George Tucker was a 19th century public intellectual who appreciated cities as engines of progress and offered some of the clearest early statements on their behalf. His ideas today still sound impressively modern.
Nearly two centuries before Edward Glaeser or Richard Florida, there was George Tucker.
In 1822 his essay, “On Density of Population,” he argued that the concentrated energy of cities is necessary for economic growth and progress in science and the arts. Two decades later he expanded his analysis in Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth for Fifty Years, as Exhibited by the Decennial Census (1843), where he celebrated urban potential. When he wrote that “the growth of cities commonly marks the progress of intelligence and the arts,” he foreshadowed Florida’s ideas about the creative class and Glaeser’s “gifts of the city.”
Tucker was one of those public intellectuals who acted as a commentator and synthesizer for a generation—well known in their lifetimes but fading from memory as issues change. If he were working in the 21st century, he’d likely be an op-ed columnist or a blogger. Perhaps he’d even be a CityLab contributor. Instead, he shared his findings as an essayist and pamphleteer.
Tucker was a polymath—a politician, novelist, historian, and professor at the University of Virginia—whose ideas today still sound impressively modern. He built his career in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson, a skilled phrase-maker who relished coming up with catty things to say about places like Philadelphia. Tucker, in contrast, appreciated cities as engines of progress and offered some of the clearest early statements on their behalf. He also reminds us that the early republic had a long list of urban advocates including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Hinton Helper. Jefferson’s agrarian vision makes the textbooks, but the advocacy of urban life has been alive and well since the nation’s early years.
Tucker spent his career in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the two states that were the centers of gravity of the early republic. Born in Bermuda, educated at William and Mary, and resident of Richmond and Lynchburg, Tucker served three undistinguished terms in Congress before Jefferson asked him to teach at the brand new University of Virginia. Tucker accepted the offer and lectured there from 1825 to 1845 before ending his career in Philadelphia.
He kept his pen busy with ten books and scads of articles and pamphlets. The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) unsuccessfully imitated Walter Scott. A Voyage to the Moon (1827) used the premise of a fantastic voyage to satirize contemporary society (calling it science fiction is too big a stretch). The rest of his output was nonfiction—philosophical essays, political and economic commentary, a laudatory biography of Jefferson, and a four-volume history of the United States.
Tucker believed that scientific discovery would fuel economic development and allow the full development of human capacities. The United States—with its natural resources and open politics—was more progressive than Europe, as shown by its extraordinary growth since the adoption of federal government. In Progress of the United States he acknowledged urban problems while celebrating the potential of cities:
If these congregations of men diminish some of the comforts of life, they augment others; if they are less favorable to health than the country, they also provide better defenses against disease, and better means of cure... [t]hey are more prone to innovation, whether for good or evil… Whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free, and intelligent tend.
Tucker was not alone. Take some of his intellectual contemporaries whom we associate with the love of nature—Henry David Thoreau drifting down New England rivers, philosophers and literati trying their hands at a rural commune, Ralph Waldo Emerson writing tributes to Nature. Probe a little further, however, and note that Thoreau periodically escaped Walden for Boston. Nathaniel Hawthorne skewered the pretentions of Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance.
Emerson, in his essay “Culture,” noted that “we can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities” (although he hedged that “they must be used; yet cautiously”). Cities, he wrote, “give us collision,” the critical mass of individuals whose daily interactions stimulate both business and the arts. Less cautious was enthusiastic New Yorker Walt Whitman when he proclaimed that “no matter what the moralists and metaphysicians may teach, out of our cities the human race does not expand and improvise so well morally, intellectually, or physically.”
Looking south and north from Tucker’s Charlottesville, J. D. B. De Bow began publishing the Commercial Review of the South and West in New Orleans in 1846, focusing on economic progress and giving frequent place to reports and theories of urban growth. North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper added to the southern voice in 1857. His manifesto, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, argued that slavery undermined the economic progress of the South and the well-being of its white population. The South needed to stop trading through New York and Cincinnati and build up its own cities, “where we can carry on active commerce, buy, sell, fabricate, [and] receive the profits which accrue from the exchange of our own commodities.” What would England be without London, he asked, or France without Paris?
Almost invariably do we find the bulk of floating funds, the best talent, and the most vigorous energies of a nation concentrated in its chief cities; and does not this concentration of wealth, energy, and talent, conduce, in an extraordinary way, to the growth and prosperity of the nation?
These examples—which would be easy to multiply many times over from newspaper editors, politicians, and what we might call geo-economic theorists like Jesup Scott and William Gilpin—sound the common theme that cities are the driving wheels of national development. They facilitate efficient exchange and production through what economists now call agglomeration economies. They also create the critical mass for the creation of new ideas. They make things happen.
Tucker, Whitman, and Helper offered liberal arguments in the 19th century meaning of the term. They promoted open commerce and the intellectual marketplace advocated by John Stuart Mill. Their ideas resonated then with American elites and the developing middle class, and they resonate today with people who acknowledge and defend the creative capacities of cities.