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 Of Borders, Boundaries, and Jefferson's Sense for Names That Stick  

Submitted by Richard A. Bachmann on Sat, 11/27/2010 - 03:09

I experienced some very busy weeks lately and I´m definitely lacking sleep. Apart from getting all the stuff for the Capstone program organized I worked several odd jobs to get some additional money for my Ohio adventures to come. Since we are heading for Athens on December 25 we were not able to enroll in any Uni Leipzig courses this semester. Thus, I had plenty of time to do everything apart from studying. However, everybody who knows me personally can confirm that it´s just impossible for me to keep my nose out of books. Therefore, I went through a bunch of Paul Auster ones (not all of them great), read the latest by Jon Krakauer (which according to my taste is a little bit too melodramatic), and finally started with a book that I bought during my recent trip to Los Angeles at the wonderful Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI).

The book is called The Fabric of America, written by Andro Linklater. It´s kind of an biography of America’s greatest land surveyor Andrew Ellicott and the young republic´s expansion to the West. Additionally, Linklater has put a focus on the importance of borders and boundaries and their impact on our everyday lives. In challenging Frederick Jackson Turner´s famous Frontier Thesis, he thereby points out that only the creation of set borders and boundaries is responsible for the distinctness and spreading of the characteristic American mindset. Through borders and boundaries a common jurisdiction is established that shapes and preserves a community and its values. Linklater therefore denies Turner´s claim that the absence of governmental intrusion on the frontier led to the development of American exceptionalism. Instead Linklater sees the federal government´s effort to exactly define the frontier´s borders as well as to fix those of each state at the core of it. Since borders on a map finally become the boundaries of one´s identity and sense of community, this had a far more greater impact on Americans living within the surveyed territory than any Wild West experience could have.

You may ask yourself why I bring this up here and wonder how it is connected to the headline?! There is one chapter in the book that deals with Thomas Jefferson´s proposal of 1784 for the division of the Northwest Territory. Mr. Jefferson thereby came up with a bunch of very odd sounding names for the states to be established. Among them were such glorious ones as Sylvania, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, or Pelipsia. As Paul Auster dwells on in Moon Palace, names matter a lot. Thus, Congress just had to deny Jefferson´s proposal (luckily for the US and the Metropotamians to come!). However, if Mr. Jefferson would have succeeded the territory that constitutes the state of Ohio would be called Washington today and Ohio University surely would have been founded as Washington University in 1804. I´m wondering whether this would have affected the state´s development and the lives of its citizens. Maybe Ohioans today would be even prouder of their home state and more confident in themselves if it would carry the name of one of the major figures of American history?

Anyway! If you are further interested in Jefferson´s absurd proposal or other such gems of cartography I can only highly recommend Frank Jacob´s wonderful blog Strange Maps. This blog is really worth exploring! Especially if you have just returned from a ten hour night shift waiting tables and are too tired to fall asleep.

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