Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reviewed: Linklater, The Fabric of America, on statebuilding through real estate

The Fabric of America (Walker) by Andro Linklater is reviewed by Benjamin Lytal in the New York Sun. He finds it a history of the United States through the prism of real estate. Lytal writes:
From the beginning, asserts Mr. Linklater,...territory was a source of revenue for the budding American government. After the Revolutionary War, the sale of frontier land served to soak up currency and stave off war debts. At that time, few states knew where exactly they ended, and the stakes for contested lands were high....
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 most exciting episode in this book concerns a plot to break Kentucky and Tennessee off from the union, in collusion with the Spanish government at Natchez. Only the good offices of Andrew Ellicott, Mr. Linklater's favorite surveyor and perennial hero, prevented the conspiracy, by proving in 1797 that Natchez actually lay within American territory, in modern day Mississippi — as opposed to Spanish Florida. After Ellicott promised the local white landowners that their property — including slaves — would be preserved, the assumption of American jurisdiction was assured.

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....

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.

For the rest, click here.