“Cheap, available land has developed the American character.” F.J. Turner
Every now and then, I read the equivalent of a palate cleanser – a book that’s not complicated, usually from a charity shop, something that can be read easily. You get the idea. This week’s book is one of them.
So the question about how the US was measured never really popped into my mind, to be honest. I mean, I did realize that the grid system had to come from somewhere, and I knew about the land rush, but I never gave it much thought. This book helped me understand how the US became what it is now, and it reminded me of the central role land and land ownership play in the US to this day.
This starts with the fact that George Washington – yes, that George Washington – was a land surveyor. So he was one of the people that measured the land as more and more of it got sold off by the government.
In this, George Washington made more money than he did when he was President. Yup. Because the surveyors were in on the biggest insider trading scheme in United States History.
Before the 1760s, nobody really thought of owning land. The land belonged to the Crown, or the Church. But the concept of private property simply didn’t exist.
This changed with the Foundation of the United States, where the Founding Fathers installed a revolutionary principle: everyone could own their land. This was mostly due to everyone’s least favorite wig afficionado, Thomas Jefferson.
(I don’t like TJeff, for reasons that begin with s and end with lavery.)
Anyway. Our good boi Thomas thought that democracy could only really prosper if people owned land. This would make them self-sufficient and independent, and only from a community of self-reliant citizens could democracy take shape. The future viability of the United States therefore depended on settling as many citizens as possible. Time was of the essence – the State could only grow in relation to the number of inhabitants.
(Side note – this is also the reason he disliked cities and anything resembling an industrial society – he thought cities were the ‘root of all evil’. Which, among many other things, was the reason why he and Hamilton didn’t get on at all. For all further inquiries, please refer to the musical “Hamilton”.)
The problem with this theory is that it ties social status to land ownership. So everyone who owns land is a valuable member of society, and everyone who doesn’t (because there were still millions of people in the United States who couldn’t afford to buy land) weren’t considered part of society.
This phenomenon played out especially in the South, where the plantation ownership developed a pseudo-feudal social order. But it consists to this day – land ownership and personal value of a being are intrinsically interconnected in the US.
Classicism in the US, therefore, is not necessary related to personal wealth, but land ownership. This is a really important point that the author doesn’t drive home as much as it deserves to.
Think about it – in the US, the concept of property overrides all other principles – even the one that all men are created equal. Humans, for a long time in the US, were just another form of property.
In the US, plainly said, the rights of the owner beat human rights.
It still does – think about gun ownership vs the Right to Live. You can understand the gun debate a lot better if you view it through this lens.
Unlike most other Western Countries, the US has no limits to individual property rights, not even in favor of social needs. Once you own property, you profit from almost limitless freedom. Thus, the unique American desire to own land is born.
However this system is completely biased against the dispossessed. And of course, this means the Native Americans more than anyone else.
Linklater does a pretty good job at explaining just how screwed the Natives were from the beginning.
As soon as the White Settlers stepped onto the continent, they started measuring it out. This was helped by the development of new, more precise instruments (to be honest, my eyes glazed over a bit when the author went into the minutiae of land surveying. So I’m going to leave this bit out, but rest assured, it was complicated, much math was involved, and some physics, too.)
Anyway. So once the land was measured, it had a monetary value. You knew how much there was, so you could trade it, exchange it, sell it. Land, for the first time in human history, is treated as commodity.
For Native Americans, on the other hand, land couldn’t be owned. They simply didn’t understand the necessity to prove that they owned the land they had inhabited for centuries (and before you say anything, let me just say that the average European wouldn’t have understood the concept of ‘private land ownership’ either.)
This, of course meant, that in the eyes of the settlers, the land was up for grabs. And grabbing they did. If the Natives refused – and they sometimes did – the Settlers could always rely on the Army to bail them out.
In case you want to know how fucked up this was – the US Supreme Court gave Native Americans the rights to their land, not once, but twice, but the President Andrew ‘Asshole’ Jackson decided to ignore the ruling and instead sent the Natives on the Trail of Tears.
White man won’t be denied.
(Jefferson, too, regarded the US as ‘Prime Occupant’ of the Continent. Which is a really weird choice of words. Unless you accept Jefferson for the dotty racist that he is, and then it doesn’t surprise you.)
I think it helps to imagine the westward settlement as some form of colonization of a Continent. Just like the British built their empire around the world, subduing Natives and enforcing their trade, the Americans did within their Continent. Just that in the latter case, the expansion was not done by the State, but by individuals lured in by the promise of land ownership.
The book isn’t without faults – the author lingers for too long on discussing different units of measurements (short summary – the reason why the US as the only country in the world, uses Fahrenheit, is Jefferson, who regarded Celsius as “inherently French”. Once again, Jefferson is a gigantic pain in the ass). There’s also a lot of discussion about units of measurement in France and Great Britain, which was neither interesting nor relevant.
But it also made me realize that a lot of the endemic problems we see in the United States today are linked to this desire to own land. And you cannot expect more from a palate cleanser.
If you want to know more –
There are plenty of good books out there about this topic.
“White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg talks about the link between property ownership and Class in the US. She also talks in depth about how this link got exploited in politics. It is a very worthile read.
“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond is a study about tenants in low-income housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This book is astonishing and I cannot recommend it enough. It views the issue of land ownership from the other side – meaning, from the people who don’t own a home. The main problem of poverty, Desmond discovers, is that it makes some people very, very rich.
And next week –
We’re going to talk about the book that JFK gave his staff when he became President. It’s also the book he continuously referred to during the Cuban Missile Crisis.