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Book Argues America Is Defined by Its Limits


Americans often like to think of ourselves as creatures of the frontier. It's something of America's wide, open, untamed spaces got into our character. Perhaps so. But British writer Andro Linklater reminds us that the laying down of borders across that frontier, a process that was often fraught with contention over some of the most intense issues of history, including property, slavery and liberty, has really defined what it is to be American.

His latest book is the "The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity." Andro Linklater joins us now from the studios of the BBC's Radio Kent in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Linklater, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ANDRO LINKLATER (Author, "The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity"): Well, thank you for having me on your program.

SIMON: And let me get you first to talk about the technology because it occurred to me, as I opened the book. We live in a time when you can literally key in an address in Greenland and you'll get a satellite map of the world that will take you there. But how were maps and boundaries drawn before we had advantage of that technology?

Mr. LINKLATER: Well, I'm glad you asked me because the interesting thing is that the map of the United States could not have been drawn before the 18th century because the technology simply wasn't there. Actually, the very first line that shows this technology work is the Mason-Dixon Line, which was run from about 1763 to 1765.

That line depended upon a very powerful telescope, which had just been invented called the zenith sector, which was about six-foot long. It was so tall you had to lie prone on the ground, staring upwards.

SIMON: Your book makes the point that one of the ways in which boundaries are intrinsic to the character of Americans really is that you had this remarkable thing in the history of the modern world, which is almost an entire continent that was opened to settlement and exploration and it craved lines because to have value, backlands had to be transformed into property.

Mr. LINKLATER: This is not an exclusively American experience. Really, the great revolution of the 19th century is the grabbing of pastoral land, really around the world, and its transformation into property. And that happens in Canada and it happens in South Africa and Australia.

But what makes the American frontier experience specifically different and makes those frontier settlers American is that they are operating within an area where the laws guarantee their individual liberty and the laws guarantee that the property cannot be removed from them without due process of law.

And so from the start, those settlers measured out spreads and register it with the nearest either territorial land office or federal land office. It's so important not just to have the land but to convert it into property.

SIMON: Every few years, somebody gets the clever idea to do a map of the states as they think they should be. You've probably seen these maps. There are a number of people that point out that our present state boundaries don't seem to make a lot of sense. It intrigued me, therefore, to read Woodrow Wilson's similar complaint in your book where he says the boundaries of our country have been drawn by surveyors not statesmen. They don't make any economic sense. So this is a pretty old argument.

Mr. LINKLATER: Oh, yes. I mean, the man who is very largely responsible for drawing the boundaries of nearly most of the Midwestern states and really as far the as the Pacific Coast, was Abraham Lincoln's opponents in the all night debates - Stephen Douglas. And he is a hugely important figure because it is he who really so slices and dices this huge open expanse to create the states. The battle really in the years before the Civil War is being fought not between North and South but out in the West, about whether these new territories and these new states will become slave or free.

SIMON: We're living at a time - and certainly you've written about this as well - when there are a number of Americans who say they're certainly concerned with what they see is an increasing number of immigrants who come to the United States and can't speak English and don't function in English. And you have a sobering statistic about the 1890 Census.

Mr. LINKLATER: Yes. An equivalent of eight million Americans were in - shown by the 1890 Census - have been shown to be born aboard. They had come in. And that was - it was close to 20 percent of the population. And what really alarmed people was that this is the moment - it was a decade before that - that there was really large-scale immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. There were Italians. There were Jews, Pols, Russians. There were specifically people who couldn't speak English.

SIMON: Let me get you to bring us here in the 21st century, because you write very movingly of the scene down at San Isidro, the U.S.-Mexican border there. And you have great hope, in a sense, that what I'll refer to as the border rather than frontier mentality has a quality of making the country whole as some point.

Mr. LINKLATER: If you follow the history of the frontier that's - the real frontier, the boundary around the United States - you see that is it always being crossed by immigrants. That the immigrants really have never been welcomed. They've always aroused resentment.

The history of the frontier really points to these immigrants - legal and illegal - as the being the parents of the new Americans. And of course, it will change the nature of the United States just as the Jews and Russians and the Italians did, and just as before them the Irish and before them the Germans did. It is a country which is constantly evolving and that is really its great glory.

SIMON: Andro Linklater joining us from the studios of BBC in Kent in the United Kingdom. His new book, "The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity."

Mr. Linklater, it's so nice to talk to you.

Mr. LINKLATER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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