- In Retrospect: Robert G. Albion’s The Rise of New York Port, 1815–1860
Sixty years after it was published in 1939, Robert G. Albion’s The Rise of New York Port, 1815–1860 remains the standard account of New York City’s emergence as the dominant metropolis in North America. This book, which is still in print today, is impressive for its prodigious research and for the broad, transatlantic perspective it takes on urban growth. Yet Albion’s study is also in many ways old and outdated. Having been overtaken by the advent of social history as the profession’s dominant subfield and bypassed by the newer theoretical and quantitative trends that prevail in economic history, it now fits one definition of a scholarly classic: much cited, little read, seldom discussed. A very long time indeed has passed since a survey of historians taken in the early 1950s ranked The Rise of New York Port in the “honorable mention” category of preferred works in American history. 1
For someone who made his greatest mark with a study of New York City, Robert G. Albion took little interest in cities or their history. He instead identified himself as a maritime historian. Most of the sixteen books that Albion wrote, co-wrote, or edited during his long life dealt with some aspect of the sea, including Square-Riggers on Schedule: The New York Sailing Packets to England, France, and the Cotton Ports (1938), Sea Lanes in Wartime: The American Experience, 1775–1942 (1942), and Seaports South of the Sahara: The Achievement of an American Steamship Service (1959). 2 His attachment to the sea began early. Born in 1896, Albion grew up on the shores of Maine’s Casco Bay, where he spent much time on the water. After earning a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and then serving as an infantry officer during World War I, Albion entered graduate school at Harvard. There he developed his interest in maritime history, writing a dissertation on the timber problem of the Royal [End Page 171] Navy that was published in book form in 1926. As the title of this book—Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy, 1652–1862—suggests, Albion’s early thinking about the oceans was strongly influenced by Alfred T. Mahan and Frederick Jackson Turner. Borrowing from Mahan, Albion saw the oceans as an arena of economic and military competition whose control shaped the destiny of nations. Reacting to Turner, Albion viewed the sea as a second frontier that had exerted a powerful, if underrated, influence on American society. Albion, Samuel Eliot Morrison, and other maritime historians believed that oceanic commerce had contributed significantly to the growth of the U.S. economy. 3 They contended that American historians had overlooked the importance of “the water frontier to the east.” 4
Albion wanted to lift scholarly knowledge and public awareness of maritime history to the level that the Turnerian frontier commanded. As a faculty member first at Princeton and then at Harvard, Albion offered a course on oceanic history that was popular with students, who affectionately called it “Boats.” In addition to his writing and teaching, he participated in many other aspects of maritime history—lecturing at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval War College; advising maritime museums; giving a pioneering television course on the subject; and serving on the editorial board of the quarterly journal American Neptune. A festschrift published in his honor is suitably illustrated with a photograph that shows a jovial Albion standing in front of a sailing ship at Mystic Seaport. Albion died in 1983 in Groton, Connecticut, not far from Long Island Sound. 5
Albion’s conception of maritime history was shaped by his understanding of classical economics. He was primarily concerned with the organization of economic activity and with the rationalization of maritime affairs. As he saw it, the Atlantic world (and for Albion, maritime...