The Fabric Of America: How Our Borders And Boundaries Shaped The Country And Forged Our National Identity, by Andro Linklater
I must admit that while there were aspects of this author’s approach that I didn’t particularly appreciate–like his assumption that the greater liberalism that came about in American culture because of the immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe was a good thing, there was a lot that I appreciated about this book. There are at least two reasons for this–one because at its center for so long is a particularly appealing protagonist, the orderly but also intense and prickly Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor of great importance to the history of the United States whose attention to accuracy and detail were of vital importance in the spread of Americans to the west and who mapped borders from Pennsylvania to Washington DC to the Mississippi River and down to Florida, and even had a role in diplomacy with native tribes as well as foreign powers (like the Spanish). The other reason I think I liked this book so much is my own deep interest in issues of lines and boundaries . This shared passionate interest makes me perhaps the ideal person to read this book. It was a page-turner for me, full of quirky characters and an interesting paradox at the heart of American ambivalence towards government.
Beginning in the colonial period, the author tries to make the point that there was a special tension with regards to the American frontier that made it quintessentially American as opposed to the frontiers of other areas, a frontier that was formed by people seeking to escape oppressive local control on the part of states or local elites but one that inevitably sought to secure title to land which involved the presence of surveyors marking boundaries and establishing some sort of legal order, a process that continued throughout the expansion of the United States to the West. The simultaneous desires for personal freedom, including freedom from burdensome taxation, and also for secure hold of property (including slaves) was responsible for a great deal of ambivalence concerning authority and the legitimacy of government, a problem that continues to this day. The author spends most of the book exploring this subject through Andrew Ellicott, a Pennsylvania-born Quaker whose family settled in the Baltimore area and whose fame as an accurate and precise curmudgeon allowed him a lengthy career of marking boundaries, participating in diplomacy with restive tribes who knew his presence meant their land was about to be taken from them, as well as a successful effort to squeeze the Spanish out of much of the American Southwest, and dealing with political elites who knew him to be faithful and committed to his work, if a bit prickly to deal with sometimes. Many of the chapters also deal with the interplay between local, state, and federal authority and the tension between liberty and order that is a quintessentially American phenomenon.
This is, ultimately, a book that celebrates American liberty while also commenting on the way that escape from authority in the United States was seldom straightforward, in that all of those who sought a new life and property in frontier areas wanted at least some government to protect them and their hold on their property. I think the author is successful in pointing out that this phenomenon has much to do with the social reality of the United States throughout its history and in dealing with tensions involving slavery, fears over immigration and the changes that result to American culture as a result of populations, and also concerns about the power of any government to threaten private property rights in order to receive tax revenues. Dealing seriously with this book and with its arguments about American ambivalence towards government is a matter of great relevance considering the contemporary concerns with tax revolts as well as hostility towards illegal immigrants, a periodic phenomenon that usually reflects America during times of great internal crisis such as we are now experiencing. The author seems strangely optimistic about our nation in light of the longstanding tensions and conflicts within our society–of course, he seems to assume that government control will increase and finds this to be a positive outcome, something many readers will likely be less sanguine about.
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