Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Henry Harrison, 6 August 1802

From William Henry Harrison

Vincennes 6th. Augt. 1802


When I had the honour to see you in Philadelphia in the Spring of the year 1800 you were pleased to recommend to me a plan for a Town which you supposed would exempt its inhabitants in a great degree from those dreadful pestilences which have become so common in the large cities of the United States. As the laws of this Territory have given to the Governor the power to designate the seats of Justice for the Counties, and as the choice of the Citizens of Clark County was fixed upon a spot where there had been no town laid out, I had an opportunity at once of gratifying them—of paying respect to your recommendation, and of conforming to my own inclinations—The proprietor of the land having acceded to my proposals a Town has been laid out with each alternate square to remain vacant forever (excepting one Range of squares upon the River)—and I have taken the liberty to call it Jeffersonville—The beauty of the spot on which the Town is laid out, the advantages of the situation (being just above the Rapids of the Ohio) and the excellence of the plan, makes it highly probable that it will at some period not very remote become a place of considerable consequence—At the sale of the lots a few days ago several of them were struck off at 200 Dollars. It is in contemplation to cut a canal round the Rapids on this side—a project which it is said can be very easily executed and which will be highly beneficial to the Town. Indeed I have very little doubt of its flourishing. It is my ardent wish that it may become worthy of the name it bears, and that the Humane & benevolent views which dictated the plan may be reallised—

If Sir it should again happen that in the wide Range which you suffer your thoughts to take for the benefit of Mankind—the accomplishment of any of your wishes can in the smallest degree be aided by me—I beg you to beleive that your commands shall be executed to the utmost extent of my small talent.

I have the Honour to be with sincere attachment Sir your most Hum Sevt.

Willm. Henry Harrison

P.S. I have done myself the Honour to enclose a plan of the Town of Jeffersonville and one which shews its situation with Regard to Louisville & Clarksville.

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson President of the United States”; with postscript on separate sheet; endorsed by TJ as received 29 Aug. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures not found, but see below.

A PLAN FOR A TOWN: TJ had promoted a checkerboard plan for the layout of American towns since at least 1799, in which each alternate square would remain unoccupied and left in a natural state. He touted the scheme as an effective barrier against yellow fever, which TJ believed was caused by the dense construction of cities in the warm, cloudless environment of the United States. In his checkerboard plan, each square of houses would be surrounded by four open squares, thereby creating a rural atmosphere that would be “insusceptible of the miasmata which produce yellow fever.” Besides Harrison, TJ had also discussed this idea with Benjamin Rush, William C.C. Claiborne, and C. F. C. Volney. In 1804, he recommended the checkerboard plan to Claiborne for the enlargement of New Orleans, but it was not put into effect. In 1821, the legislature of Mississippi adopted TJ’s checkerboard plan for its new state capital, Jackson, although most of the open squares were subsequently occupied (John W. Reps, The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States [Princeton, 1965], 314–22; Vol. 31:183–4; TJ to Claiborne, 7 and 17 July 1804; TJ to Volney, 8 Feb. 1805).

The new town of JEFFERSONVILLE was laid out on a 150–acre plot on the north bank of the Ohio River opposite Louisville, Kentucky. The plan was a modified version of the checkerboard layout, in which the squares fronting the river would all be occupied, while the interior squares would adopt TJ’s alternating system. More significantly, a diagonal grid of streets was imposed upon the checkerboard plan, intersecting in the open squares and thereby dividing each into four triangles. The unconventional street layout also clipped corners from the exterior lots of the occupied squares and cut off the interior lots from street frontage. The diagonal street plan did not appeal to TJ, who deemed it less convenient than running streets parallel to the squares. Harrison was aware of TJ’s preference, but explained that “the proprietor was so parsimonious that he would not suffer it to be laid out in that manner.” Residents of Jeffersonville likewise found the unorthodox town plan inconvenient, and in 1816 secured permission from the Indiana legislature to change it. All of the land north of Market Street was subsequently consolidated and laid out into new lots, obliterating the original checkerboard plan (Reps, Making of Urban America, 317–21; Carl E. Kramer, This Place We Call Home: A History of Clark County, Indiana [Bloomington, Ind., 2007], 40–2; TJ to Harrison, 27 Feb. 1803; Harrison to TJ, 29 Oct. 1803).

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