America: sleight of feet

Columbus Day, celebrated this weekend, is an appropriate time to ponder what the great discoverer and navigators who followed helped to bequeath to America: the phenomenon of spatial mobility. Like Columbus, who made four voyages to the New World, Americans have been people on the move.

Early colonial settlements reflected aspects of Great Britain writ small, but the acquisition of territory and opportunity to move on made for a unique national development. A territory could not become a state unless it had a population of at least 60,000, a requirement that ensured that states competed for people. Ohio, which came into the union in 1803, had a more democratic constitution than Pennsylvania, Indiana more so than Ohio, Illinois bested the Hoosier state, only to be upstaged by Iowa.

By the time the last continental territory, Arizona, was eligible for admission, one of its constitutional provisions was so radical that President William Howard Taft vetoed the statehood bill. And so democracy is still on the move today, with states competing for people and with about 1 in every 4 Americans picking up stakes each year, 14 times in a lifetime.

Like the open waters of the Atlantic on which Columbus traveled, America has been an easy land to move within. States require no passports or other eligibility requirements; the Uniform Commercial Code has provided for an ease of business transactions among the several states; and the rapidity of citizen movement has lessened the problem of dialects, which in other nations has too often impeded communication among the peoples of various regions.

This rootlessness has made Americans more loyal to nation than to section. It has given rise to institutional sameness to ensure that culture shock doesn't accompany a relocation from Peoria to Miami: hotels and fast-food restaurants look the same in both areas, as do churches, department stores, banks, and schools - all safe oases, unlike Columbus's Atlantic, to a people on the move.

When Americans get disturbed - and they do - they rarely resort to the barricades in front of the State House to kindle their grievances. Instead they move, finding new jobs and homes, typically leaving a 30-year mortgage with two-thirds of its life remaining. Social and government policy has consciously emphasized moving. The Internal Revenue Code, for example, permits handsome tax benefits for the cost of relocating to a new job, at least 35 miles away (it used to be 50 miles). And Americans love to move with dispatch. The early railroads were built for speed, not durability, and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't syndrome was the hallmark of the American trip, as illustrated by a 1926 travel guide that described ''the principal cities and how to reach them; the cost of journeys, and what to see when you get there in the least time at the lowest cost.''

Sleight of feet was accompanied by sleight of mind, according to Tocqueville. ''America is a land of wonder,'' he wrote in 1840, ''in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and in his eyes what is not yet done is only what he has not attempted to do.''

Little wonder that historians make reference to the stream, currents, or tides of American history - rushing, winding, ebbing, and flooding - and like Columbus's big ocean still deep with untapped energy and resources.

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