A review of “Measuring America” by Andro Linklater.

Being asked to review a book is an honor, but it also carries a certain responsibility to present the information about the book in a fair manner. My recent task was to review the book “Measuring America, How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy” by Andro Linklater. In my opinion, this book is many different books all wrapped together under a general theme of measurement, and a “story” of this nature has been long overdue. “Measuring America” is a book that, most likely, will be viewed quite differently depending on the educational background of the reader. It is definitely a good read for the general public, an audience that in general knows little about the land system or development of the Western Lands, the area directly west of the original colonies running to the Mississippi River (what I like to call the heartland of America). Many U.S. citizens have ancestors who migrated to this area for the promise of land, and a new and better life.

Several chapters are quite helpful in educating the reader in the early use of measurement. Chapter 2, Precise Confusion, details early measurement systems and the standardization of the Gunter’s chain measurement used in the United States. Chapter 3, Who Owned America?, is a wonderful look at the United States before the Revolutionary War. In this chapter, there is a great story about the hardships early surveyors endured while surveying in the Great Dismal Swamp between Virginia and the Carolinas. Chapter 3 alone makes the book worth buying because of the insight into our survey heritage.

British, French and Spanish holdings in America, 1755.

Maintaining Perspective

Author Linklater spends a great deal of time in the first part of the book outlining his idea of the history of the English measurement system and others. For the most part what he says is true, and although a lot of his ideas are pulled directly from other sources that may be correct, I don’t think history shows that this development is as black and white as he presents it. In some cases, it just isn’t known for sure how some of the measurement standards developed; many theories presented in books of that period are in direct conflict with each other. Linklater also paints a picture of the Colonial period from the motherland view of the future United States. Again, most of what he says is true but it is only a small part of the very complex picture of early America. “Measuring America” appears to me to be written with a certain built-in bias against the United States.

Another theme that Linklater spends considerable time presenting is the treatment of the native population. While I do agree that many of the ways the government treated the native people is not a subject Americans should be proud of, it is common throughout the development of the world that those who conquer end up with the resources and land they’ve fought over.

As I delved deeper into the book I found Linklater on a mission of sorts against land speculation and early leaders including Rufus Putnam, a Massachusetts surveyor. While he was involved in this business, so were many early leaders of that era. To the contrary, Linklater seems to hold Thomas Jefferson on an unrealistic pedestal as The Great American Hero, while painting Putnam as some kind of monster. The real truth, in my opinion, lies somewhere in between. Remember that Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder, which allowed him to mass his financial empire, while Putnam worked to get land sold for a fledging country that desperately needed the funds to pay war debts. When one looks at the important people throughout history, one realizes they all have their shining moments and their shortcomings. This is what makes them part of the human race.

Perceived Inaccuracies

It was evident to me that “Measuring America” was not written by a surveyor or someone with great knowledge about the unique way Colonial surveying was performed in the United States. Many non-surveyor readers will assuredly love the story Linklater includes about heating up a survey chain in a fire to bring it to the correct length (Chapter 15). While this story may be neat to read, in all my years of research on survey chains I have never read about taking temperature into account when surveying with a chain. My guess is that this is a real story and that surveyors did indeed heat their chains to unfold them after being frozen, but heating of a chain for temperature correction makes no sense, as the chain would revert to the temperature of the ground as soon as it was unfolded. This is but one example of the inaccuracies in “Measuring America.”

Linklater seems to have a fascination with the metric system. He goes into great length to try to prove how foolish Colonial surveyors were to refuse to adopt Jefferson’s metric system for the Western Lands. The committee voted to continue to use the Gunter chain (English mile) system on the Western Land, which I think was the most appropriate decision based on the fact that the Colonial states had already been using the English system for more than 200 years. The result of this decision is that we had a country where the same land-based system was used from coast to coast. In my opinion, Linklater could have left out his bias about the metric system (Chapter 18). I have personally always felt that it is important to use and deliver export products in metric measurement, as it is the system in common use around the world. But why change our land system where the information is only going to be used in the United States? Most GIS systems today are in the U.S. survey foot and everything works fine. Linklater holds Great Britain as a shining example of how well the metric system works in England.

Overall, “Measuring America” is a good read. It contains much historical information that I expect most surveyors will enjoy. Chapter 16, The Limit of Enclosure, contains information about how the Government Land Surveys affected the future development in the United States, including townships and sections, and the land patterns that today cover our country from coast to coast. Any reader of “Measuring America” will come away with a better understanding of our land system.

About the Book
Measuring America
How an Untamed Wilderness
Shaped the United States
and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy
By Andro Linklater
Walker and Company, New York
Copyright © 2002 by Andro Linklater
ISBN 0-8027-1396-3
310 pages