Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thomas Jefferson, Paris, and Urban vs. Rural Ideals

Thomas Jefferson served as the U.S. minister to France from 1784 to 1789 and lived in Paris just off the Champs-Élysées at rue de Berri. Jefferson magnetically took to the Parisian life where his diverse capabilities and interests—statesman, philosopher, writer, musician, architect, horticulturalist, and connoisseur of fine wines and good food—could find satisfactions impossible to achieve in full at his isolated Monticello much less anywhere else in Virginia or the rest of the colonies. Despite France's recent defeat in the Seven Years War at the hands of the British and undercurrents of political unrest, Paris of the 1780s was the center of the European cultural universe. At the time of Jefferson’s arrival, a building boom was underway made evident by construction cranes punctuating the cityscape. After living a year in relatively cramped quarters, Jefferson moved to the more spacious, newly finished Hôtel de Langeac with its eye-catching neoclassical façade on rue de Berri where he could entertain with Virginia graciousness, accumulate furnishings, works of art, and books for his voluminous library, and design and plant a large garden to his liking including vegetables from home. Jefferson took time to explore the gardens of Paris, looking for ideas and plants he could bring to his new plot and eventually his beloved Monticello. He traveled to southern France a number of times where he collected the best wines for his Paris table and root stocks for later experimentation in growing grapes back in Virginia. On these trips he enthusiastically explored Roman ruins and other architectural treasures in the French countryside. Of course Paris itself was filled with architectural gems that influenced Jefferson’s thinking later on the design of the new capitol at Washington.

Jefferson quickly integrated himself into the cultural, intellectual, and political life of Paris. He attended concerts, operas, and art exhibitions, became a part of Paris’s salon culture, and partook of the café and street life, especially in the infamous Palais Royale where all of Paris’s social classes mixed, licentious behavior ran rampant, and revolutionary sentiments fermented. Jefferson found appalling the condition of the lower classes in France and clearly sympathized with their plight and agreed with their desires for more democracy. His own family values conflicted with the unbridled promiscuity he observed in Parisian society, especially within the aristocratic class (I leave it to others to judge Jefferson’s own behavior in his apparent affair with one his slaves, Sally Hemings). He invited the best scientific, artistic, and political minds of the day to his own home for intimate dinners at a well appointed table with the best wines money could buy. He especially enjoyed the company of the mathematical genius, marquis de Condorcet, who shared a love of the classics and the ideals of Republicanism and human equality with Jefferson. Later Condorcet, a leader in the revolution, apparently took his own life when political forces turned against him and he was declared a traitor.

As the American minister to the court of France, Jefferson pursued the vocation of diplomacy with special skill despite his low rank in the core of diplomats who pressed for the attention of the King, Louis the XVI. Jefferson believed in his heart that democracy in his own country would be solidified by a prosperous agricultural economy composed of individual farm proprietors who owned their own land and possessed a commitment to democracy and republican government as a matter of self interest. Rather than pushing for the development of a manufacturing economy through protective measures, Jefferson pressed for open trade that would expand markets for his country’s exports, especially tobacco, rice, and whale oil. In these efforts he met with mixed success. The French crown depended for its finances upon the taxing of all commodities entering the gates of Paris which were collected by private tax collectors known as the farmers-general. This group had given a monopoly in the tobacco trade to American financier, Robert Morris. Jefferson succeeded in weakening, but could not entirely break, Morris’s hold on the tobacco trade, but Jefferson did convince the crown to exclude British whale oil from the lucrative French market where demand for the oil grew in proportion to the popularity of public lighting installed to reduce Parisian street crime.

With political unrest in Paris intensifying daily, Jefferson left in the fall of 1789 for a six month leave back in Virginia to settle his daughters, check on Monticello, and negotiate with his creditors over his ever-accumulating debts further expanded by five years of lavish spending in Paris. He intended to return to his post in the city, but never did. The thirty-eight pieces of luggage and crates he shipped back to Virginia, along with a carriage and a phaeton, contained paintings, busts, clocks, a harpsichord, and books for Jefferson’s ballooning library. On top of this was an assortment of plants, including a white fig and two cork oak trees, as well as food stuffs unavailable in Virginia such as macaroni, Parmesan cheese, dates, olive oil, and tea as well as a selection of French wines. Jefferson never shied away from spending on those things he loved and took advantage of the extensive opportunities for doing so in the well-stocked Parisian markets.

Jefferson left Paris in an optimistic frame of mind about the ability of the French to carry out a peaceful revolution and institute a republic form of government with guarantees for basic human rights. About this he couldn’t have been more wrong. Many of his closest friends in France ultimately lost there lives in the tumult that soon followed. Jefferson was certainly aware of the deep fissures in French society between rulers and ruled, but he seemed to have little inkling of the deep desire for bloody revenge by the rural an urban poor. He sympathized deeply with the poverty of the peasantry he saw on his travels outside of Paris, but not so much with the degraded condition of the urban proletariat he observed daily in Paris. To Jefferson, the later were a violent and uncouth rabble prone to destructive rebellions that upset the civility of his Parisian routines. Despite his obvious relish for the life of a Parisian bourgeois, he never consciously changed his mind about cities. For Jefferson, “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.” Jefferson loved his own life in the city, but found highly distasteful and threatening what the city did to the lower classes.

Jefferson’s political vision for his own country took for it's inspiration the property rights theory of John Locke. Whoever improves the land and embodies labor in it has a natural right to its ownership, according to Locke. Jefferson eagerly agreed with Locke that land-owning yeoman farmers will have an abiding interest in a government whose essential purpose is to protect individual rights. Accordingly, Jefferson tells us that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens…the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” In short, rural land owners have a deeper stake in a well functioning government than would an urban industrial proletariat. For this reason, Jefferson discouraged the development of city-based industry in the U.S. and emphasized rural expansion and settlement by independent farmers.

Jefferson perfectly embodies the contradictory attitudes about the comparative virtue of city and rural life that we Americans hold to this very day. We love wide open country spaces and the privacy that goes with them, yet we enjoy close proximity to like-minded others and to cultural and economic institutions that thrive in a compact, populace environment. Cities that we find to be exciting and energizing, we also see as repulsive for their congestion, poverty, corruption, violence, and dirt. We enjoy the quiet of the country and the beauty of its natural setting, but living in it risks boredom. Jefferson himself relished Monticello and busied himself with a multitude of construction projects and experimentations in cultivation, but his diverse cultural interests yearned for Parisian cosmopolitanism and consumer riches. Yet in the end he came down philosophically on the side of the rural life.

The single most consequential legislative manifestation of Jefferson’s philosophy did not come until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The Act granted to anyone who had never taken up arms against the United States 160 acres of undeveloped land outside the original thirteen colonies. To obtain full ownership, an applicant needed to first file a claim on a specific parcel with the local land office, live on the land and undertake improvements, and file for a deed of title. Advocates for the Act anticipated that it would vastly expand the class of “Jeffersonian” smallholders in this country who could serve as the backbone of its democratic institutions. Escaping European political oppression and economic exploitation, most immigrants came to this country with the special hope of obtaining free land. For some states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas where 160 acres proved to be a sufficient amount of land for prosperous farming, the Act turned out to be a boon to immigrant settlement. But for western dry landscapes beyond the 100th meridian, 160 acres was just not enough to provide the most basic sustenance to an immigrant family. Many attempted to eke out a living on their homesteads across the Great Plains and succeeded for a time in wet years, but droughts endemic to the region eventually hit, and many settlers had to move on. Legendary abuses of the Homestead Act in great swaths of the West put land in the hands of large cattle barons who used fraudulent acquisitions to enclose important water resources. Similar abuses in the forested northwest caused much land to end up in the hands of large timber companies. In short, most immigrants failed in their quest for landownership and ended up in the burgeoning, densely packed industrial cities of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, 66 percent of the foreign born lived in cities in comparison to 36 percent of the native population. Many, if not most, immigrants were precluded from realizing dreams they might have had of becoming rural landholders.

Industrialization caused a substantial majority of immigrants to find their material mode of life in the city, not the country. At the end of the Nineteenth century, factories with their puffing smoke stacks—a mark of civic pride judging from old posters—crowded around ports and rail lines to cheapen shipping costs and to have ready access to large pools of labor who settled in densely packed neighborhoods nearby. Transportation costs on ships and trains between cities were comparatively cheap, but to move goods around within cities by wagon was quite expensive—hence the reason for crowding industrial operations around railheads and docks. Economic reality trumped the Jeffersonian ideal for immigrants and natives alike, although the rural dream in itself remained alive. The upper and middle classes in cities like Boston aspired to the life of the English country aristocrat who owned a house in London from which to enjoy urban culture and conduct business and political affairs (as Jefferson had in Paris) but also possessed a rural estate to retreat to for rest, reflection, and enjoyment of the great outdoors. In response to such aspirations, members of the Bostonian elite often bought country cottages to which they could escape on the weekends. Many immigrants looked with nostalgia back to their own rural heritage, remembering the beauty of the green hills and woods they left behind, but forgetting about the poverty and oppression that drove them away. An idealized vision of rural life cut across class lines despite its differing origins.

Before the arrival of the streetcar, except for the very rich who owned carriages, everyone lived compactly in cities because of the need to walk everywhere. This limited the extent of human interaction roughly to a radius of what one could walk in an hour, roughly three miles. The old pedestrian city of Boston extended outward to a maximum of about two and one half miles from city hall. Despite the availability of vacant land, little development could be found beyond this boundary. At first only the wealthy could totally escape the unpleasant conditions of the industrialization-induced factory districts and tenements by taking advantage of the costly but convenient new steam railroad lines that would take them to spacious dwellings in nearby country towns where what Sam Bass Warner calls the “rural ideal” could be realized. In such locales, one could enjoy the pleasures of family life, the security of a small community, and the presence natural surroundings nearby.

Space was essential to the pleasures of rural life sought by Boston’s urban elite as it is today in our own quest for the suburban dream. The “rural ideal” historically and for us today includes the values of family, community, and beautiful landscapes, all of which require space. The enjoyment of family interactions relies on ample private in and around the home; the security of a small community implies a protective barrier of space from threatening others and a shared space with those one trusts; and access to rural and natural landscapes infers the presence of undeveloped land nearby. Most of all space is wanted for its own sake. When given the opportunity we willingly purchase larger domiciles on more spacious lots with a greater margin of distance from our neighbors. Space counts as a part of our vision of the good life today as it did more than a hundred years ago.

The requirement for compactness in mid-nineteenth Century urban life for all but the wealthiest was fundamentally economic. Industrial enterprises needed to be near ports and railheads to keep the cost of moving goods around low, and working class tenements needed to be near the industrial districts so workers could get to them on foot. Because business communication was either face-to-face or by hand-delivered documents, managerial and office functions and other commercial activities had to abut the industrial districts, and to be close to their customers, retail enterprises located nearby. Compactness was a matter of economic necessity, but it added to life’s unpleasantness—smoke from factories, noise, smells from waste and sewage, congestion on crowded streets. No wonder that Boston’s elite wanted to escape to the country.

The coming of the horse-pulled streetcar and later the much faster electric trolley removed constraints on space inherent in the early industrial city. On the electric trolley, one could cover six or more miles in an hour’s time. This meant that the distance between work and home could now be stretched out. With trolley lines running outward beyond the old city limits, houses could from this moment on be constructed beyond the old city boundaries and successfully marketed to middle class families who could afford the trolley. By the end of the Century, the limits of development around Boston pushed outward from a two-plus mile radius to ten miles from the center. Roughly half of Boston’s population, including wealthy merchants and professionals at the high end of the income distribution on down to well paid artisans and skilled craftworkers could now move further out into more spacious dwellings. Soon a spatial class hierarchy emerged with the wealthiest living furthest from the center, middle income households closer in, and the poorest paid occupying the old housing nearest the urban center. The later couldn’t afford trolley fare and walked to work while the rest took advantage of the trolley for getting around the city. Those who moved outward increased the spaciousness and quality of their dwellings, and those who arrived first on the urban edge enjoyed all elements of the rural idea including undisturbed open space before the rest of the city caught up to them. The wealthiest furthest out came closest to a permanent realization of a quasi-rural style of life through a mix of careful landscaping and proximity to the countryside beyond the urban edge. Those who moved outward but failed in their quest for access to natural landscapes on the urban edge nonetheless gained in space, quietness, cleanliness, and the security of neighborhood social homogeneity.

From the turn of the center on, the quality of life in cities improved regardless of the middle class’s outward flight. Progressives pushed for more parks, improvements in water supply and sewage disposal, better sanitation, street paving, greater attention to public health, smoke controls, building codes and zoning, and, perhaps most important of all, more green space and parks. Cities throughout the country put in place expansive park systems, many of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York City’s famous Central Park. In the early twentieth century American city, to shop in the best department stores, use a major library, attend an opera, visit a museum, see the latest musical, or get a great restaurant meal, one needed to travel downtown. Such experiences were largely unavailable in the suburbs. The virtues of compactness Jefferson found in eighteenth century Paris began to surface in the American city.
Despite improving cities, Americans at the midpoint of the Twentieth Century held in their hearts a version of the Jeffersonian rural ideal—detached spacious homes on large plots of land, local community control of municipal government, neighbors like oneself, and expansive green landscapes. The subsequent suburban boom proves this point, but before we tackle this issue, we need to recognize that lurking deeper in the American and European culture is another vision of space, one that Jefferson discovered in his Parisian experience. This could be described as an “urban ideal”—access to society’s defining public institutions and spaces and proximity to cultural, social, and economic opportunities available only where populations achieve a minimum scale.

Jane Jacobs elaborates this “urban ideal” in her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here she postulates the following: (1) populations in successful city neighborhoods should be dense enough to support a diversity of activities and functions such as residences, shops, restaurants, offices, and theaters; (2) blocks should be short so one can take varied routes from one point to another; and (3) buildings should be varied in age and size to support a diversity of functions and provide visual interest. Jacobs’ notion of an urban ideal takes a neighborhood focus and boils down to the following: high population densities, diversity of economic and cultural functions, and a pedestrian-friendly scale in streets, buildings, and public spaces. Where this ideal is realized, streets will be busy all day with varied and interesting traffic. With people coming out for shopping in the morning or coming to work in local offices, heading to a café for lunch at noon, and enjoying a night out at a local theater, streets will be busy from dawn to bedtime. All this human presence means that streets will feel secure and safe—someone will no doubt always be watching the local comings and goings.

The one element of urban life given short shrift by Jacobs, but certainly noticed in Paris by Jefferson, who especially enjoyed wandering through the city’s gardens and nearby wooded landscapes, is access to green open spaces. While Jacobs advocates powerfully for socially attractive cities, we need to turn to the work of landscape architect Ian McHarg to find the idea of access to nature as an essential part of urban life. McHarg recognizes that urban settings are fundamentally cultural artifacts, but points to numerous cities able to take advantage of their natural landscapes, such as their watersheds, marshes, steep slopes, and woodlands, to retain elements of nature within urban boundaries. For McHarg, “The problem of man and nature is not one of providing decorative background for human play, or even ameliorating the grim city: it is the necessity of sustaining nature as a source of life, milieu, teacher, sanctum, challenge, and most of all, of rediscovery of nature’s corollary of the unknown in the self, the source of meaning.” Add McHarg’s vision of nature in the city to the urban visions of Jefferson and Jacobs, and we have a complete “urban ideal”—high population density; multiple economic, social, and cultural functions; significant public spaces and institutions; pedestrian friendly scale; and green and natural landscapes within city boundaries. Americans at the last mid-century could have chosen to pursuit an “urban ideal” in their cities, but chose instead to vacate those cities in favor of the rural lands beyond.

No comments:

Post a Comment