The Measurement That Built America

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Most visitors blamed the South’s idleness on its slave economy, but that wasn’t the only thing that made the Southern frontier different. Throughout the region a nexus of fraud and corruption and the complications of earlier land grants made by French and Spanish governments prevented U.S. public land surveyors from establishing the kind of grid that was spreading into the Midwest. Surveys were forged, boundary markers moved, land officials bribed, and only those with deep pockets and smart lawyers could regard their titles to property as secure. In 1816 one local expert reckoned that “the titles in Kentucky will be Disputed for a Century to Come yet, when it’s an old Settled Country.” That lack of security kept the South from developing the sort of vigorous land market that flourished in the North, where financial institutions in New York and Boston created loans, bonds, and credit arrangements of ever-increasing sophistication to finance deals. And the Southern economy languished for much of the nineteenth century.

Significantly, one Southern state did escape the pattern. Stephen Austin, who brought hundreds of American families to Texas while it was still under Mexican rule, was so disgusted by the confusion of Kentucky’s survey that he measured out the Americans’ property accurately and in rectangles. As a result, much of Texas’s public land came to be divided into plain, easily surveyed squares or oblongs that could be bought and sold without difficulty. When oil was discovered in Texas, late in the nineteenth century, real estate financing was available from institutions and individuals that had already done well in the land market.

The losers in all this were the American Indians. Almost every Indian war fought by the U.S. government from the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 had its origins in the urge to pry ownership of land from its original occupants, and almost every Indian defeat was followed by a treaty in which they ceded territory to the U.S. government. Immediately afterward the surveyors would arrive with their chains and compasses, and in their wake would come 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 . “Before him lies an immense continent and he urges onward as if time pressed and he was afraid of finding no room for his exertions.”

WHAT JEFFERSON NEVER FORESAW WAS THAT THE SQUARED-OFF LAND WOULD BECOME A SOURCE OF CAPITAL, ENABLING SETTLERS TO BORROW, LEND, INVEST.

Yet, as Jefferson anticipated, the survey also gave even the farthest-flung pioneers an interest in a law-based society, for once their square parcels had been registered at the land office, the whole panoply of the law guaranteed their rights to them. And because they received their property from the U.S. government, they had a stake not just in their immediate society but in America itself, a sense of identification that immediately struck the English émigré Morris Birkbeck when he settled in Illinois in the 182Os. “Here, every citizen, whether by birthright or adoption is part of the government,” he wrote, “identified with it, not virtually but in fact.”

What Jefferson never foresaw was that the squared-off land would become a source of capital, enabling settlers to borrow, lend, and invest in other enterprises. A generation after Hutchins started measuring out its wilderness, the state of Ohio possessed “33 printing-offices, 27 banks, 12 cotton mills, 8 paper mills, 3 nail factories, an almost infinite number of stores, grist merchants and sawmills.” This rural capitalism grew to fit in seamlessly with the industrial age in the 1850s and with the expansion of the railroad system across the country, financed by the federal government’s lavish grants of public-survey squares that the railroad companies could then sell to settlers. Thus Jefferson’s yeoman farmers inexorably became part of the capitalist world that went with the democratic distribution of land.

Equally inexorably, so too did the measurements used in the survey. Having decimalized the dollar, Jefferson enthusiastically proposed decimalizing American weights and measures. As a painless way of introducing the change, he argued that the survey’s squares be measured in decimal units (a township would have measured 10 by 10 new decimal miles, each mile being about 6,086 old feet long, and subdivided into tenths, one-hundredths, and one-thousandths). It comes as something of a surprise to discover that George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison all supported Jefferson’s scheme for decimalizing.

But the measures that were eventually chosen for use in the survey, and that thus came to be adopted by every settler in the new Western lands, were archaic Saxon units based on the number 4. The length of the standard surveyor’s chain is usually described as 22 yards, but more important it was also 4 rods, each 16’/2 feet long. In sixth-century Anglo-Saxon England, the cultivation of an area measuring 4 square rods was reckoned as a day’s work; 40 days’ work made an acre, and 640 acres made a square mile. This ancient system was perfectly suited to the U.S. public-land survey because when it came to measuring out squares, a system based on 4 made life very simple.