THE AVENUE SEPTEMBER 18, 2009
Planetizen released the results of its poll asking for the top 100 urban thinkers this week. The Avenue’s own Bruce Katz is at 31, but, curiously, Thomas Jefferson is ranked 48th.
Jefferson? The man who wrote, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body”? The man who saw an upside to a yellow fever epidemic in 1800 because “the yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, and I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man?” And, ever consistent, wrote in 1823 that “A city life offers you indeed more means of dissipating time, but more frequent, also, and more painful objects of vice and wretchedness. New York, for example, like London, seems to be a Cloacina of all the depravities of human nature. Philadelphia doubtless has its share.”
Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s opposite and rival, was a much better 18th century urbanist. A New Yorker and immigrant, he vigorously supported manufacturing, which was urban-based and routinely juxtaposed with the pastoral pursuit of agriculture that Jefferson extolled. Far from debasing the populace, manufacturing and the communities it created allowed “each individual to find his proper element and… call into activity the whole vigor of his nature.”
Of course the Hamilton/Jefferson dichotomy remains with us today, as David Brooks points to it as the font of the current political hue and cry in his column today.
Nonetheless, if Hamilton’s pro-urban views, rather than Jefferson’s agrarian romanticism, had been the foundation of America’s national narrative, we’d fit more comfortably in our metropolitan skin, rather than hanging on to outdated ideas about America as a nation of small towns.
(And it’s inexplicable that Daniel Patrick Moynihan isn’t on the list. He should qualify based on just two essays: 1960’s “New Roads and Urban Chaos” and his 1970 introduction to “Toward a National Urban Policy.” Maybe next year ....)