Thomas Jefferson: The Founding Father Of Sprawl?

On this President's Day, are you stuck in traffic from your exurban house to the sale at the local Hummer dealer? It's Thomas Jefferson's fault. The genius who drafted the Declaration of Independence also espoused a far-ranging anti-urban philosophy, with policies setting the stage for two centuries of sprawling development and political biases against cities.

 Leonardo Vazquez

Urban sprawl is a huge problem in the United States. Who's to blame for it? The developers throw up their hands and say "it's not our fault; we're just responding to the market." The politicians say "don't look at us, we're just doing what the voters want."

Maybe we should blame Thomas Jefferson. He was the godfather of the urban sprawl racket in America. Though he held contradictory ideas about many things -- including slavery -- Jefferson was of one mind about cities: he hated them.

"The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body," Jefferson wrote.1 Though Jefferson partied in Paris and had a hand in shaping Washington D.C., he thought cities were dens of corruption and inequity that would spoil the young American republic.

He told James Madison: "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

As a writer, philosopher and leader, Jefferson was able to hard-wire an anti-urban bias into the culture of the United States. Consider the U.S. Constitution. What power does it give to cities and towns? None, nada, zip. In fact, the Constitution doesn't even mention cities and towns. It does give a lot of power to states. And states get more power -- through representatives -- by increasing their population.

It's a formula for urban sprawl and weak cities. States need to grow to get more representatives and more political power. State politicians could try getting more people into urban areas by encouraging compact development. But that would risk giving more electoral power to cities, which Jefferson and his friends and followers (the "Jeffersonians") thought were corrupt. The result? Encourage people to scatter on large plots of land -- of course after removing the Native Americans who happened to be living there at the time.

After becoming president, Jefferson, intentionally or not, encouraged movement away from cities through the Louisiana Purchase. Without all this extra land, Americans, like Europeans, may have moved away from the frontier and into cities for security and economic opportunities. But with so much space, more than a few 19th century Americans were probably humming an early version of the "Green Acres" theme song.

Before the Constitution, Jefferson pushed his anti-urban policy in the Land Ordinance of 1785. This is the classic land policy that divided land in what is now the Midwest into six square mile townships, divided into 640 acre sections. Jefferson and his friends imagined that each section would become used for farming, except for one section that would be reserved for public education.

Although the ordinance does not explicitly prohibit the creation of cities or towns, its anti-city bias is clear. Whereas from the earliest colonial days, the English government would give charters to companies, groups, or selected individuals to create towns (a tradition continuing in part to the present day), by transferring land to individuals, rather than trading or development companies, the Land Ordinance of 1785 discouraged urban concentrations.

Jefferson's anti-urbanism may have developed partly in reaction to established English customs regarding cities. In colonial times, the English wanted the colonists to create towns and cities; it made it easier to monitor trade with Europe, as too many southern colonists were avoiding taxes and controls by staking riverfront land and doing their own imports and exports.

Indeed, in New England and the mid-Atlantic towns were centers of civic and religious life. And they were safer and more secure. Outside of the town, colonists risked facing hostile Indians (hmm...I wonder why they were upset?). And without pooling their resources in harsh winters, the colonists could -- and did -- starve to death.

Yet in the South, large plantations were practically self-contained communities. The milder weather made it possible for southerners to plant a wider variety of crops for food and clothing, meaning that rich southern planters didn't need to rely on each other as much as northerners did. Also, the northern towns were often started by people with shared interests -- like the Puritans in Massachusets or the Quakers in Pennsylvania -- so early residents wanted to live near each other. Speculators and merchants founded the southern colonies. Of course there were some southern towns, like Savannah, Georgia, and Williamsburg, Virginia, but unless they needed to make more money, they didn't have much need for towns.

So when the King of England told the southern colonists that they had to go into towns to trade, cities became to southern planters what the principal's office is to an eight-year-old who upset the teacher.

Of course, Jefferson's influence outlasted him. Jeffersonians, through their journals and the early Democratic party, berated cities, especially East Coast, as corrupting and "effeminate." But to be fair to Jefferson, many people in the young United States probably shared at least some of his views. In 1790, the year of the first national census, nearly 95% of Americans lived outside of what could then be considered urban areas (places with 2,500 or more residents.) With poor sanitation and high crime, the few U.S. cities could be mean and nasty places. The Puritans who settled New England weren't fond of big cities either, exercising a form of growth management designed to keep their villages small.

In 1800, Jefferson summed up his views on cities: "I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere; and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue and freedom, would be my choice."2

Ironically, a century later, the base of the Democratic party would work to boost towns and cities, while the Republican base would carry the anti-urban ideas of Jefferson. In the last 20 years, Republican presidents have continued the anti-urban bias by pursuing funding cuts to cities -- even though that's where a lot of the money comes from -- and embracing the exurbs and agricultural interests.

Because of Jefferson's hatred of cities, some might think he would prefer subdivisions to urban neighborhoods. But Jefferson was a farmer and a lover of knowledge. I think he would appreciate the inner-city West Philadelphia community gardeners working with the University of Pennsylvania more than the Hummer-driving McMansion owner who gets everything from Wal-Mart.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  He directs two programs there: Bloustein Online Continuing Education for Planners and APA/LeadershipPlenty.  He is also a former chair of the Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee and principal author of "Lagging Behind" a study of ethnic diversity in the planning profession in the New York area.

For more information on American planning history: Glaab, Charles N. and Brown, A. Theodore. 1967. A History of Urban America. The Macmillan Company. Levy, John. 2002. Contemporary Urban Planning. Sixth Edition. Prentice Hall. McKelvey, Blake. 1969. The City in American History. Barnes and Noble Inc. Reps, John. 1965. The Making of Urban America. Princeton University Press.

1 These quotations are reported in Charles Glaab's and Theodore Brown's History of Urban America.

2 From Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. 1996. Thomas Jefferson On Politics & Government.



Jefferson and Urban Sprawl

I wonder if Thomas Jefferson would consider our current suburban sprawl agricultural in nature or simply an equivalent to the “evil” city. I have a feeling that Jefferson’s vision of an agriculturally-based United States would not equal what has generally been developed.

Blame Hamilton, Not Jefferson

The Jeffersonians wanted a rural society based on farming and small business.

The Hamiltonians wanted an urban society based on manufacturing and large-scale trade.

By the 1840s, the Hamiltonians had won. And during the 1840s, Americans began to move to suburbs in order to get away from the industrial city.

Charles Siegel


The Jeffersonians distrusted cities and industrialized economies. Because of their anti-urban biases, Jeffersonian policies can be traced directly to the libertarian, free market sprawl (see Houston, etc) that Joel Kotkin and the Reason Institute are so fond of.

Hamiltonians were very much pro-urban, industrialized economies. It is really a stretch to say this love for industry led to suburbanization. It would be more correct to say that the Jeffersonians love of dispersion led to the worst forms of sprawl found in America's landscapes.

Irvin Dawid's picture

don't blame Jefferson, blame Ford

He may never have been president (Henry, that is!), but the Model T in 1908 did more than Jefferson could ever in his dreams wish.

If Jefferson were to blame, how does one explain the 'new' in new urbanism, i.e. that old urbanism existed through WWI, and as the auto overtook the trolley, well, the rest is history....

Highways and cheap petrol did in America's traditional land use, not our 3rd president.
Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

To this I would agree.

To this I would agree. The mass suburbia that is sprawl was brought on by the Fordist mentality to mass produce and mass consume. One of the first examples of this would be Levittown. The idea of mass producing homes in hope that the general population would be able to consume them and all own a house... or you could say be tied to the land (mortgages!) is from Fordist ideas.

Christine Allum
Toronto, Canada

Misplaced Blame

Mr. Vazquez believes that Thomas Jefferson is to blame for sprawl. To support this assertion, he uses a series of Jefferson's quotes. But those quotes only show Jefferson's distrust of cities. To distrust cities and to enact policies against them are two different things.

Of course the Constitution gives power to states and not towns or cities: states were formally grants by the King, and they remained the most important unit of the new country. Mr. Vazquez does not know this, perhaps, but the Constitution as written was intended to provide for a minimal federal government but leave virtually everything but national defense -- including all functions performed by the alphabet soup of federal agencies -- to the state governments.

Jefferson's decision to buy half of the continent for a song was pro-sprawl? Come, now. Yes, Jefferson had a great deal more faith in the farmer than in the city dweller, and for good reason.

Thomas Jefferson distrusted cities because he knew that where people live densely they are much more likely to be willing to resort to a "pure democracy" voting away of individual liberties in the name of the collective. There is, after all, a reason that zoning (arguably a partial exercise of eminent domain without compensation) came about in cities and not in the countryside. Noise restrictions, aesthetic restrictions, trade restrictions, sign restrictions, use restrictions, business regulations, miscellaneous taxes... all of these involve a taking away of individual choices and options, and they all predominately occur in cities. Nearly every city has a loitering law, but there is no law against standing in the middle of a field.

Ironically, it seems to me that those who advocate such restrictions in the name of the collective have forgotten what cities are all about. They are about trade, the exchange of goods and services to mutual benefit. There is a reason cities form where they do: they are where maximum consumer choice is allowed and transportation costs to the greatest number of consumers are lowest. (This is, Mr. Vazquez, why there are so few cities in the American Mid-west, not the Land Ordinance of 1785.) Restrictions on personal liberties only endanger a city's ability to thrive and grow. A great example of this is Los Angeles. A recent article in the Washington Post detailed the difficulties restaurants in LA are having in obtaining the best wines, the best employees, the best foodstuffs. Similarly, the boutiques of Beverly Hills are having difficulty retaining customers and finding the newest fashions. The reason is that Las Vegas, where infringements on personal liberty are minimal by comparison, has become such a center of trade that it is cornering the market for these luxury goods. The allowance of trade and individual freedom has allowed Las Vegas to go from desert to the fastest-growing city in America in less than a century. If this continues, the day will come that Las Vegas eclipses Los Angeles in size and influence, and I don't believe that day is as far off as most would think.

Back to my point about blame for sprawl. Development obviously follows access and lower transportation costs. It is difficult to assign blame for increasing access and lowering transportation costs to just one man. A previous comment blamed Ford for inventing the car, which certainly did lower transportation costs. However, I find it hard to blame a man for inventing a machine that was desired by consumers and purchased via free, voluntary exchange.

If I had to blame someone, I would blame Eisenhower. His federal highway initiative opened up millions of pristine acres to development, while simultaneously bankrupting America's system of private turnpikes (gee, don't planners encourage "congestion pricing" these days?) and private, PROFITABLE public transportation. And whereas Ford engaged in voluntary free trade, Eisenhower financed his highways on the back of the American taxpayer, most assuredly not voluntarily.


If there is anyone that he should "blame" - its probably Eisenhower. Without the Highway Funding that he provided in the name of national defense at the time, the cars and people wouldn't have the luxury of all of those highways to commute between the suburbs and exurbs to the places that they work.

...or was Jefferson a New Urbanist?

In "Suburban Nation", the authors credit Jefferson with indirectly assisting the creation of New Urbanist communities today. The quarter section land division unit of Jefferson's Public Land Survey System, repeated continually across the vast American landscape, provides an ideal framework for the development of neighborhood units of 1/4 mile radius - equivalent to a five minute walk from center to edge.


Modern cities and sprawl are something that Jefferson couldn't even imagine.

At the time that Jefferson lived the debate was between cities and working farms. This has nothing to do with sprawl. I wish sprawl was an issue of too many local farms.

Mass Producing and Mass Consuming

This is in response to Christine from Toronto-

YES, mass production of homes is at the root of sprawl. Levittown, as noted, is one of the prime early examples of this.

Our goal must be to outlaw the mass production of housing- instant homes built by large builders (ex. 100-1000 plus units at a time), constructed of cheap, toxic materials and built often by unskilled labor.

They are the blight we call sprawl.

Returning to the development model where an individual has to find their own piece of land to build on and hire their own contractor to build a quality home will do more to halt sprawl than any other means will. Cohousing in the form of intentional communities and similar "eco-villages" are acceptable additional models.