The Fabric of America by Andro Linklater

Frank Wilson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Linklater offers 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.

The Fabric of America

Publisher: Walker & Company
Subtitle: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity
Author: Andro Linklater
Price: $25.95
Length: 304
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0802715338
US publication date: 2007-05

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.






"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.


Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.


Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.


"I'll See You Later": Repetition and Time in Almodóvar's 'All About My Mother'

There are mythical moments in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. We are meant to register repetition in the story as something wonderfully strange, a connection across the chasm of impossibility.


Electropop's CMON Feel the Noise on 'Confusing Mix of Nations'

Pop duo CMON mix and match contemporary and retro influences to craft the dark dance-pop on Confusing Mix of Nations.


'Harmony' Is About As Bill Frisell As a Bill Frisell Recording Can Be

Bill Frisell's debut on Blue Note Records is a gentle recording featuring a few oddball gems, particularly when he digs into the standard repertoire with Petra Haden's voice out front.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.


Raye Zaragoza's "Fight Like a Girl" Shatters the Idea of What Women Can and Can't Do (premiere)

Singer-songwriter and activist Raye Zaragoza's new single, "Fight Like a Girl", is an empowering anthem for intersectional feminism, encouraging resilience amongst all women.


VickiKristinaBarcelona Celebrate Tom Waits on "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (premiere)

VickiKristinaBarcelona celebrate the singular world of Tom Waits their upcoming debut, Pawn Shop Radio. Hear "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" ahead of tomorrow's single release.


'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.