The source of US exceptionalism is its concept of property. The original land survey of America was as crucial as the Declaration of Independenceby Andro Linklater / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
When the American colonists set out to explain why they wanted independence from Britain, they turned to the language of the Enlightenment. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” runs the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
To most American commentators, their republic still represents the embodiment of those ideals committed to paper in 1776. They are enshrined in the bill of rights and the constitution and given effect in the everyday operation of political and legal machinery. When the president’s executive power collides with the law-making brief of the legislature over, say, the proposal to create a new intelligence agency, or when the Supreme Court weighs up arguments about the human rights of a mentally retarded murderer, someone will invoke the documents and intentions of the founding fathers. In this uniquely legalistic, textually-based society, it is hardly possible to doubt that they are the foundation on which America was built.
Yet there is a gap in the reasoning. Words, however eloquent, are no guarantee of virtue. Subsequent revolutions-in France, Russia, China-have begun with equally high-sounding sentiments and ended in tyranny. Power corrupts, and revolutionary power corrupts utterly. Why then should the American revolution have produced such a potent mix of raw capitalism and aggressively individualist democracy?
The alternative key to grasping the US’s extraordinary fusion of capitalism and democracy is to be found in drab surroundings, on the outskirts of East Liverpool, Ohio. Once the “pottery capital of the world,” its biggest enterprise now is a waste incinerator pumping coils of toxic smoke into the sky. On a narrow strip of grass high above the Ohio river stands a sign headed “The Point of Beginning.” It reads, “1,112 feet south of this spot was the point of beginning for surveying the public lands of the United States. There on September 30 1785, Thomas Hutchins, first Geographer of the United States, began the Geographer’s Line of the Seven Ranges.”