- The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630–1865 by Mark Peterson
Mark Peterson’s long-awaited The City-State of Boston presents a breathtaking thesis: Boston’s history from its first English settlement through the American Civil War ought to be understood as the rise and fall of an independent city-state. Boston, as Peterson tells its story, was conceived and built not as a national and/or imperial project, nor as a despotic theocracy or a cradle of liberal democracy, but as a republic. It was a polis with regional interests, bound together by a distinct political economy and a civic morality derived from biblical teaching. Following the American Revolution, however, Boston—tragically, from Peterson’s perspective— aligned itself with U.S. national interests, capitulated to the economic designs of southern states, and became undone as a city-state by the end of the Civil War.
The City-State of Boston accordingly challenges the convention among early American historians to construct the narrative of early Boston—and because of its influence, the rest of Massachusetts—as inevitably drawn into a national project on a continental scale. Peterson rejects that teleological reading. He contends that the agendas promoting such a project—such as market capitalism, pursuit of a liberal political order, or the imperial and racialized conquest of North America—were not endemic to Boston’s polis and were in fact contested by its inhabitants long into the nineteenth century. In the process, his book shows that American historians can return to the presumably familiar political and religious origins of Boston and New England to offer invigorating insights into the meaning of the American nation and our collective identities. He does so especially by placing matters of political economy at the center of his account.
Peterson presents his argument by weaving vignettes of leading and middling Bostonians together with discussions of signal events to create a complex and overlapping narrative of more than 630 pages. He covers well-known terrain such as puritan designs for a godly order, the Pequot War, the development of a trading economy, King Philip’s War, the establishment of the Dominion of New England, the Glorious Revolution in America, warfare with French Canada, removal of the Acadians, the imperial crises leading to the American Revolution, the making of the Constitution, Shays’s Rebellion, Federalist resistance to Democratic-Republican politics, the Hartford Convention, the growth of textile industries, and the development of abolitionism. Yet he maps that familiar terrain in ingenious ways and fills it with new evidence—and startling anecdotes—that make it [End Page 332] appear quite different than its portrayal in previous narratives. He writes, for example, about the widespread use of wampum: how it was made, how New Englanders transformed it from a diplomatic and ceremonial object in Native practice to a medium of exchange, how their quest for it incited hostilities between Native groups and between English and Native peoples, and, finally, how its overproduction led to its devaluation in long-distance trade. In another surprising vignette, Peterson tells us about the European travels of a young Jonathan Belcher Sr.—long before he became governor— who examined German mining operations and hobnobbed with the great Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The book is saturated with other excursuses into rarely mentioned topics, such as the connections between Boston’s illicit coinage and the silver mines of Potosí; the efforts of the New England Confederation to form diplomatic and commercial ties with Native peoples, the Netherlands, and France; silver tribute given to the British crown; the Huguenot immigrant Jean-Paul Mascarene who expressed anguish over the deportation of Acadians; proposals for secession from the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century; Bostonians who sent their children to France for education, some who joined a community of Hellenophilic scholars at the University of Göttingen, and others who met Johan Wolfgang von Goethe; the creation of new land in Boston by filling in watery spaces; and...