Peterson, Mark. The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Reviewed by Kristian Price
Challenging the popular depiction of Boston as a “city upon a hill,” Mark Peterson sees the city as less a beacon of promise or righteousness than as mired in contradictions and uncertainty. That said, during the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, Boston was an economic powerhouse willing to assert its political autonomy in the face of British imperial authority. The city in the colonial period comes across as a remarkably strong and independent metropolitan trading center that Peterson calls, “the city state of Boston.” In the end, however, while Puritan leaders may have declared Boston “an autonomous self-governing republic modeled on biblical and classical republican ideals,” there remained the need for its merchants to turn a profit. How? Direct and indirect involvement in the slave trade.
The City-State of Boston is thus an economic and intellectual history that analyzes Bostonians’ struggle to reconcile a self-regarding image as a Christian commonwealth and the ruthless trading system, which sustained its economy. The desire for economic and political autonomy and a strong sense of righteousness inevitably brought the city into conflict with imperial authority. Bostonians were not, as Peterson shows, waiting for the Revolution. Instead, Peterson rejects the teleology of Revolution by highlighting how at times Boston advanced British imperial goals and at other times vehemently protected its autonomy. Boston did not rebel to advance the American Revolution, but instead rebelled to preserve its own hard-earned independence, which it had gained under English authority. For Peterson, the signing of the Constitution in 1788 was not exactly a cause for celebration; rather, it signaled Boston’s death-knell as the city ceded its authority to the United States.
Peterson begins by tracking the development of New England’s political economy and its increasing ties to slave societies abroad. Boston began with a tense period of self-doubt and economic insecurity. Early failure in the 1630s and 1640s to develop and market a stable commodity and to attract new settlers crippled the city’s growth. However, a chance voyage to the West Indies by Thomas Coytmore gave Boston hope. Instead of producing a single commodity, Boston shipped basic grocery goods that were bought by West Indian slaveholders looking for cheap provisions. To encourage New England farm production above subsistence levels, Boston established a silver coin mint, one of only two in the New World. Against the wishes of the Crown, the mint provided a means of exchange to encourage needed overproduction. While coming into conflict with royal authority in the late seventeenth century, Boston was able to provide sufficient tribute to allay accusations of disloyalty.
The second section of The City State tracks Boston’s renewed commitment to self-determination and mutual charity following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Increased connections to Dutch and German authorities led Bostonians to imagine themselves at the center of a new millennial movement, one where their ideals of charity and autonomy would extend their economic and political influence. However, increasing discomfort with “man-stealing” and New England’s connection with slave societies led to arguments about the morality of free societies supporting institutions of repression. Peterson shows that Cotton Mather’s Theopolis Americana sidelined questions of morality by prizing the commercial Atlantic connections that confirmed the utopian visions of Boston’s elite within the context of a larger “Protestant Empire.” These hopes were subsequently destroyed by the emergence of an increasingly militarized English empire. Both the expulsion of the Acadians by British authorities and the Seven Years War confirmed New England suspicions that English authorities were working to undermine the autonomy of the city-state of Boston. Even Boston’s involvement in the American Revolution was due to its commitment not to revolutionary but to conservative ideals of self-governance and a virtuous commonwealth.
The book’s final section outlines the slow decline of Boston’s political supremacy and maritime authority with the creation of the new nation. Virginia’s insistence on maritime embargoes and the expansion of American territory with the Louisiana Purchase greatly weakened Boston’s influence in the young republic. In addition, new economic ties to Southern cotton production led to a dramatic transformation of New England’s economic structure. Federal tariffs led to a massive consolidation of the textile industry as large manufacturers supplanted local industries. While Boston’s trade and economic power boomed in the 1830s, its connections to the South and the demand of New England mills for Southern cotton brought the city, even as a center of abolitionism, under the nation-wide influence of slaveholders. New conflicts over republican values, the extension of slavery in the West, and passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act led to the loss of Boston’s autonomy and moral authority.
Peterson’s The City-State of Boston is an important and well-written addition to current scholarship on early America and the Atlantic world. Peterson expertly weaves seemingly disparate and unconnected threads into a narrative that engages wide-ranging themes and historiographical debates. He acknowledges that the idea of a city-state might be construed as anachronistic, but recentering Boston as an autonomous metropolitan center provides a useful framework for understanding a remarkable city, which both welcomed and challenged imperial authority and then struggled to find its place within the national narrative. Here, then, is a study offering the reader a fresh approach for understanding American exceptionalism, idealism, and perhaps hypocrisy.
Kristian Price is a PhD student in History at the University at Albany, where he studies the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Environmental History. His research is centered on the development of Early Modern Capitalism as an extension of the Atlantic Slave Trade, with a particular focus on sharks and ocean predators as a lens to study shifting cultural, scientific, and economic exchanges.
Featured image (at top): John Bachmann and Sarony & Major, Bird’s Eye View of Boston, 1850, Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library.