Thomas Jefferson: The Founding Father Of Sprawl?

Read Time: 6 minutes

February 20, 2006, 7:00 AM PST

By Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP

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.

Photo: 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.


The Top Urban Planning Books of 2022

An annual list of the must-read books related to urban planning and its intersecting fields.

November 28, 2022 - James Brasuell

The  Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux is crowded with pedestrians in a lively European scene.

European Cities Act on Density

The sprawling mass of suburbia has been a disaster for the environment. But now smaller, denser cities herald a renaissance in city living.

November 20, 2022 - Wired Magazine

Victorian two-story buildings with retail shops in downtown Nashvile, Tennessee

Nashville Sets Downtown Parking Maximums

Nashville is the latest city to enact a substantive change to the parking requirements set by the city’s zoning code—doing away with parking minimums and setting parking maximums in the city’s Urban Zoning Overlay.

November 20, 2022 - The Tennessean

Dark parking garage, empty except for one car covered with a red tarp

Advice for a Post-Parking Mandate World

After abolishing parking requirements, what can cities do to make the most of new space and revenue and avoid backlash?

November 29 - Next City

View of park ranger with tan hat from behind, ranger looking out at Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Western Voters: Yes to Conservation, No to Extremism

Voters in Western states generally favored candidates who support public land conservation in this November’s election and rejected extremist rhetoric.

November 29 - High Country News

The Boring Company

Detailing the Boring Company’s Poor Track Record

Elon Musk’s promised solution for congestion—the Boring Co.—has proven most successful at disappearing on the governments that trusted them.

November 29 - The Wall Street Journal

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.