Jefferson's influence on the division of the public domain and love affair with decimals are well known—as is his Francophilia. Did TJ's sojourn in France influence his preference for metric measurement? Students might want to look at the Jefferson Time Line, an encyclopedia entry on money and the Ordinance of 1784, the Metric System History timeline and "Ask Dr. Math."


Did Jefferson's preference for rectilinear subdivision grow out of his egalitarian social and political beliefs? Geographer William D. Pattison thinks so.

Rectangles and Meridians

It will be recalled that the proposed ordinance [Jefferson's original plan for dividing the Western Territories) specified (1) that the hundreds were to be "ten geographical miles square," and (2) that they were to be bounded by lines running "due North and South, and others crossing these at right angles…. Rectangular subdivision offered the great advantage of simplicity. It was suited to the ordinary land surveying procedures of the time…and it assured a standard acreage figure for subdivisions, which would simplify the marketing of land.

Further, if we may trust an interpretation based upon a statement made by Jefferson on a separate occasion, this manner of subdivision had a social aspect. Jefferson's report of 1790, on weights, measures and coinage, contains a highly suggestive passage on the subject of rectilinear lines. In discussing measures of capacity (quarts, gallons, etc.) Jefferson expressed himself in favor of box-like containers with plane walls meeting at right angles, in preference to cylindrical vessels. In justifying this preference he wrote, "Cylindrical measures have the advantage of superior strength; but square ones have the greater advantage of enabling everyone, who has a rule in his pocket, to verify their contents by measuring them."

Similarly, rectilinear land boundaries put it in the power of any settler, employing the most rudimentary means of measurement, to verify the contents of his purchase. We find a principle of Jeffersonian democracy implicit here, perhaps where least expected.

Excerpted from Pattison's, "Beginnings of the American Rectangular Land Survey System, 1784-1800" (printed as University of Chicago Department of Geography Research Paper No. 50, 1957).


Although Jefferson would have liked to impose the geographical mile on the people by putting it into the law he doubted whether the measure could be carried through. In the United States, public resistance to decimal measurement continues to this day. The following articles can set up a group discussion on the relative virtues of the metric system:

Of course, Jefferson had his way with decimals where money is concerned. The Coinage Act of 1792 (see Section 9) was a symbolic break with England's complicated currency. When Surveyor Seth Pease went west, he noted dollars spent as well as the old familiar crowns, shillings and pence. Among the change rattling around in his saddlebag may have been some 1794 Flowing Hair Liberty half dimes, the word only recently simplified from "disme." Move on to METRIC MATH PROBLEMS or hit your "Back" button to return to the SURVEY or RESOURCES.