A Nation of McMonticellos

If you live in LA or Detroit, chances are your entire pitiful life of eating, shitting, and fucking plays out on tiny parcels of Thomas Jefferson’s imagination.

Otherwise known as “the grid“.


(Edited. Original photo by Connie.)

After the American Revolution, the government had a ton of land to sell, but no real system set up to facilitate sales. Jefferson, an avid urban planner and architect in his spare time (like, when wasn’t writing the Declaration of Independence or somethin’), took a deep interest in the problem. How do you sell huge, unimaginably large chunks of land quickly and efficiently?

With the 1785 Land Ordinance, he stumbled upon an elegant solution. Under the new act, surveyors would subdivide government land into perfect 6 mile by 6 mile square townships, which could then be tidily subdivided into smaller plots by the government and land speculators as demand warranted. It was a page right out of Ancient Rome’s playbook. Overnight, Indian lands were carved up like birthday cakes and served to land hungry Americans. The march of manifest destiny had begun.

For obvious reasons, public roads in the newly settled territories tended to follow the property lines set up under Jefferson’s scheme. In Detroit, the old French grid was retrofitted to fit the Jeffersonian grid to make way for rampant subdividing. In LA, the quaint Spanish grid was similarly mangled to achieve the same end.

8 Mile Road? Thomas Jefferson. That weird way Wilshire Boulevard curves at Hoover? T.J. strikes again.

That Jefferson’s grid made it easy for cities to sprawl out into endless low density neighborhoods wouldn’t have entirely displeased him. He was a vocal critic of cramped cities like Boston and Philadelphia, famously saying, “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” To which I say, that’s what makes our cities great. Any outbreak of disease, then common in in the inner city, was an opportunity for Jefferson to declare. “Told ya so!”

Jefferson thought it’d be best if cities were developed using what urban planners now refer to as a “checkerboard pattern”. The basic idea being that each block of the grid dedicated to residential or commercial development would be surrounded by blocks of parks or municipal buildings. It was, in essence, a primitive form of the modern suburb. The ample parkland was envisioned as a shared lawn for residents.

A few cities made attempts to follow Jefferson’s guidelines, but eventually private interests always got hold of the valuable real estate and developed it. It wasn’t until the automobile that the lawn became an expected amenity. Jefferson, I guess, was just ahead of his time.

Which raises the question: what kinda car would suburb-loving, gun-toting, the tree of liberty must be cleansed with blood-believing Jefferson have driven? My bet is on the Ford F-150.


(Edited. Original photo by Terry Bone.)



4 thoughts on “A Nation of McMonticellos

  1. I like the idea of understanding important historical figures through modern-day analogies. Perfect mix of humor, information and simplicity. The F-150, huh? What about Franklin and Washington? What would they drive, George?

    I didn’t know that Jefferson is responsible for the grid. There are other grids, too, of course. Chicago, our third largest city, is mostly a grid, especially downtown. I assume Jefferson is responsible for the trend that caught on, rather than the design of specific cities, right?

  2. The grid was common before Jefferson, yes. I don’t believe he personally designed any cities, but his initial grid system provided the basis for many communities. Though I’d have to do more research, it appears at first glance that Jefferson’s act had significant influence on Chicago’s layout: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/410050.html

    … I’m not sure what car Washington or Franklin would driven, but it’s perhaps safe to assume that Franklin would gravitate to electric models? (I’ll be here all day, folks.)

    The closest modern analogue to Jefferson, in my mind, is Ron Paul. That’s actually why I supported Paul in the last election. Not because I want a government of Paulites, but because I thought he provided a necessary balance. We need to remember our roots.

  3. Gravitate to electric models, LOL, I like it.

    I don’t have the energy to delve into a political discussion, but your are probably talking about Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son. A lot of those ideals still stand true in moderation, but the world is a lot different than it was when our founding fathers were around. No man is an island, whether Libertarians want to believe it or not.

  4. No, I meant Ron Paul. I was referring to the last presidential election. Rand Paul isn’t as philosophical as his father. When pressed, I remember Ron admitting that it was impossible to implement everything he believed in given the realities of the modern world. His goal was to nudge us in the right direction. It would’ve been up to us to finish the job.

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