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Among the many takeaways from Tuesday, this one will get the least mention: We have to do a better job teaching history. Specifically, the population-density segmentation influencing our constitutional ideology.

"When [our governments] get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1787.

He hated cities.

"The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body," he wrote acidly in Notes on the State of Virginia.

"I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man," he hissed in another letter.

Jefferson was familiar with Europe's greatest cities. In the late 18th century, London and Paris had populations roughly matching that of current San Francisco and Milwaukee, respectively. The third largest city in Europe at the time, Naples, was about the size of modern-day Tulsa.

Contrast those large European population centers with then-contemporary U.S. cities: the 1790 census listed New York with 33,131 residents, Philadelphia with 28,522 and Boston with 18,320.

Approaching 900,000 souls, London was almost 30 times larger than NYC, Paris 20 times larger--and both hundreds of times bigger than most any U.S. town outside America's largest 10 cities.

Jefferson, Franklin and others witnessed firsthand how the centralization of population often led to wholesale corruption of governing entities, and public oppression.

They also studied the metropolises of antiquity. Athens in the 4th century B.C. had more than 300,000 people, although only about a third of those would have been citizen families. The city of Rome had grown to a population of 1 million by 100 A.D., just prior to the Empire's decline and rapid fall (by the time of Michelangelo, fewer than 60,000 people occupied the city).

The founders' scholarship and personal observations of urban maladies were major drivers of our Constitution's prudent checks and balances, including our bicameral legislature and electoral college. Their shrewd, farsighted solutions have worked remarkably well. Not because they changed the nature of large cities, but because they counterbalanced urbanism's natural ills.

Abuses of every social system, device and program are easier when urban anonymity comes into play. Our "piled-on" cities routinely and detrimentally skew state and national social statistics, from crime to education.

Arkansas has a disproportionately high crime rate mainly because of a handful of violent urban neighborhoods in a few cities. For any state, and for the nation as a whole, remove the cities from analysis and America's statistical crime problem essentially evaporates. The less densely populated areas of the U.S. are actually very safe.

Likewise with schools, where educators have been seeking to close the achievement gap, urban students suffer for decades. Schools in large cities spend more money but deliver lower test scores. There are individual factors at work, but those only serve to affirm the collective fact that city schools struggle under the problems urbanized society presents. In Arkansas, seven of the 10 lowest-test-scoring high schools are located in just three of the state's largest cities.

Without an equal representation Senate and the electoral college structure, cities' adverse influence would also skew politics and elections. They would promptly deliver the "tyranny of the majority" that James Madison warned against.

Everyone remembers the county election map after 2016--Hillary Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties in the nation, which contributed to her overall popular vote victory of about 3 million votes.

But in the roughly 3,000 counties beyond those 100, Trump got nearly 12 million more votes than Clinton. All told, 85 percent of America's counties voted for Trump. The map was a smear of red, with a few blue blotches in the most urban areas. The candidate with the widest appeal across the broadest subsections of the country won the presidency. Not the candidate who only managed to get the most votes from the people in the most populated areas.

On Tuesday, the Arkansas county map echoed that same crimson coalition effect. The gubernatorial candidate who won the counties with the state's biggest population, highest crime rates and lowest test scores was not Asa Hutchinson. But Governor Hutchinson won 68 of Arkansas' 75 counties overall; as the candidate with the broadest statewide appeal, he was elected.

Unlike Jefferson, I don't hate cities. They aren't bad places, or full of bad people. But urban areas inherently face more challenges because of their population size. Certain city leadership fares better than others, in various times, at managing them.

We should never stop trying to improve our cities. But giving them more political power is not the answer.

President George Washington paired rivals New Yorker Alexander Hamilton and Virginia farmer Jefferson in his Cabinet, realizing that input from both--and compelling them to pull together--would produce better policy than dominance by either.

It's easy to bash our electoral structure when your candidate doesn't win. But it's smarter to recollect that history tends to repeat, and the founders' erudition continues to deliver liberty in spite of our own shortsightedness that would imperil it.

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Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 11/09/2018

Print Headline: A midterm recollection

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