The Fabric of America

Andro Linklater, Walker & Company 2007, ISBN 10082715338, Paperback

The axiom, proper management requires accurate measurement is the theme of this account on the settling of America, its people and the division of powers within their government. Those who enjoy American history and have an interest in how this virgin territory was first surveyed, mapped and populated will find this book difficult to put down.

The first half of this book focuses on the life and times of Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820). This self-educated astronomer, mathematician, surveyor and educator influence the delineation of the boundaries for Washington D.C. as well as the southern and northern borders of the nation and the internal areas of this emerging confederation of states. Ellicott was trained as a clock and instrument maker in his fathers Pennsylvania business. He showed an instinctive aptitude for mathematics and science. In 1784 he was initially introduced to land surveying while employed as an assistant in the work of establishing the boundary between Virginia and Pennsylvania by means of celestial measurements taken at Mount Welcome in the Allegheny Mountains.

As his reputation for accuracy became known he later headed the surveying team that completed the survey first started in 1763 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to identify the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1791 President Washington commissioned him to survey and map the boundaries of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia that was to be the capital for the new nation. After Washington had removed Pierre L’Enfant as planner of the capital city Ellicott and to a lesser extent Benjamin Banneker, the first black American scientist, became responsible for the over all design of the city.

Ellicott’s many other contributions to American surveying and mapping continued to influence both the territory and citizens. One such example was his work in defining the boundaries between Spanish and American territory along the Mississippi river prior to the Louisiana purchase. His implementation of cartographic principles with emphasis on accuracy had a direct impact not only on territorial identification but also on issues such as state virus federal rights.

Much of the second half of this book describes how delineated territorial identification has influenced legal and cultural issues within the United States and abroad. In the 18th and 19th century, with the country expanding through land purchase, treaties and increasing  population, especially from foreign immigration, conflicts arose that continue today.

Three major issues discussed in detail are the status of aboriginal people, slavery and property rights. Of these, the latter two had the greater effect on how these emerging states influenced the country and its governing bodies at both the local and federal level. The interpretation of the Declaration of Independence granting liberty to all and the Constitution of the United States granting protection of property was one of the major issues that divided the northern and southern states. This account attempts to explain both sides of these difficult issues.

Linklater has succeeded in documenting and analyzing those historical events that defined the fabric of America. He has shown how the accurate identification of boundaries is much more than a line on a map. These same boundaries also help to identify the people and their culture that are impacted by these borders.

Reviewed by Chuck Gray 
From the Society’s May 2009 Newsletter