Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Thomas Jefferson: urban designer and advocate of a weak judicary

"On the raw, rainy day of February 4, 1801, John Marshall took his oath as chief justice of the United States in a small committee room on the first floor of the nation's new Capitol. The Supreme Court's meager physical space... suggested the Court's lowly status. The quarters for the presumed third coequal branch of the federal government were embarrassingly inferior to the accommodations for the president and Congress." -- James F. Simon, What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States, 2002, p. 138.

"The capital of Washington is a monument to Jefferson's magnificant vision. He was indirectly responsible for its location on the Potomac River and for its basic site planning there." -- F.D. Nichols and R.E. Griswold, Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect, 1978, p. 38.

If you think that I'm about to put the two above statements together and ponder if Thomas Jefferson's involvement in Washington's design showed that in spite of Article III he did not think the judiciary was a "coequal third branch of the government," you're right.

Take a look at a sketch Jefferson made just as the plan for having a capital on the Potomac River was taking shape:

Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe in The Landscape of Man (2nd ed. 1987) declare of this sketch that:

"(It) shows (Jefferson's) grasp of the elements of landscape design. Although his inclinations were towards Palladianism, the Captiol and the President's house were placed charmingly and unclassically side by side overlooking a long reach of the river, each in an enclave of buildings" (p. 220).

Sophocles said: "It was my care to make my life illustrious not by words more than by deeds." And while you can find lots of words about Jefferson's concerns about an expansive judiciary--for which I highly recommend Simon's book quoted above--it seems to me that the deed of drawing a sketch for Washington that had an attractive spot for a Capitol and another nice niche for the President's House, without any location highlighted for the judiciary, could demonstrate more than a thousand words that it wasn't Jefferson's later animosity towards Chief Justice John Marshall that caused him to distrust a powerful judiciary; those feelings were there all along.

One might contradict this assessment through a citation of a letter Jefferson wrote to James Madison on December 20, 1787, spelling out what TJ liked and disliked about the new Constitution:

"I like the negative given to the Executive with a third of either house, though I should have liked it better had the Judiciary been associated for that purpose, or invested with a similar and separate power."

Here, Jefferson actually seems to argue that the framers of the Constitution erred in not making the judiciary stronger. But this was a few years before his sketch (and well before his troubles with Marshall) and again, it seems to me that drawing a diagram for Washington without a building for the judiciary is a powerful argument that his comment to Madison was more an exception to his philosophy of government than the rule.

Furthermore, Jefferson's complaint to Madison that the Judicary should be associated with the president and a third of Congress to veto legislation (since it takes two-thirds of Congress to override a veto) seems to fly in the face of what Jefferson wrote earlier in Notes on the State of Virginia, advocating a strong separation of powers. Speaking of the Constituiton of Virginia, Jefferson lamented that:

"All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. 173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one" (p. 120 of the edition edited by William Peden).

Further evdience, I think, that Jefferson's sketch might reveal his true feelings more than his letter to Madison.

As we know, Washington was not designed as Jefferson would have it, with the White House and the Capitol side by side, but the plan did provide that these structures would become focal points on two perpendicular axes, see Jellicoe & Jellicoe, p. 221. No such prominence was given to the judiciary, and in fact the Supreme Court did not even have its own building until 1935 (Bernard Schwartz, A History of the Supreme Court, 1993, p. 225).

But wait a minute. Are Jefferson's acts as an amateur urban designer necessarily reflective of his political philosopy? Could he have wanted two prominent capital buildings instead of three not because he considered the judiciary less important but because he favored urban design with two nodal points rather than three?

I wonder. When Pierre L'Enfant, the planner employed to design Washington wrote to Jefferson asking for drawings of "any of the different grand city (sic) now existing," Jefferson sent him back plans of a dozen European cities, including Amsterdam and Paris (Nichols & Griswold, p. 46).

In doing a bit of research for this essay I pulled out my copy of Edmund Bacon's Design of Cities (2nd ed., 1974) to look for examples of urban design the well-read, well-traveled Jefferson could have known about that featured three focal points, as opposed to only two. And none of the three that I think might have had relevance were among the towns Jefferson forwarded plan drawings of to L'Enfant. One such design was Michelangelo's scheme for the Campidoglio in Rome (Bacon, pp. 114-119) where an equestrian statue unifies the relationship between a trio of grand buildings. The other European example was the layout of the Dutch Renaissance town of Wijk-bji-Duurstede, where the three facets of village life: spiritual force, temporal power, and economic energy are emphasized by the cross axial relationships of a church, a castle, and a large windmill, respectively (Bacon pp. 166-69).

Maybe Jefferson didn't know about the Dutch hamlet, but he certainly knew about Rome, and its exclusion from the list of cities Jefferson cited in his communication with L'Enfant is striking. But the real kicker is the third city of three focal points in the Bacon book.

It's Williamsburg. In Jefferson's own state.

Here's an online map of Williamsburg:
(The relationship between the three most significant structures is better shown in Bacon's book on pages 224-225, but the linked map here gets the job done.) Notice that the main building of the campus of William & Mary College is at one end of Duke of Gloucester Street, the Capitol is at the other. Perpendicular to both is the Governor's Palace. In fact, the relationship between the Capitol and the Palace is exactly the same as that between the Capitol and the White House in Washington. Put a building for the Supreme Court in D.C. where William & Mary's main building lies in Williamsburg and you've got a very close match, right down to the buildings astride the Mall being analagous to those lining Duke of Gloucester Street.

That Jefferson didn't share in his letter to L'Enfant a remark or two about Williamsburg may say nothing about TJ's opinion on its design--but note that unlike the design for Washington actually adopted, his own sketch for Washington looks nothing like Williamsburg.

So based on what I've learned doing this, I'm not sure we can do what I began this exercise thinking we might: reading into Jefferson's sketch an opinion on the judiciary. Maybe he just preferred his urban design with two prominent buildings instead of three.

My guess is, however, that if he had proposed a third grand structure it likely would have been a library or national college instead of a place for judges to preside.

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