase in the number of manuals in the last quarter of the century testified to the urgency of their need. In 1551 Robert Recorde wrote a book titled Pathway to Knowledge in praise of the accuracy that geometry offered surveyors, but warning of its potential for destruction: Survayers have cause to make touche of me. And so have all Lordes that landes do possesse: But Tennauntes I feare will like me the lesse. Yet do I not wrong, but measure all truely, And yelde the full right to everye man justely. Continue... Excerpted from Measuring America by Andro Linklater Copyright © 2002 by Andro Linklater Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Measuring America Introduction
1 The Invention of Landed Property
2 Precise Confusion
3 Who Owned America?
4 Life, Liberty, or What?
5 Simple Arithmatic
6 A Line Drawn in the Wilderness
7 The French Dimension
8 Democratic Decimals
9 The Birth of the Metric System
10 Dombey's Luck
11 The End of Putnam
12 The Immaculate Grid
13 The Shape of Cities
14 Hassler's Passion
15 The Dispossesed
16 The Limit of Enclosure
17 Four Against Ten
18 Metric Triumphant
Epilogue: The Witness Tree
Appendix: General Tables of Units of Measurement