Saturday, August 25, 2007
James E. McWilliams
How mapmakers created America
For most people, a map is a map is a map. Boundaries and borders are its defining features. They tell us what is what and where is where, and they're about as abstract as a slap in the face. But for many academic historians, boundaries and borders are complex venues of "cultural construction" and "identity politics," blurred conceptual sites of negotiation that obscure the very lines representing them.
One of the many attributes of Andro Linklater's "The Fabric of America" is its insistence that a map is still a map. Having cleared the air of much theoretical fog, he describes in great detail the processes by which U.S. surveyors thinned the thicket and drew lines that marked the United States as it developed from a sliver of East Coast states to an empire whose power swelled from sea to shining sea.
Linklater, an independent scholar, employs a microcosmic perspective that focuses on a single person — surveyor-extraordinaire Andrew Ellicott — as a touchstone for the larger story. Drawing primarily on Ellicott's letters to his wife, Linklater delineates the processes by which states and the federal government sought "to impose order in the backcountry" between 1787 and the mid-19th century. Through what are at times excessively intricate chapters, he explores efforts to establish early state boundaries, survey the Northwest Territory, secure access to the Mississippi River, plot the dimensions of Washington, D.C., draw a boundary with Canada and etch Texas and the territories of Utah and New Mexico into official existence.
By highlighting every stitch in the American fabric, Linklater illuminates a couple of patterns often ignored in celebratory books on American nation-building. The surveyor's line might have been an economic boon to land-hungry white Americans, but to Native Americans it was a mark of dispossession. When, for example, Ellicott's 1791 survey of the United States' northern border granted the natural harbor of Presqu'isle to Pennsylvania, Linklater notes that "this extinguished the rights of Seneca ownership." Similarly grim scenarios played out for the Iroquois, Choctaw and Creek Indians. "No one," he writes, "suffered more from the artificial boundaries drawn in the ground than the Native Americans."
The legal authority conveyed by boundaries also united the dominant culture forged by white Americans. Before Ellicott surveyed the American-Spanish boundary between the Mississippi River and Florida in accordance with the Treaty of San Lorenzo, a cohort of secessionists in Tennessee and Kentucky led by Aaron Burr plotted to ally with the Spaniards and leave the fragile union. But after Ellicott's line secured U.S. trade access to the Mississippi River, Burr's allies realized that the newfound law and order would foster economic opportunity — and Burr fled to Europe. "The significance of the Burr conspiracy," writes Linklater, "lies precisely in its failure."
Linklater does more than shine a light on an oft-neglected corner of history. He also has an argument to make, attacking Frederick Jackson Turner's famous frontier thesis — which, a century after it was articulated, is still taught in high schools. Turner claimed that it was the open frontier, in all its rugged lawlessness, that nurtured the uniquely democratic character of the American people. Linklater, in a thunderbolt of counterpoint, argues that it was the other way around: The bounded frontier, rather than the wild, wild West, was what fostered the American democratic spirit. Stability, he explains, was the handmaiden of liberty.
The "image of libertarian self-expression" that marks Turner's analysis, he writes, "bears no relation to reality." Indeed, "what made the settlement of the West such an iconic American experience was precisely that it took place under the umbrella of the U. S. Government." Law and order, symbolically represented by the federal government and plotted by men like Andrew Ellicott, subdued the chaos of the frontier just enough to secure what the pioneers were ultimately chasing. Liberty? Nah. They were after property.
It wasn't iconoclasts like Kit Carson or Daniel Boone who transformed the frontier into a wealth of opportunity. It was land development companies who sold real estate in the territories to greedy speculators under terms authorized by Congress. Economic opportunity required a legal framework, and the last thing these "renegades" wanted was a lawless environment that allowed people to defend their property with guns rather than deeds. Call it the mild, mild West.
The 'peculiar institution'
Property, of course, meant more than land. For many Americans, it meant slaves, a topic that forces Linklater's thesis to take an unexpected turn. Nowhere was the authority of the federal government more on display than in the national effort to grapple with this "peculiar institution." When President Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase, he conferred to the federal government the power to determine the place of slavery in the territories west of the Mississippi. For a man who placed so much moral weight on a decentralized government, it was a paradoxical move.
This paradox first became evident in 1820 (the year Ellicott died) with the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Maine as a free state, Missouri as a slave state and disallowed slavery in the territories north of 36º 30' north latitude (with the exception of Missouri). "The argument over Missouri's admission to the Union was remarkable," writes Linklater, "because it brought into the open for the first time the extraordinary power that Jefferson had created for the U.S. government."
The annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas Nebraska Act and, after the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments confirmed the ability of the federal government to transcend state interests when it came to the issue of slavery. Linklater doesn't always make clear how this power relates to the mapping of the frontier — "The Fabric of America" has a tendency to sprawl. But the book's larger point remains valid: The federal government was solely in charge of organizing the territories, this responsibility gave the federal government substantial authority over the states, and the federal government used that authority to make the peculiar institution an illegal one.
To be sure, anyone searching for a weakness in this thesis will find several. Most notably, Jim Crow held the federal government hostage a long time — until well into the middle of the 20th century, in fact. Linklater sketches out this slow history, but he doesn't reconcile this unprecedented run of state rights ideology with his larger thesis of swelling federal dominance. And when one looks at the decisions coming out of the Roberts court, well, such reconciliation might be harder to achieve than Linklater thinks.
That said, this is a thought-provoking book, even if the material is surveyed with crooked rather than straight lines.
James E. McWilliams teaches history at Texas State University and is the author of 'Building the Bay Colony: Local Economy and Culture in Early Massachusetts'.
The Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007 The Austin American-Statesman