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Liberty's Grid : A Founding Father, a Mathematical Dreamland, and the Shaping of America - Amir Alexander

Liberty's Grid

A Founding Father, a Mathematical Dreamland, and the Shaping of America

By: Amir Alexander

Hardcover | 7 June 2024 | Edition Number 1

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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.

Industry Reviews
"A deeply informed and illuminating look at something so familiar as to be almost invisible, and a wonderful cautionary tale of the havoc that a brilliant man like Jefferson can wreak out of misplaced idealism and a 'habit of thinking in broad abstractions rather than getting bogged down in practical details.'" * Wall Street Journal *
"Alexander?s entertaining survey of this long-forgotten but once heated debate probes at the weird ways science and politics intersect. Readers will be utterly engrossed." * Publisher's Weekly *
"Liberty's Grid draws a startling connection between the American love of rectilinear layout and philosophical ideas about America itself-the landscape as the graph paper our national identity is scribbled on. You'll never look at Manhattan the same way again." -- Jordan Ellenberg, author of Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else
"Alexander's important new book illuminates the geometrical premises and ideological implications of westward expansion and urban development, offering fresh perspectives on the conflicting and controversial ways Americans imagined their future and transformed the continent. Liberty's Grid will provoke and inform ongoing debates about the pathways we are following-and the history we are inscribing-on our national landscape." -- Peter S. Onuf, author of Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood
"Anyone interested in the history or the geography of the United States will welcome Alexander's novel perspective on the westward expansion of the US. Alexander's emphasis on the geometry of the development of the landscape makes this compulsively readable book a necessary contribution to the literature of Indigenous resistance." -- Michael Harris, author of Mathematics without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation
"This book opens an entirely unexpected window on the cultural history of mathematics and the role of mathematics in American history and culture. A highly rewarding read for mathematicians, historians and philosophers of mathematics, cultural historians, Americanists, and those who are interested in these subjects." -- Arkady Plotnitsky, author of Logos and Alogon: Thinkable and the Unthinkable in Mathematics, from the Pythagoreans to the Moderns
"In this beautifully written book, Alexander takes on a seemingly obvious feature of American life: the open-ended, uniform grid that organizes much of the national space from Manhattan to the Western plains. But why did America became rectilinear? Alexander shows how, far from being a simple solution to practical problems, the Great American Grid embodies a distinct vision of the land and its people. In eighteenth-century America, the analytic logic of the grid became the logic of an empty, undifferentiated space ready to be colonized and exploited-a boundless space of unlimited possibilities. But other ways of perceiving and organizing space were and are possible. Alexander recounts the fascinating story of the grid-and of those who opposed it-as an ongoing story of geometrical forms and political possibilities." -- Massimo Mazzotti, author of Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity

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