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
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.”
The 1,112 feet take you to the very edge of the river, where in 1785 Thomas Hutchins’s team of surveyors first unrolled a 22-yard chain and began to measure out the wilderness that stretched to the west. It would be easy to miss the significance of what he was doing, but Hutchins was making it possible for Americans to own their country.
In 1783, the young US was close to bankruptcy after seven years of war. The government had no assets other than the land taken from the crown that lay between the Appalachian Mountains, 200 miles inland from the eastern seaboard, and the Mississippi river, 600 miles further west. To realise the value contained in this uncharted territory, it had to be measured out and mapped, then sold for cash. The method of transformation was unique, and the land-owning society that it produced was like no other.
Given its scale, it is astonishing that the US public land survey almost escapes the notice of historians and geographers alike. From that nondescript spot by East Liverpool, it was to stretch across the continent, west to the Pacific, south to Mexico, north to Canada, covering over 3m square miles. In the course of more than two centuries-and the survey continues with ever-growing accuracy-Hutchins and his followers covered almost all of the US, hacking lengthy vistas through thick forest, planting markers across the mountains, building mounds in long lines over prairie and desert. A grid was created of almost 1m squares, each one six miles by six.
They can be clearly seen on any trans-continental flight. Farmland roads run along the surveyors’ tracks; suburban developments are squared-off inside the grid they marked out; and city streets follow the lines they drew. In the midwest, the grid’s pattern shows up with such stunning regularity that the aircraft’s compass bearing can be instantly calculated by the angle it cuts across the lines far below.
The sheer physical achievement of the survey is breathtaking; but it is dwarfed by the economic and social consequences. The survey made possible the transfer of over a billion acres from public to private ownership. It guaranteed the pioneers in their covered wagons legal possession to their farms and homesteads. It underpinned the claims of goldminers, it decided the feuds of cowboys and farmers, it financed the construction of the railroads and it created the structure for a property-owning society of a kind never before known in history.
That the ownership of land should have had such an influence on the development of the US should not be surprising. While the Spaniards sailed to the new world in search of gold and the French for furs, the English came for land. Tight-knit Puritan settlements soon broke up as sons and grandsons spread out in search of land, and within three generations the lure of unclaimed territory had drawn Virginians and Carolinians from the coast into the hills.
The idea that land might belong to an individual bewildered the original inhabitants. “What is this you call property?” asked Massasoit, an American Indian who befriended the colonists in the 17th century. “It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?”
In fact, the concept would have confused most people in the 17th century other than the English. Spanish and French settlers in the new world took with them a feudal understanding that the territory belonged to the sovereign alone. Individuals might hold the land from him, even own the use of it, but their rights were subject to royal power. Consequently, New Spain and New France were developed as feudal domains. Even New Amsterdam, which boasted a sophisticated, egalitarian economy, was surrounded by huge feudal estates. New England, like the other English colonies, was radically different.
In early Stuart England, the exercise of the common law and representation by landed gentry in parliament had allowed a model of private landed property to develop, far ahead of the rest of Britain and Europe. As a result, settlers from England arrived with the expectation that each free adult male who could pay around six shillings an acre had the right to own it. In Virginia, anyone who paid his own passage was given 100 acres. Waves of immigrants arrived from Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and by the mid-18th century, the population of the British colonies dwarfed those of Spain and France.
Nevertheless, even in those colonies, feudal tenure still technically prevailed. Royal charters specified that the land was held by the proprietors from the king “in free and common soccage.” Nominally, this meant that settlers were obliged to pay the proprietors of the colonies a quit-rent to be free of feudal obligations, and the products of gold and silver mines had to be shared with the sovereign. But for practical purposes, the land was owned in “fee simple,” as close to absolute possession as the common law recognised.
As the population grew, property prices rose. Dozens of companies were formed to speculate in land beyond the Appalachians, and clashes with the Indians grew more bloody. Alarmed by the violence, George III’s government issued a proclamation in 1763 forbidding colonial governors “to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass Patents for any Lands west of the Appalachians,” and ordering those already there “to remove themselves from such settlements.” The ban was based on the king’s feudal claim to own British America.
Among the resentments that drove the colonists to declare their independence on the Fourth of July 1776, the desire to acquire land wherever they chose is often overlooked today. Taxation without representation usually ranks first, then British troops firing on unarmed citizens-“the Boston massacre” of 1770-followed by the legislation that London passed to undercut the authority of colonial assemblies. Yet when they first united to voice their protests in 1775, the rebels’ opening assertion was their right to “life, liberty and property.” The following year, before the Declaration was signed, the Virginia constitution was drawn up with the ringing phrase, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property.”
Nearly all the major figures of the American revolution outside Massachusetts were involved in land speculation, from George Washington by way of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin. Washington was ruthless in acquiring land, eventually owning more than 50,000 acres and, since the ground beyond the Appalachians was cheap and fertile, he had no intention of obeying the royal command. In a secret letter to a fellow-officer, he wrote, “Any person who neglects hunting out good lands there, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, will never regain it.” Liberty and democracy played their part in Washington’s rebellion, but for him and thousands of others, the first step began with an ambition for property.
For some years after independence, it seemed that the individual states would inherit the crown’s power over property. Had they done so, it is likely that within a generation the US would have broken apart, as adventurers like Aaron Burr strove to set up independent empires in the west. Almost single-handedly, Jefferson established the principle that the territory west of the Appalachians belonged to the US government and that it alone had the power to purchase land from the Indians. That principle immediately secured to the federal government the territory east of the Mississippi and, after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the defeat of Mexico in 1848 pushed the nation’s boundaries to the Pacific and the Rio Grande, it ensured that all of the US, apart from Texas, passed into Washington’s hands before being sold on. The cohesive effect on a fragile national entity cannot be over-emphasised.
Yet in disposing of this new territory, Jefferson left a still more effective legacy. Unlike Washington and his fellow Virginians who wanted land for themselves, Jefferson believed that it should be distributed as widely as possible. His ideal was a romantic notion of the Saxon yeoman-farmer, able to live off his land, unafraid to speak his mind, independent of government but with a vested interest in law-abiding behaviour.
Rather than leave the survey to speculators like Washington or the land companies which cherry-picked the best land by sending out their own surveyors to mark it off before anyone else, Jefferson insisted that the government’s land should first be laid out by government surveyors in great squares, called townships, that could be divided down to small rectangular parcels that anyone might buy.
Jefferson’s affection for decimals-he had already invented the decimal dollar-led him to propose that the survey’s squares be measured in decimal units, but his fellow-legislators preferred old-fashioned acres and square miles. Consequently, the 1785 Land Ordinance, which authorised the great survey, specified six miles by six miles as the dimensions of the square townships, and these were to be divided into 36 one-square-mile sections. That legislation led to Hutchins crossing the Ohio to carve out the first portion of federal property from the wilderness.
It was not by chance that all this American real estate came to be measured out in 22-yard cricket pitches. Pre-metric readers may recall that one square mile contains 640 acres, a number that can be divided into quarters and eighths and sixteenths and still leave a whole number, 40 to be exact, a great convenience when measuring out land on the frontier. This arithmetical quirk ensured that 40 acres eventually became the basic unit on which Jefferson’s great landed democracy was built. To a surveyor, a 40-acre square is simply 20 chains, or 20 cricket pitches, by 20.
In rural America, the “forty” was what made the idea of the land of opportunity real. Owning a forty was the bottom rung on the property ladder. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s Oklahoma farmers were forced off their forties; railroads sold land by the 40-acre lot; after the civil war, freed slaves were reckoned to be self-sufficient with “40 acres and a mule.” It could be bought on credit. If the survey had not yet arrived, a squatter could stride it out on the open prairie and mark out his forty, registering it later.
By the end of the 19th century, most of the continent had been squared off into townships, sections, half-sections and and quarter-sections, down to a quarter-quarter section, or 40 acres. Each parcel of land was registered available for purchase at a federal land office. The minimum price of $2 an acre dropped to $1.25 with a quarter down-payment and the rest on credit. In 1862, Lincoln introduced the Homesteaders’ Act which allowed anyone to occupy 160 acres and to acquire it for free so long as he or she built a cabin and worked the soil for five years. Parcels of land were given free to army veterans, and to institutions like universities, schools and railroad companies. The wilderness was made property.
In an era when land was the primary source of wealth and the key indicator of social class, this distribution of land had consequences which immediately struck European visitors. In 1813, the traveller and radical John Melish, commented: “Every industrious citizen of the United States has the power to become a freeholder… and the land being purely his own, there is no setting limits to his prosperity. No proud tyrant can lord it over him.” Writing 20 years later, but from a conservative viewpoint, Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony, feared for civilised behaviour when anyone could acquire land. “Any man’s son may become the equal of any other man’s son and the consciousness of this is a spur to exertion,” she observed in The Domestic Manners of the Americans. “On the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined.”
It is easy to mock Mrs Trollope, but the only model that history had so far provided for land holding was vertical, where the highest classes occupied most, the lowest held least, and every social gradation from aristocrat to peasant was largely determined by acreage. Now, for the first time, a society was being created, peacefully and legally, around a horizontal model of land distribution-anyone could own it, and anything might happen. What did happen was the emergence of American, as opposed to post-colonial, society. In the US Congress, observers noted the aggressively egalitarian outlook of representatives from west of the Appalachians, typified by the down-home manner of the Tennessee-raised president, Andrew Jackson. The frontier spirit, previously considered close to savagery, began to be extolled for its self-reliant enterprise by writers like James Fenimore Cooper, and in time came to be taken as the essence of Americanness. In a famous 1893 essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that “In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanised, liberated, and fused into a mixed race.”
The losers were the American Indians. Almost every Indian war fought by the US government from the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 had its origins in the need to prise ownership of land from the original occupants. The savagery with which the federal troops drove Indians out reflected the greed of the settlers.
“It would be difficult to describe the avidity with which the American rushes forward to secure this immense booty,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. It stemmed, he thought, from “a restless spirit, immoderate desire for wealth, and an extreme love of independence.” The sixth president, John Quincy Adams, compared it to “the thirst of the tiger for blood.”
Yet, as Jefferson had anticipated, the survey also gave even the furthest-flung pioneers an interest in a law-based society because once their square parcel in the wilderness had been entered on a surveyor’s map and registered in the land office, the whole panoply of the law guaranteed their rights to it. And because they received their property from the US government, they had a stake not just in their immediate society but in America, a sense of identification that struck Morris Birkbeck when he settled in Illinois in the 1820s. “Here, every citizen, whether by birthright or adoption, is part of the government,” he wrote.
Next to the founding documents, most Americans would argue that the spirit that emerged among these settlers is the most important single ingredient that makes them different. Enterprise, self-reliance, optimism, these were the qualities that the frontier fostered, and that eventually came to infuse the nation. Turner’s thesis, followed by Hollywood and other myth-makers, selected the pioneers’ encounter with the wilderness as the critical experience. There is, however, every reason to prefer the more prosaic explanation of the early European visitors, that the spirit of independent individualism sprang from the possession of clearly defined, legally recognised, land.
The most convincing evidence comes from an intriguing anomaly in Turner’s thesis. He and his followers thought of the frontier as moving west, but in the early part of the 19th century, convoys of canvas-covered wagons also headed south, to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. By rights the frontier spirit should also have emerged there in the deep south. Instead, a socially divided, hierarchical culture developed, markedly lacking in economic enterprise.
De Tocqueville and others blamed the south’s idleness on its slave economy, but slave states in the west like Missouri escaped the malaise. What made the southern frontier different was the nexus of fraud and corruption that prevented public land surveyors from establishing the grid that was spreading across Ohio and into the mid-west. Instead of a clear title to land that anyone could own, surveys were forged, boundary markers moved, land officials bribed, and only those with deep pockets and a lawyer could regard their title to property as secure.
The one southern slave state that escaped the pattern was Texas. The founding Texan settler, Stephen Austin, appalled by the confusion of Kentucky’s survey, measured out the settlers’ estates in rectangles. As a result, much of Texas’s public land was divided up into easily surveyed squares or oblongs that could be bought and sold without difficulty. When oil was discovered late in the 19th century, finance was available from institutions and individuals who had already done well in the land market.
Throughout the north, by contrast, property was treated like any other commodity. A frenzied land market encouraged banks to issue bonds, stocks and increasingly sophisticated credit arrangements. What Jefferson had not foreseen was that the land would become a source of capital, enabling settlers to borrow, lend, mortgage and invest in other enterprises. A generation after Hutchins first stepped into the Ohio woods, the state of Ohio possessed “33 printing-offices, 27 banks, six furnaces, five glass works, eight woollen mills, 12 cotton mills, three paper mills, three nail factories, three colleges… nine academies, eight public libraries, an almost infinite number of stores, grist merchants and sawmills.” Rural capitalism merged seamlessly into the industrial age in the 1850s with the expansion of the railroad system across the country, financed by federal government’s lavish grants of public survey squares-three deep on either side of the track-which the rail companies then sold on to settlers.
Thus, whether they willed it or not, Jefferson’s yeoman farmers became part of the capitalist world. The theme has a modern echo in the theories of the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto. In his book, The Mystery of Capital, he argues that the most important step towards rescuing the third world from poverty would be the creation of a property framework giving the occupants of shanty towns title to the land they live on. By his estimate, the total value of that land is $9.3 trillion, but “because they do not have access to a comprehensive system of property law, they cannot use it to produce additional wealth.”
Ownership of land consists of a bundle of rights, to occupation, access and exploitation, amongst others, and no one owns them all. Planning laws may limit the height of buildings, and commercial activities may be banned in a residential area. In Europe, especially, it is accepted that the state or society should have an over-arching power to limit individual property rights in the interests of the whole community.
In the US, on the other hand, the common law and a wide interpretation of the Fifth Amendment-“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”-makes the individual a monarch of his or her property. The state is severely restricted in imposing environmental or planning regulations, and it is almost unthinkable for a jury to find an owner guilty of murder for killing an unwelcome stranger on his or her property. In 1993, when federal agencies attacked David Koresh’s compound at Waco, Texas, the outside world was astonished to learn that his Branch Davidians had been able to stockpile weapons unchallenged. What worried Americans was whether any provocation justified the government’s invasion of private property.
Looking back on the 217 years of the public land survey, it is impossible not to applaud its consequences. Despite the destruction inflicted on the original occupants, the individualism, enterprise and respect for law that owning land stimulated was essential to the creation of today’s gigantic capitalist democracy, and those of us living in the west are all to some extent its beneficiaries. Today, most of the land has been distributed, and it is 150 years since industry became the main source of wealth creation. In this sense, the survey’s influence has become history.
Yet concepts grounded in landed property continue to have unpredictable consequences. Thus the US assumption that ownership ought to be absolute and undivided rather than limited and shared has taken on a new, wider significance now that industry’s potential for creating wealth has been superseded by the income that can be raised from intellectual property rights. Much as the public survey presumed that the wilderness could become the property of individual pioneers, the US Patent Office assumes that ownership of knowledge, even in something universal like the genetic structure of humans, animals and plants, can belong wholly to an individual corporation. And just as the the settlers’ land claims were backed by the US cavalry, so the intellectual property claims are enforced by the World Trade Organisation.
With growing vehemence, doubts have begun to be expressed about the legitimacy of such proceedings. Something essential to life itself cannot, surely, be owned by one person? Which was the very question the American Indians asked about land.