“The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of  an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865” by Mark Peterson— A History of Early America

Peterson, Mark. “The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of  an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865”, Princeton University Press,  2019.

A History of Early America

Amos Lassen

Mark Peterson’s groundbreaking history of early America shows how Boston built, maintained and sustained an independent city-state in New England before being folded into the United States.

Historically Boston has long been held up as an exemplary “city upon a hill” and the “cradle of liberty” for an independent United States. Setting aside the city from the clichés that describe it, Peterson shows us Boston’s overlooked past as an autonomous city-state, and in doing so, he presents “a pathbreaking and brilliant new history of early America.” In following Boston’s development over three centuries, we learn how this self-governing Atlantic trading center that began as a refuge from Britain’s Stuart monarchs and how through its bargain with slavery and ratification of the Constitution, the city would tragically lose integrity and autonomy as it became incorporated into the larger and greater United States.

Peterson’s research entails vast archives, and features unfamiliar figures alongside well-known ones, such as John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and John Adams. He explores Boston’s origins in sixteenth-century utopian ideals, its founding and expansion into the hinterland of New England, and the growth of its distinctive political economy, with ties to the West Indies and southern Europe. By the 1700s, Boston was at full strength, with wide Atlantic trading circuits and cultural ties, both within and beyond Britain’s empire. After the Revolutionary War, “citizens of Boston aimed to negotiate a relationship with the American confederation, but through the next century, the new United States took down Boston’s regional reign. The fateful decision to ratify the Constitution undercut its power, as Southern planters and slave owners dominated national politics and the city-state’s vision of a common good for all ceased to exist.

Peterson cut through the layers of myth surrounding Boston and gives us a fresh understanding of America’s history.  He leads us through many of Boston’s ideals and shows how they clashed with the city’s links to the American South’s slave-driven economy. There were, of course, slaveholders in Boston as well and we certainly see that today as many of the monuments here were named after former slaveholding Bostonians whose names are about to be purged and replaced— notably Devotion School’s name is to be changed as it the name of landmark Faneuil Hall.

We see Boston here as an independent city-state that was absorbed into the new country that arose around it. It was at once privileged and peculiar suggesting the value of considering its distinctive past anew as Peterson has done so well. He tells the story in rich and extraordinary ways and it will be impossible to see Boston any other way after reading this. It will not be a comfortable read for everyone especially those who revere the story of Puritans, revolutionaries, and abolitionists as it has been told till now. Above all else, we see that history does change.

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