In his new book The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, the crackerjack economist Edward Glaeser makes an eloquent case for cities as the keys to creativity. They are the intersection points where the intensity of communication unlocks innovation. “Cities enable the collaboration that makes humanity shine most brightly,” he writes. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. . . . Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”
Glaeser is an extremely successful academic, who’s University of Chicago Ph.D. has led him to a job at Harvard and plenty of side projects. The Triumph of the City draws on hundreds of recent of scholarly books and articles that have probed cities as economic and social systems. It is a new synthesis, but it also channels the work of another academic superstar who wrote nearly seventeen decades earlier.
That scholar was George Tucker, who penned a very Glaeseresque phrase in 1843, writing that “The growth of cities commonly marks the progress of intelligence and the arts.”
A Virginia politician and intellectual who appreciated cities as engines of progress, Tucker was one of those public intellectuals who act as a commentator and synthesizer for a generation, well known in their lifetimes but rapidly fading from memory as issues change and their contributions look broad rather than deep. If he were working in the twenty-first century, he’d be an op-ed columnist and blogger. In his own time, he was an essayist and pamphleteer.
He spent his career in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the two states that were the center 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 and then had a stroke of fortune when Thomas Jefferson asked him to be professor of moral philosophy at the brand new University of Virginia. He lectured there from 1825 to 1845 and ended his career in Philadelphia, writing and publishing a four volume history of the United States.
Before and after Charlottesville, Tucker kept his pen busy with ten books plus scads of articles and pamphlets. The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) unsuccessfully imitated the novels of 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, history, a laudatory biography of Jefferson, and, relevant for this book, Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth for Fifty Years, as Exhibited by the Decennial Census (1843).
As his title indicated, Tucker believed in progress, as scientific discovery fueled economic development and allowed the fuller 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. His 1822 essay “On Density of Population” argues that people in concentrated numbers, not isolated Jeffersonian farmers, are necessary to generate progress in science, literature, and the arts and stimulate the economy through competition. Two decades later he expanded his analysis, acknowledging urban problems but celebrating urban potential.
If these congregations of men diminish some of the comforts of life, they augment others; if they are less favourable 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.
Ed Glaeser, as far as I know, has yet to try his hand at science fiction or to author another Ivanhoe, but his agreement with George Tucker in the realm of moral philosophy is deep and lasting. Cities, they both understand, are where ideas happen.