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Reviews

A City-State on a Hill

Mark Peterson’s new book traces the development of Boston from its founding in 1630 to the end of the American Civil War. In large part the book is a biography of the city, but from the unique perspective of Boston as a city-state and a commonwealth Peterson calls “remarkable for its autonomy, including an independent religious order free from the Church of England’s scrutiny, and a self-governing republic centered in Boston.’’

King Charles I never granted the Puritans a charter to settle in Massachusetts. He did grant one to a merchant named Matthew Cradock, for a commercial venture named the New England Company. But before that venture could get started, it was shrewdly taken over by prosperous country squire and Puritan John Winthrop, who bought up all the company’s shares. Under his leadership, the New England Company became more religious than commercial.

In April 1630, Winthrop and his followers, who elected him governor, hurried across the Atlantic to exploit their charter. The boldness of the move seemed to shape the character of the people who would colonize America. The New England Company was, in Puritan eyes, to be the founding of a purified church, and a political entity that was to be an example and a beacon to the whole world. They called it Boston, after a Lincolnshire town many of them hailed from.

From its early history, Boston was seen as a separate nation in its own right. Even after the creation of the United States of America, Spanish officials in Cuba still listed, “Bostonesa” as a separate nation of origin for ships visiting from New England. This independent and rebellious nature was reflected in the Massachusetts state seal, which was distinct from other colonies in that royal markings were curiously absent. Its symbol depicted a native American surrounded by a biblical quotation from St. Paul: “Come Over And Help Us.” Peterson’s contention is that this city-state identity of Boston is often overlooked by historians for its role in shaping the later history of the United States.

Peterson calls Boston a society built on utopian ideas. Contrary to popular belief, the Puritans did not really believe the doctrine that man was utterly corrupted by original sin. Rather, they believed that sin was environmental, and so felt they could create legislation to prevent sin in society, and thereby build a better world. In the New World setting, the God of the Old Testament was more distant to the Puritans, nor did they rely on the New Testament of Christ’s goodness and grace. Puritans placed more faith in their own abilities and their conception of themselves as God’s pilgrims, specially chosen to civilize the pagan wilderness. The construction of a better world was central to the Puritan belief, and became a very American attitude, whether through the American Dream or nation- building overseas. It makes Puritans more contemporary than one may at first realize.

The Puritans’ belief in their special role in the world fueled the ideas that Boston was a nation unto itself and a unique example to the world. It also made its residents keenly interested in foreign affairs. “Boston and New England’s residents were deeply interested in and engaged with continental Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Caribbean, even the Indian Ocean, much more so than the extant historiography would lead you to believe,” Peterson writes.

For over a century, Boston succeeded as an autonomous self-governing commonwealth despite attempts from England to rein her in. From 1643, Boston engaged in independent commerce with Spain, exporting cod and, in the West Indies, trading low-grade fish to sugar plantation owners to sustain their slave populations. Boston merchants traded for the slave-produced molasses, which was sold for great profit after it was distilled into rum. Peterson argues this trade effectively made Boston a participant in the slave trade.

Boston’s city-state aspirations are further evinced in the minting of its own coinage. No other colony dared undertake such a venture, as Massachusetts did in 1652. Ten years later, the restored Charles II took umbrage at this usurpation of his authority for the coinage, which did not bear his image. Sir Thomas Temple, representing Massachusetts’ interests in court, cleverly soothed the sovereign’s wrath. He pulled out a Massachusetts Commonwealth coin impressed with the image of an oak tree and explained to the king that the oak was in fact a royal tribute, because Charles had hidden himself in an oak tree to escape Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War.

Massachusetts’ independence also extended to military matters, which Peterson illuminates by detailing many interesting characters commonly overlooked by historians. These included William Shirley, the state’s longest-serving governor, who organized a military and naval expedition that took the French naval base of Louisbourg in 1745 during King George’s War. Bostonians were disheartened three years later when Louisbourg had to be returned to Canada by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The incident helped to demonstrate to the British Empire that the city’s troublesome residents did not share its military or foreign policy goals.

After Britain’s tremendous victory in the French and Indian War (1756-1763), which largely removed France from the North American continent, England sought to better administer her possessions. Accordingly, new taxes were laid to pay for the war, including the infamous Stamp and Tea Acts. It was no surprise that Boston led the way in resistance, with Bostonians Samuel and John Adams at the forefront of the action. In Europe, Boston became synonymous with revolutionary America.

In Peterson’s view, the American Revolution and the creation of the United States was a natural outgrowth of Boston’s city-state idea, “another shift in the city and region’s long history of negotiating imperial relationships.”

After the creation of the United States of America and ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the author of this fine book traces Boston’s declining role as a leader and the rising dominance of Virginia in the new American Union. Peterson quotes American historian Gordon Wood, who contends that after 1787, John Adams, Boston’s great man, had become largely “irrelevant.”

During the Federalist period (1789-1801), Boston’s dissatisfaction with its diminished position grew. Congressmen Fisher Ames and Josiah Quincy repeatedly attempted to push Boston’s interests in Congress, but were outvoted by Southern and mid-Atlantic states, which in turn passed measures that left Massachusetts fishermen and farmers in distress.

Being a federalist initially meant that one favored the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. But with the election of President Jefferson in 1800, this definition changed. Jefferson’s pursuit of a neutral policy toward Great Britain and France closed the port of Boston to all trade with Great Britain in 1807.

New Englanders compared this to King George III’s Boston Port Act of 1774. Jefferson’s successor Madison continued trade restrictions, further crippling the New England economy. The federalist position was now used by Bostonians to argue that states have the authority to nullify national legislation and to withdraw from the Union.

The crisis came on December 15th, 1814, when a New England convention voted to send a delegation to Washington to demand the right to dismiss laws passed by the federal government. On their journey to Washington, the delegates heard of General Jackson’s decisive victory at New Orleans effectively ending the War of 1812 and the restrictions on New England trade. They returned home, the purpose for their rebellion extinguished.

New England’s economy took a new turn with the establishment of textile mills northwest of Boston. Mills need cotton, so an alliance was established between the Northern Lords of the Loom, and the Southern Lords of the Lash. Peterson sees this as a further decline of the city-state as Boston became “economically intertwined with and under the governmental authority of an expansionist American slavocracy.’’

With the defeat of the South in the American Civil War, Peterson says Boston embraced the same “imperial aims of the United States without reservation” and the Boston city-state vision slipped away forever.

Peterson is committed to his political thesis of Boston as a city-state, and somewhat overlooks the important Puritan religious dimension of the city, even disputing whether John Winthrop ever gave a speech about Boston being a “city on a hill.” The strong religious element in the founding of the colony cannot be ignored, and neither can its influence on the future United States.

Ironically, just at the time Peterson declares the city-state ended, Bostonians began to tear down its three prominent hills to fill in its Back Bay for real estate development. Beacon Hill had been the highest point on which a beacon once stood to guide ships. This was the hill Winthrop referred to. The idealistic city and beacon on the hill was turned into a material foundation to build a secular, commercial society.

Peterson’s book is a fine tribute to the city-state of Boston and correctly mourns its demise as a tragedy.

[The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865 by Mark Peterson (Princeton University Press) 784 pp., $39.95.]

Patrick J. Walsh

Patrick J. Walsh writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.

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