You would think that someone who had, among other things, painstakingly mapped the borders of Pennsylvania, meticulously laid out the street plan for the city of Washington, and traced the first national border of the United States would be a well-known and highly regarded figure.
But I had never heard of Andrew Ellicott before opening The Fabric of America, Andro Linklater’s splendid new book.
Linklater gives Ellicott the starring role in the first half of his book, and it’s a wise choice, not only because Ellicott’s achievements were impressive and consequential—as Linklater writes, “his lines helped define the shapes of no fewer than eleven states and the District of Columbia, as well as the southern and northern frontiers of the United States”—but also because Ellicott was an intriguing figure, and Linklater is highly skilled at character portrayal:
“At the heart of Ellicott’s character lay a contradiction, between his deep-seated desire for regularity and a tendency to emotional extravagance. A career devoted to mapping the unmapped expanse of the wilderness often seems to have been the only way that he could satisfactorily reconcile two conflicting impulses.”
But, while Ellicott plays a crucial role in Linklater’s book, The Fabric of America is not a biography. It is, rather, an account of the extent to which clearly demarcated boundaries, of both the states and the nation, contributed to the formation of the American character. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously attributed that character to the independent spirit of those who settled the frontier:
“The frontier is productive of individualism,” Turner wrote. “The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression.”
Linklater, however, demonstrates pretty conclusively that Jackson got it exactly wrong:
“What made the settlement of the West such an iconic American experience was precisely that it took place under the umbrella of the U.S. government. At every level, from the toughest gold miners ... to financially sophisticated land speculators, the first impulse of anyone working a square yard of land was to register its use and a claim of ownership—first unofficially with others in the claim group, then officially with the government. The tax-gatherer may not have been liked, but payment of taxes then as now has the compensating benefit of guaranteeing legal possession.”
From the start, the federal government administered the territories and supervised their admission to the union. True, the original states made some effort to assert their independence, notably when Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Mifflin defied President Washington over disputed territory in the northwest of the state known as the Erie Triangle. Washington had personally guaranteed the Seneca tribe that none of their land there would be transferred without the approval of the federal government.
Washington first insisted that a federal official be placed in charge of negotiations. Then, to drive his point home, he personally led 13,000 troops into Pennsylvania to quell the Whiskey Rebellion—the only time a U.S. commander in chief has taken the field, and a show of force that Mifflin could complain about but dared not challenge.
Washington’s assertion of federal power over the states’ independence set a precedent followed by Andrew Jackson and, of course, Abraham Lincoln. But the man who may have done the most in this respect was Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, two committees chaired by Jefferson drafted reports “on the way the central government’s land was to be surveyed and sold, and the steps by which its frontier communities were to become states.” Among other provisions, “they would `forever remain a part of the United States of America’ and their inhabitants and territory would be subject to `the government of the United States in Congress assembled.’” As Linklater observes, “That Jefferson, the great champion of state and county government, should have proposed these authoritarian measures is a deep irony, for nothing did more to increase the strength of the federal government as the nation exploded across the continent in the nineteenth century.”
Linklater knows how not only to narrate a complicated story, but also to explain complex matters clearly and succinctly. His book is filled with fascinating characters—such as the Seneca sachem known as Cornplanter—and even a world-class villain: Gen. James Wilkinson, the Kim Philby of his day. But what The Fabric of America demonstrates most of all is something Andrew Ellicott would likely have appreciated: how you can see something that has become thrice-familiar much more clearly if you look at it from a fresh angle.