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Upper-Class Leisure and the Shaping of the American Landscape

The introduction of Western civilization onto the American frontier is generally characterized as a dangerous and strenuous enterprise, undertaken by groups of prosecuted and disadvantaged peoples, through meager and innovative means.  This depiction aligns with the narratives of settlements like the 1620 Plymouth Colony, the 1629 Maryland Colony, the Oregon Trail of the early 1800s, the 1847 Salt Lake Valley settlement, the post-Civil War 1876 settlement of Deadwood, and countless others.  One might however argue that the accumulated mythologies of these settlements have had more to do with shaping the American ethos than that of the American landscape.  The landscape might be better attributed to the ruling class: those with resources, power, and influence to shape it, both politically and physically. 

While he served as a delegate for Virginia in the United States Congress, Thomas Jefferson participated on a committee to formulate and propose the Land Ordinance bill, passed in 1785.  The bill called for the commission of surveyors to partition lands newly acquired from the Native Americans into “townships” of six miles square, which were then separated into thirty-six “sections” of one-square mile each.  Parameters were drafted for dealing with situations when the grid came into conflict with the natural obstructions and constrictions of the landscape, such as major land formations and bodies of water.  The process of surveying and partitioning the land allowed the government to have a process for controlling which parcels of land they sold, how many they sold, who they sold it to, and what land they would hold onto for the private sector, further maintaining control through the institutional presence of government.  Every other township was designated to be sold as a whole, with the other half sold on a per-section basis, and reserving four sections out of each township for the U.S. Government, as well as one section per township to be designated for public schools. (Geib 4)

Incoming funds from the sale of the parcels of land could then be directed, amongst other places, towards the development and maintenance of schools and institutional buildings for the townships as well as the infrastructure to service and connect them.  While noble intentions for the growth of civilization are apparent in the legislation, the government takeover of the country’s system of land ownership and allocation essentially did away with the idea that a person, through struggle and perseverance, could forge out into the wilderness and stake a claim on a piece of land which they found fit for their future.  This notion was replaced by a buyer’s market, a plutocratic system beholden to greater political and economic burdens than that of the individual settler.  This legislation arguably affected a dramatic shift in the core principles of those who sought the spoils of the American landscape, and a life within it.  The Land Ordinance bill might be seen as part of a shift towards the primacy and legitimacy of financial capital, and away from a focus on the productive capacity of labor and hard work.  The most fertile and attractive of the untamed lands would not go to the person who took the effort and initiative to seek the land out and make it their own, but rather to the person with the means to acquire the service of others to take on the task on their behalf.

The application of the Cartesian blanket to the American landscape provided a fairly arbitrary but expeditious means for splitting up the land, with the grid partitioning terrains, resources, landmarks, and formations into discreet divisions.  The bill established the requirement that each acre of land be sold for a minimum of one dollar. (Geib 4) This kind of fiscal valuation and monetization of the natural environment further promoted and validated a sociopolitical environment whereby the different plots of land, once surveyed and haphazardly delineated, would be appraised relative to one another based on the land’s specific conditions and amenities and sold to the highest (or most politically connected) bidder.

The expansion and civilization of the vast territories of the United States was became a hurried process, and this allowed the country to fall into a familiar formula of civilization: these circumstances amongst others fostered a climate in which the developing plutocracy had favor in the allocation, reservation and development of the American landscape and its unique offerings.

In Drinking the Waters: Creating an American Leisure Class at Nineteenth Century Mineral Springs, Thomas A. Chambers frames the springs of Saratoga and western Virginia as sites that were in effect claimed or commandeered by the developing aristocracy as social spots for vacation and leisure.  Those who liked to think of themselves as amongst the “elite” were naturally drawn to the unique environment of the springs, and the nature of the activities that were facilitated by its rare offerings.  Tales of the mineral springs’ capacity for rejuvenation and healing spread throughout the major cities of the east coast and the springs became a desired destination, if a person possessed the lifestyle and resources that would allow for such an adventure.  Chambers discusses how the springs’ resources attracted an economy of leisure which in turn manifest an architecture that accommodated this wealthy strain of leisure.  Bathhouses and hotels arose to serve both the logistical needs as well as social desires of the springs’ visitors.

Mineral springs are just one example of the many natural treasures of the American landscape that attracted the exploitation of the upper-class aristo-plutocracy.  It was (and still is?) fashionable to attend social events on steamboats and riverboats, leisurely floating along and schmoozing and eating and showing off and socializing.  A prime example of this is the 1846 eponymously named steamboat built by the wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt, which resembles a high-class floating carnival. (See image 1, Christman 87)  The steamboat hosted luxurious parties, family gatherings, and would also partake in gentlemen’s races up the Hudson River.  Vanderbilt, through the capacities of his extreme wealth, commissioned and utilized a large moving vessel that would essentially claim whatever body of water its passed through by nature its very occupation.

The Lorenzo estate might serve as a less grand but still potent example of this condition.  John Lincklaen, as an agent of the Holland Land Company, a corporate finance entity, was responsible for establishing the town of Cazenovia.  As a controlling voice in the allocation and development of the land, Lincklaen took advantage of his authority to reserve what he viewed to be the most prime real estate to serve as his own property.  As a result the landscape of the estate through generations of inhabitation was shaped to cater to a lifestyle of pleasure and leisure.  A horse stable rivaling the mansion itself was built to house expensive steeds for the lords of the manor to take leisure rides of their property and the surrounding lands.  The garden designer Ellen Biddle Shipman was commissioned to regiment the planting cycle of the already-planned parterre garden, which was laid out on axis with the front and rear entrances of the main house.  Different breeds of tree were planted so that their wood could be harvested and turned into miniature ships.  This arduous undertaking is clearly a hobby for somebody with plenty of time and resources on their hands.  The contents preserved on the Lorenzo Estate depict a story of wealth, and a desire to use that wealth to occupy one’s endless amounts of spare time.

The class division between finance and labor has never been more relevant as in the contemporary sociopolitical climate of America in 2012.  The current presidential election is between a former investment banker and a former community organizer.  The crash of the real estate bubble at the end of the last decade might basely be understood as a result of intentional lenience in the financial sector’s lending practices with everyday people—people who more generally expend labor for their income and wellbeing as opposed to dealing in finances.  By gambling with everyday American’s mortgages, the aristo-plutocracy continues to shape the American landscape.


Thomas A. Chambers, Drinking the Waters: Creating an American Leisure Class at Nineteenth Century Mineral Springs (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

Margaret Christman, 1846: Portrait of the Nation (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

George W. Geib, “The Land Ordinance of 1785: A Bicentennial Review,” Indiana Magazine of History 81.1 (1985): 1-13.