June 15, 2007


The Land Was Ours Before We Were the Land's (BENJAMIN LYTAL, June 15, 2007, NY Sun)

A history of America concerning its land, gained in war and diplomacy, would not in itself be a remarkable thing. Andro Linklater has written a history of America that looks at land from a slightly different angle — that of real estate. [...]

A brisk trade in real estate brought revenue to the states and, with the first general U.S. territories, to the federal government, but it meant something more than money to the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson, famously a champion of small farmers, specifically cherished the Saxon idea of alodial law. Alodial law maintains that the man who works a piece of land holds it outright. Jefferson believed this idea had been subverted by the Norman system of monarchical ownership. And Mr. Linklater finds ample evidence of squatter's rights in American history. A frontiersman made his claim, and eagerly awaited the arrival of organized American jurisdiction.

Indeed, Mr. Linklater's history is one of increasing federal power. A territory had to meet federal standards before it could be admitted as a state, and so the interior became more loyal to federal power than the original 13 colonies. [...]

The delicacy of law — in the form of a treaty or a deed — is Mr. Linklater's real subject here, though the book goes out of its way to make a larger, and more grandiose claim, about the importance of boundaries at all turning points in our history. Mr. Linklater moves jerkily between the travails of Andrew Ellicott and the more interesting theoretical work defining private property, as pursued by Jefferson or Lincoln.

What emerges, throughout, is the importance of an executive authority that can guarantee ownership. "What made the settlement of the West such an iconic experience was precisely that it took place under the umbrella of the American government," Mr. Linklater writes. That umbrella is unique, Mr. Linklater argues, noting that it was also the American government that became the global register of Internet addresses, as they were claimed, in a rush, in the last decade.

Interesting that his previous book, Measuring America, too ends up being about American uniqueness, there in the form of our resistance to the metric system. Interesting too that these uniqueness likely flow from the same source, the democratic nature of the culture. This not only gives executive authority a particular legitimacy but denies same to external authorities with all the more force than in cultures inured to yield to dicey authority anyway.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2007 3:05 PM

That's just nativist of you, OJ

Posted by: Pangur Ban at June 15, 2007 9:05 PM

Tales of the people of the wagon train. Think about it whan you mow your grass.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 15, 2007 10:01 PM

Your Jewish neighbor doesn't fill his gas tank by the liter either. The culture is universalist.

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2007 10:21 PM

The North-West Ordinance set the pattern. A brilliant piece of comprehensive legislation.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2007 8:43 AM