Place, Space, and the American Mind: From the Thesis
When Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris as the newest delegate from the United States, he moved through the city with confidence that belied the youth of his nation. Jefferson relocated to France with his eldest daughter Martha--whom they all called Patsy--in July 1785 bearing, primarily, the responsibility to broker trade deals with his hosts and other European nations. In two brief years since the Treaty of Paris was signed and the Revolutionary War came to a close, the United States had quickly emerged as a state with whom the world must reckon. Militarily the U.S. eked out a victory on home turf, much thanks due their French allies, but the late eighteenth century was an era when naval power defined true might. Everyone knew the U.S. fleet was a shadow of their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Jefferson’s plomb drew from a new source, one that had already risen as the defining feature on the geopolitical scene: economic power. It was no secret that the New World was a treasure chest of sorely lacking commodities in Europe, and the American ability to exploit its ecological gifts was burgeoning. But this was not the primary mode of profit on the middling diplomat’s mind.
Two months before arriving in Paris, Jefferson was present as the Congressional Congress’s ratified the Land Ordinance of 1785. It was an adaptation of a plan he put forward as representative for Virginia the previous year. As the chief architect behind its elegantly simple, seemingly destined, though ultimately diabolical strategy, Jefferson knew the United States was about to be a very wealthy nation.
The land claimed by the thirteen colonies more than doubled after the Revolution. To the Founding Fathers, this presented an enormous opportunity dilemma: millions of acres of ‘unsettled’ territory. Sprawling to their west all the way to the Mississippi River (the other side was claimed by Spain) the settlers saw vacant, open wilderness. For Jefferson it was the perfect moment to begin enacting his vision for a nation of yeoman farmers. He and others “devised a plan whereby all the vacant unclaimed land in the young republic could be divided into an almost infinite number of squares, each of them a square mile, or 640 acres--more than enough to satisfy the average would-be settler” (Jennings, 225, quoting Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time). Each plot would then be sold off by the government as pure profit. The Public Land Survey System, as it was called, was used to reduce the complexities of thousands of bioregions and Native civilizations to abstract geometry available for purchase. Its methodology was extended with zeal under Jefferson’s presidency as massive new quantities of land entered U.S. control through the Louisiana purchase, and it continued to shape the parceling of nature into property until Manifest Destiny reached its westward terminus. “In this US system, unique among colonial powers, land became the most important exchange commodity for the accumulation of capital and building of the national treasury” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 124). Anyone looking out a plane window today can still see Jefferson’s vision stamped over ancient, disjunctive soil in the patchwork grid of fields and roads so familiar on the middle-American landscape.
Implications abound from the Land Ordinance of 1785, but for now we must simply note that our third president had no concept of America as place. He followed a storied tradition of treating land outside white-European control like space. Colonists saw the New World as a vacuum Domicilium, open and available to their ‘civilizing’ inhabitation. Just before departing with merchants of the Massachusetts Bay Company, Puritan minister John Cotton preached on the settler’s logic: “In a vacant soyle hee that taketh possession of it, and bestoweth culture and husbandry upon it, his Right it is.” The tragic irony is, of course, that many peoples did possess the soil, participated in a rich cultural world, and practiced a complex system of husbandry that, while opaque to most settlers, had cultivated the unprecedented ecological abundance on display for the earliest explorers.
“Since the particular had no place in the hierarchy of values developed in the post-Enlightenment world, studies of place were often relegated to ‘mere description’ while space was given the role of developing scientific law-like generalizations. In order to make this work people had to be removed from the scene. Space was not embodied but empty” (Cresswell, 34). This philosophical turn to space was excellent at opening the possibility for totalizing projects like Thomas Jefferson’s. Empty space--quite opposite populated, storied place--can make no demands on you. As an ethical void, it can make no claims of truth, value, or morality and is thus free to be filled by whatever the newcomer brings. When space was married to (and eventually subsumed under) a unidirectionally posited theory of time, they collaborated in the minds of Euro-Americans to offer an abstract setting for “progress.” Spacetime became a ravenous, unexamined lie buried in the mind of the colonizer. With its categories the coordinates were charted toward fresh vistas of Manifest Destiny, racial and class segregation, ecological destruction, and globalization.
Decolonizing ourselves to inhabit the co-creative rhythms of human vocation requires us to once again look upon the land as shared place.