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review 2018-04-07 14:53
The history of surveying America
Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy - Andro Linklater

This is a book for anyone who wondered about the lines on the maps of the United States. In it Andro Linklater, a British writer and journalist, provides a history of the surveying of America. This is necessarily a two-part task, as not only does he describe the development and importance of surveying in shaping America, but it also requires him to explain the simultaneous development of uniform measurement in the Western world. For while people were familiar with units of measurement, those units themselves were not standardized, as lengths, along with weights and volume differed from place to place during the colonial period.

 

Yet the colonists already had access to the first standard measurement, the 22-foot-long chain introduced by the 17th century mathematician Edmund Gunter.  His chain was the first element of precision that made the surveying – and through that, the selling – of the vast American territories England claimed in North America.  Linklater describes this tandem development well, conveying both the importance of surveying and measurement in shaping the history of the country, as well as the numerous frustrations involved in getting it right.  What began as an often haphazard assessment gradually became a more professional, systematic approach by the mid-19th century, creating the checkerboard pattern and straight lines visible from the skies overhead today.

 

Linklater’s book is a readable history of a mundane yet critical aspect of American history.  With a scope spanning from Tudor England to a land office in modern-day Sacramento he conveys something of the long process of development that brought us to where we are now.  Yet his examination of surveying rests in a bed of outdated interpretations about American history.  These are minor and do little to effect the author’s argument, yet they are a weakness that diminishes from the overall value of the book.  All of this makes Linklater’s book a useful look at a long overlooked element shaping American history, yet one that is strongest when focusing on its main subject and not when discussing American history more broadly.

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review 2015-08-14 08:07
Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die
Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister - Andro Linklater

In 1812, during a crucial period before war might be declared between Great Britain and the United States over British harassment of Atlantic trade, the British prime minister was shot in the House of Commons. The assassin was a gentleman, a merchant from Liverpool, who never tried to resist arrest. 

 

A lone nut, driven by a personal grievance, killed the man who was both Chancellor of the Exchequer and the First Lord of the Treasury at a time when the king was mad and the prince regent weak; a man whose quest to choke out the slave trade had plunged Britain into depression and driven it to the very brink of war. 

 

Linklater's style is as dramatic as my own here, and his implication the same. There is some evidence that John Bellingham was financed, if not motivated, by an interested party. The story that unfolds paints a psychological portrait of the killer and the victim, as well as illuminating the political pressures and contentions of the time - a time when British economy was expanding rapidly after the Napoleonic wars had opened up the international waters and Britain possessed possibly the greatest navy in the world - an expansion fueled by slavery, slave-trading, and slavery-produced cheap goods. It was a testament to Spencer Perceval's entrenched political power that he managed to keep up his fight to stamp down on slavery for as long as he did. His followers did not. 

 

Linklater's style is engaging and entertaining, though it's a matter of taste whether one likes conspiracy theories and personal histories or a drier, more academic work. I'm not saying his research is faulty - I'm sure it's not. I was just a little but put off by the sensationalist handling of the subject. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was very informative on a number of points I hadn't considered before.

 

 

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