- The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630–1865 by Mark Peterson
Although this volume tells the story of a city, it is not a conventional urban history. Rather than examining the internal development of Boston proper, Peterson re-frames colonial Boston and its New England hinterland as a highly integrated and largely autonomous city-state defined by free trade, private property, self-rule, and a common religious culture. Boston would fight successfully throughout the colonial period to maintain its autonomy, only to lose it during the national period along with some of the city’s most admirable characteristics. Peterson/portrays this transition as a story of loss, encouraging readers to reconsider the value of city-states in a world now defined by nations. Simultaneously urban history, regional history, and more, The City-State of Boston represents a refreshing new take on one of America’s most storied cities.
The volume is divided into three books. Book I covers the founding of Boston, the spread of its population and influence throughout New England, and its integration into the Atlantic economy. The book culminates in the overthrow of a royal governor who had gone too far in threatening the city-state’s way of life. Book II traces Boston’s further development, its increasingly difficult relationship with a newly militarized British Empire determined to bring it to heal, and the eventual rebellion of the republic of New England against the king and Parliament.
In the third and final book, which covers the period between the signing of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War, we see Boston slowly lose much of the autonomy that it had fought so strenuously to maintain. Although the city had long been tied economically to the slave societies of the Caribbean, it now found its political economy subordinated to the slave societies of the American South. Bostonians squirmed beneath the thumb of a region with radically different values but ultimately absorbed enough of them to destroy the consensus that had guided the city for many generations. By the Civil War, Boston and New England no longer existed in the forms that they had seventyfive years before.
Peterson’s story is an unfamiliar one. The reason, he explains, is that changes in national politics after the Civil War obscured Boston’s earlier life as a city-state. With the defeat of the South, the city began to play a more influential role in federal policy. At the same time, Boston’s historians began writing national histories that put New England squarely at the center of the American story, even during the years between 1789 and 1861 when the South held more power over national policy. Once the nation-state became the dominant theme in the telling of not only America’s history but Boston’s as well, memories of the city-state faded away. Peterson’s book provides an important reminder of how deeply colored our histories are by the times in which they are written. [End Page 160]
In some ways, the book’s approach is traditional: It is largely a political and economic history with most of its main characters drawn from the ranks of the city’s political and economic elite. But the book is methodologically innovative as well because Peterson sets the city’s story at the intersection of a variety of different geographical scales. Boston is sometimes a key outpost in a trans-Atlantic economy, sometimes the capital of a distinctive region, and sometimes a major center of power in a great nation. It is, in Peterson’s telling, within these various and shifting roles that the city worked for generations to maintain its economic, political, and cultural autonomy. Although readers expecting a history of Boston proper will not find one in these pages, there remains something profoundly local about Peterson’s effort to tie together a region, a nation, and the wider Atlantic world through a single city.