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Vacuum domicilium


"Highway #2" by Edward Burtynsky. Los Angeles.

Vacant land is an important idea in America. Vacuum domicilium was what John Winthrop called it: land that hadn’t been put under cultivation, and thus free for the taking from the Indians. Thomas Jefferson thought that democracy required a limitless reserve of empty land: a frontier where poor emigrants could escape the overcrowding and poverty of the Eastern cities and become farmers. So long as empty space existed, American democracy was safe.

So what happens when we run out of space? Jefferson was pessimistic. ”When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there,” he wrote to James Madison in 1787.

In 1857, Lord Macaulay offered an even bleaker assessment in a letter to Henry S. Randall, a biographer of Jefferson’s:

As long as you have a boundless extent of fertile and unoccupied land, your laboring population will be far more at ease than the laboring population of the Old World, and, while that is the case, the Jefferson politics may continue to exist without causing any fatal calamity. But the time will come when New England will be as thickly peopled as old England. Wages will be as low, and will fluctuate as much with you as with us. You will have your Manchesters and Birminghams, and in those Manchesters and Birminghams hundreds of thousands of artisans will assuredly be sometimes out of work. Then your institutions will be fairly brought to the test…

When a society has entered on this downward progress, either civilization or liberty must perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth; with this difference, that the Huns and Vandals who ravaged the Roman Empire came from without, and that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your own institutions.