CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — Thomas Jefferson, Epidemics And His Vision For American Cities

The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia changed Thomas Jefferson’s thinking. Always anti-urban in his social outlook, the future president now began to formulate a radical plan for the development of new states and new communities west of the Appalachian mountains. In an age before antibiotics and systematic vaccination, Jefferson sought to design healthier communities on the tabula rasa, the blank slate, of the American heartland. Some but not all of Jefferson’s ideas were adopted as the American frontier moved west.

Jefferson lived through one of the most serious plagues in American history. The capital of the United States was located in Philadelphia in the 1790s while the new U.S. capital was being planned and laid out in the District of Columbia. Jefferson was serving (reluctantly) as America’s first secretary of state and lived in one of the suburbs of Philadelphia in the summer of 1793 when yellow fever swept through the capital.

With 50,000 residents, Philadelphia was the most populous city in the country at the time, and the second largest city of the English-speaking world. Between Aug. 1 and mid-November, nearly 5,000 Philadelphians (one in 10) were killed by the epidemic. The citizens were, of course, terrified, partly because the cause of the epidemic was unknown, as was its method of transmission, and there was no effective treatment or cure.

Although he did not flee the city, like many others including President Washington, Secretary of War Henry Lee or Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson took care to avoid the wharf district and the dense city center through the late summer and autumn. Hamilton was stricken with what must have been a mild form of yellow fever because unlike thousands of others, he survived. Dolley Payne Todd came through just fine, but her husband James Todd Jr. died. Just one year later she married future president James Madison. They proved to be one of the great power couples in the history of the American presidency.

On Sept. 1, 1793, Jefferson wrote to his closest friend, Madison, “Every body, who can, is flying from the city, and the panic of the country people is likely to add famine to disease. Tho becoming less mortal, it is still spreading, and the heat of the weather is very unpropitious. I have withdrawn my daughter from the city, but am obliged to go to it every day myself.” (Note: I use Jefferson’s idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation throughout.)

Jefferson’s friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the hero of the Philadelphia epidemic. Although Dr. Rush’s treatment regimen (bleeding and purging) was probably ineffective and would perhaps today be regarded as barbaric, his insistence on visiting the sick of every quarter of Philadelphia, every social stratum and at every level of virulence, distinguished him from virtually everyone else in the city, including the medical professionals.

The other heroes of the epidemic were African Americans, many of them free blacks, who were recruited to minister the sick. It was thought — a tragic error that was at least in part racist — that Africans and African Americans were less susceptible to yellow fever than their white counterparts. In fact, the death rate for black men, women and children in Philadelphia was identical to that of white citizens. One in 10 black people died.

Background — The Agrarian Visionary

Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States but also an agrarian visionary who wanted America to be a nation of small family farms. Jefferson’s distaste for cities is well known. He called them “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” To his closest friend, James Madison, he wrote in 1787, the year of the American Constitution, “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as in Europe.”

From his disciplined reading of the Latin and Greek classics, Jefferson derived his belief that the ideal citizen of a republic was a modest family farmer living on the land, growing his own food and providing his own shelter and clothing. Since this farmer depended on no other person or institution for his livelihood, he was truly free. His relations with the state were entirely voluntary rather than necessary. City dwellers, by contrast, could not grow their own food. By living away from the fecundity of nature, they were dependent on others for food, shelter, clothing and employment. This made them less free. But “those who labor in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God.”

Jefferson believed that cities were breeding grounds not just for economic and political dependency but that they generally attracted an urban underclass. An unemployed and perhaps unemployable urban proletariat was dangerous to peace and social stability.

“The mobs of great cities,” he wrote, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”

This portrait of President Jefferson in 1805 was painted by Gilbert Stuart.
This portrait of President Jefferson in 1805 was painted by Gilbert Stuart.

He knew enough of European history, particularly of ancient Rome, to understand that urban mobs are susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues, who use what the French called the “canaille” (packs of urban “dogs”) to further their own despotic goals. In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” Better that everyone find happiness on what Jefferson called “the republic of the farm.”

Jefferson’s anti-urban bias made more sense in 1785 than it does today. At that point, 95 percent of the American people were farmers. A few cities existed in the United States — Boston, New York, Philadelphia — but the vast majority of the American people lived either on farms scattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard or in villages. The largest city in Jefferson’s Virginia was Richmond with a population of under 4,000 in 1790.

Jefferson believed that cities were unhealthy places. In the absence of modern sewage systems, people merely tossed the contents of their chamber pots (and often enough dead animals) into the gutters of the streets and waited for rain to carry it untreated down to the river. Garbage, mostly organic, was discarded out the back of the house. Pigs, dogs and horses roamed the streets leaving their excrement behind. Colonial streets were narrow; urban crowding put people into close contact with each other. Modern notions of cleanliness and hygiene had not yet been formulated. There were no adequate storm drains to carry away standing water. Modern police forces did not exist. Nor did streetlamps except in a few privileged neighborhoods.

Then came plagues. The great scourge of Jefferson’s era was smallpox, followed by yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the deaths in George Washington’s Continental army were caused by disease, not warfare. One of Gen. Washington’s greatest decisions was to require his regular troops to be inoculated for smallpox. This saved tens of thousands of lives during the course of the Revolutionary War.

Jefferson rightly concluded that cities were hothouses for infectious diseases because of the density of urban populations and the frequency of inadvertent human contact. Disease spread much less efficiently in rural populations, especially in the 18th century, an age of oxen and horses, a three-mile-per-hour world, when human mobility was dramatically pronounced.

The first journey young Thomas Jefferson made out of his native Virginia (1766) was to Philadelphia to undergo inoculation for smallpox. The process was long, tedious and dangerous, involving a regimen of fasting, purging and quarantine that could last as much as a month or six weeks. The immunization required being infected with a small dose of smallpox under carefully controlled conditions and hoping the spartan regimen permitted the recipient to survive.

Later, when Edward Jenner (1749-1823) developed the infinitely more effective and much less dangerous kinepox vaccine, Jefferson not only embraced the innovative new technology and wrote a wonderful fan letter to Jenner but became an advocate for widespread vaccination in America. He even sent a serum of the kinepox with Meriwether Lewis up the Missouri River in 1804, hoping that his agent of Enlightenment could convince Native American tribes to accept his medical help and become inoculated.

The Aftermath — Jefferson’s Post-Epidemic Plan for Cities

Pandemics force humans to rethink habits and institutions (shaking hands, for example). The coronavirus epidemic of 2020 will sweep away many habits and whole sectors of the world economy, and it will inspire (because necessity is indeed the mother of invention) a breathtaking array of new technologies, artistic expressions and other innovations. After the yellow fever epidemic dissipated after the first hard frosts of late 1793 in Philadelphia, Jefferson spent months and years pondering how such epidemics could be avoided or minimized in the future. Jefferson had the great advantage of looking from the western portico of Monticello at a vast continent that had not yet been settled by white people, a kind of endless blank canvas in which humans could design new communities that made the spread of disease less efficient and deadly.

The trans-Appalachian population (not including American Indians) when Jefferson became president of the United States on March 4, 1801, was no more than 250,000. It was (to the mind of a Eurocentric white visionary) an empty continent. Jefferson hoped that most frontier citizens would live on farms evenly diffused across the American landscape. But the ones who lived in towns or (God forbid!) cities might still be able to avoid the mistakes of colonial urban development.

To James Madison he wrote: “I think we shall be [virtuous], as long as agriculture is our principal object, which will be the case, while there remain vacant lands in any part of America. 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.”

Jefferson reacted to the devastating yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia with what might seem to be a cold rationality. In a letter to his friend, Benjamin Rush, in September 1800, Jefferson wrote, “When great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us: and Providence has in fact so established the order of things as that most evils are the means of producing some good. The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation.”

Later, in a letter to a French friend, Constantin Volney, Jefferson outlined his visionary plan for future town planning: “the yellow fever … is generated only in low close and ill-cleansed parts of a town,” he wrote. “I have supposed it practicable to prevent it’s generation by building our cities on a more open plan. take for instance the chequer board for a plan. let the black squares only be building squares, and the white ones be left open, in turf & trees. every square of houses will be surrounded by four open squares, & every house will front an open square. the atmosphere of such a town would be like that of the country, insusceptible of the miasmata which produce yellow fever. I have accordingly proposed that the enlargements of the city of New Orleans … shall be on this plan.”

In Jefferson’s vision, every other square (or block) of future towns and cities would be permanent grass or parkland. This would give everyone healthier air, more privacy, ground on which to plant vegetable gardens and social distance. Jefferson’s idea was to ruralize the city, dedicating half of each city to open space, but so evenly distributed through the community that nobody would ever be confined to an urban jungle.

At least two American communities attempted to institute Jefferson’s radical urban-agrarian plan, New Orleans (which already existed but which was expanding rapidly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, and Jeffersonville, Ind., which was planned as a model utopian community.

In August 1802, the territorial governor of the Indiana Territory (and future president), William Henry Harrison, wrote to Jefferson: “When I had the honour to see you in Philadelphia in the Spring of the year 1800 (at the time, Jefferson was serving as John Adams’ vice president), you were pleased to recommend to me a plan for a Town which you supposed would exempt its inhabitants in a great degree from those dreadful pestilences which have become so common in the large Cities of the United States. As the laws of this Territory have given the Governor the power to designate the seats of Justice for the Counties, and as the choice … was fixed upon a spot where there had been no town laid out, I had an opportunity at once of gratifying them — of paying respect to your recommendation and of confirming my own inclination.”

In this instance, both of Jefferson’s planning requirements were in place. First, an entirely new country capital was to be carved out of the wilderness on the north bank of the Falls of the Ohio. Jefferson had previously stated that “only in case of enlargements to be made (to existing communities) or of cities (yet) to be built,” should “this means of [disease] prevention … be employed.” Second, in Gov. Harrison, Jefferson found a western leader willing to try his quasi-pastoral rectangular grid. Harrison added, “A Town has been laid out with each alternate square to remain vacant forever. … I have taken the liberty to call it Jeffersonville.” Jefferson would have been discomfited by the idea of naming the town Jeffersonville (a name it retains into the 21st century). He was an extremely modest and private man who probably would have preferred a name from classical Athens or from American Indian terms for the falls.

This layout for the experimental city of Jeffersonville, Indiana, was drawn during Jefferson’s lifetime. The squares with gridlines are for shops and houses. The blank squares with diagonal roadways are parkland.
This layout for the experimental city of Jeffersonville, Indiana, was drawn during Jefferson’s lifetime. The squares with gridlines are for shops and houses. The blank squares with diagonal roadways are parkland.

Unfortunately, at least for Jefferson, the utopian grid of Jeffersonville soon was forced to yield to human greed and the boosterism of the chamber of commerce. By 1817, Jeffersonville was replanned in a way that retained the rectangular layout of streets that Jefferson preferred, but the alternate squares of the checkerboard were sold for traditional development. It is not known whether Jefferson had followed the destiny of Jeffersonville from his retreat at Monticello in Virginia, or whether he learned in 1817 (he would have been 74 at the time) of the collapse of his vision on the shores of the Ohio.

New Orleans also tried to conform to Jefferson’s plan. In 1804, not quite a year after the Louisiana Purchase secured the west bank of the Mississippi from France and Spain, territorial governor Claiborne wrote a glowing letter to the third president: “It is impossible to dwell for one moment on the plan you propose, without receiving an Impression of the preference to which it is entitled as well on the score of elegance and comfort as of health. I should esteem it a great happiness should I be yet enabled to introduce such a plan into the parts of this City, that yet remain to be built. As this City promises to have a rapid increase (& the havoc of Disease is at present so evident) I must confess, I entertain sanguine hopes of introducing this favorite scheme. …”

Unfortunately, New Orleans succumbed to the same forces of profit and conformity as Jeffersonville. Several other American communities toyed with Jefferson’s plan — Jackson, Miss., and Missouri City, Mo., among them — but in the end, no single “agrarian” community in America persevered. Historian John W. Reps concludes: “In the frenzy for trading in town sites that characterized so much of the 19th century the standardized grid became the playing board of the clever and the unscrupulous land speculator. … It is one of the tragedies of our urban history that the game was not played out under proper rules on the checkerboard of Thomas Jefferson.”

Conclusion — His Legacy Today

Thomas Jefferson was a utopian as well as a whimsical dreamer, what the 18th century called a “projector.” He was notional. He loved what he called “gimcracks.” But he was also a realist. He understood that urban life was inevitable. If Jefferson could have controlled the future settlement of the continent, he would have diffused the American population evenly over the entire landscape. He believed — rightly — that when power or money or population was concentrated in one person or one place, it was volatile and socially destabilizing. But when those same things were diffused among the many (by way of majority rule and an equitable distribution of money and the fruits of life), they became benign. Jefferson’s America, if he could have legislated it all by himself, would have remained an agrarian republic with eccentric town sites evenly scattered from the Chesapeake to San Francisco bays.

Jefferson’s view that cities were hothouses of epidemics was, of course, correct. Maps of the novel coronavirus in the United States confirm his view that rural places are healthier than urban centers and conurbations. So far, the virus has had the greatest impact on the two coasts of America, particularly in New York, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. The lightly populated heartland states, particularly the Great Plains and the Mountain West, have so far been comparatively lightly impacted.

For all of his anti-urban bias and pronouncements, Jefferson loved cities. In this, as in so many other ways, he was a man of paradox. He thrived during his five-year residency in Paris (1784-89), and he regarded his years in Philadelphia, first as secretary of state and later as vice president, as among the most satisfying of his life. The home of the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company, Philadelphia was then the cultural capital of the United States. He reconciled himself to the vice presidency in 1796 by saying it would give him “philosophical evenings in the winter” at Philadelphia, “& rural days in the summer” at Monticello. Still, in an age before antibiotics or even an understanding of antisepsis and hygiene, Jefferson understood, as did few of his contemporaries, that in times of pandemics, economic crisis, and war, cities were powder kegs.

For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” Clay’s most recent book, Repairing Jefferson’s America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship,” is available on Amazon.com.

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