Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Pg. 99: Amir Alexander's "Liberty's Grid"

Featured at the Page 99 Test: Liberty's Grid: A Founding Father, a Mathematical Dreamland, and the Shaping of America by Amir Alexander.

About the book, from the publisher:
The surprising history behind a ubiquitous facet of the United States: the gridded landscape.

Seen from an airplane, much of the United States appears to be a gridded land of startling uniformity. Perpendicular streets and rectangular fields, all precisely measured and perfectly aligned, turn both urban and rural America into a checkerboard landscape that stretches from horizon to horizon. In evidence throughout the country, but especially the West, the pattern is a hallmark of American life. One might consider it an administrative convenience—an easy way to divide land and lay down streets—but it is not. The colossal grid carved into the North American continent, argues historian and writer Amir Alexander, is a plan redolent with philosophical and political meaning.

In 1784 Thomas Jefferson presented Congress with an audacious scheme to reshape the territory of the young United States. All western lands, he proposed, would be inscribed with a single rectilinear grid, transforming the natural landscape into a mathematical one. Following Isaac Newton and John Locke, he viewed mathematical space as a blank slate on which anything is possible and where new Americans, acting freely, could find liberty. And if the real America, with its diverse landscapes and rich human history, did not match his vision, then it must be made to match it.

From the halls of Congress to the open prairies, and from the fight against George III to the Trail of Tears, Liberty’s Grid tells the story of the battle between grid makers and their opponents. When Congress endorsed Jefferson’s plan, it set off a struggle over American space that has not subsided. Transcendentalists, urban reformers, and conservationists saw the grid not as a place of possibility but as an artificial imposition that crushed the human spirit. Today, the ideas Jefferson associated with the grid still echo through political rhetoric about the country’s founding, and competing visions for the nation are visible from Manhattan avenues and Kansan pastures to Yosemite’s cliffs and suburbia’s cul-de-sacs. An engrossing read, Liberty’s Grid offers a powerful look at the ideological conflict written on the landscape.
Learn more about Liberty's Grid at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Liberty's Grid.

--Marshal Zeringue