Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:…. —Isaiah 40:4 KJV
As a grad student many years ago, I took a seminar in American History, two actually, but the more profitable of the two—and the more challenging—dealt with U.S. history before 1850. I was born and nurtured in the Midwest where that limitation ought to have severely cramped my style.
There are two eras of American history with negligible interest for me: one is certainly the Civil War (battles holding no fascination whatsoever) followed closely by the Revolution (why so little discussion of Founding Mothers?). So when I sat down with Cathy Matson to choose a topic, she recommended something urban and closer at hand. But since Wilmington (Delaware’s large city nearest the University of Delaware campus in Newark) is relatively new and not well documented in original documents, Dr Matson directed my curiosity toward Philadelphia, just a forty-five minute drive up I-95.
Initially, it was Philadelphia’s waterfront that captured my interest, a strip destroyed during the construction of Interstate 95—path of least resistance and all that. In colonial America, Philly was a commercial town dominated by Quaker financial interests and an important component of our national economic engine. So I wondered about its waterfront, analogizing it as a membrane engaged in a type of commercial osmosis. That might have been a worthwhile project (I still think it is) but at every turn William Penn’s famous plan for his new city presented itself: an Enlightenment exercise in Cartesian reason and Democratic civility. Then, one day, on the trek back home to Newark this thought crossed my mind: Why, of all the sources I’d consulted about Penn’s plan, were they so universally preoccupied with its origins—from the Roman castrum to the Londonderry plan of Ireland’s English overlords—while none of them seemed the least bit interested in the plan’s actual implementation; conception at the expense of delivery. Immaculate urban conceptions are one thing, but what happens when the rubber meets the road?
Philadelphia became a case study of the Ideal meeting the Real.
Twelve weeks and forty pages later, I completed “‘The crooked straight and the rough places plain’: Implementing William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia.”
I won’t burden you here with three pithy pages on Colonial privy pits. But I will say that several things are true of both Penn’s plan and Agincourt: 1) the former strongly influenced the latter, and 2) the 19th century pattern of Agincourt’s implementation is likely to have paralleled the chronology of its 17th century predecessor, one of them planned at the height of the Enlightenment, the other one Otis last gasps.