‘There Was a Boston Once’

A View of Boston, 1738; painting by John Smibert
John Smibert: A View of Boston, 1738

During the 1850s Boston’s belief that it held a special place in the history of the United States came to a sudden and humiliating end. No longer could one describe it as a City on a Hill, as the beacon of political and religious liberty founded by Puritan settlers in 1630. Mark Peterson argues in The City-State of Boston that a series of brutal events just before the Civil War exposed the full magnitude of Boston’s fall.

One incident in particular revealed the extent to which political and economic developments beyond the city’s control had eroded its long-standing tradition of regional autonomy. This sense of independence from outside interference had been established within the British Empire and then fiercely maintained after the creation of the United States of America. It collapsed in 1854, when Anthony Burns, a slave who had escaped bondage in Alexandria, Virginia, was arrested in Boston. Although many people in the city defended his claim to freedom, federal authorities were determined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, passed by Congress in 1850, and return him to the South. Crowds protested, to no avail. Several companies of marines armed with bayonets and supported by artillery escorted the prisoner to a ship in the harbor that would carry him back to Virginia.

Peterson, a professor of history at Yale, recognizes that most scholars would interpret Burns’s ordeal within a familiar narrative that chronicles the development of an irresolvable sectional conflict over slavery that led to civil war, but he takes an entirely different approach. The failure to protect Burns, he argues, marked the surrender of Boston’s independence to southern slaveholders who controlled Congress. The Reverend Theodore Parker, a leading abolitionist, concluded soon after Burns’s rendition, “There is no Boston to-day. There was a Boston once. Now, there is a north suburb to the city of Alexandria; that is what Boston is. And you and I, fellow-subjects of the State of Virginia.”

To understand this breakdown of the city’s sense of itself, Peterson takes readers on a long historical journey. He returns to the world of John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; to the 1689 rebellion against the British governor Edmund Andros; to the resistance to King George III on the eve of American independence; and to the ratification of the US Constitution. These events not only shaped Boston’s self-identity within a larger Atlantic world but also made its failure to protect Burns all the more painful.

The City-State of Boston makes no attempt to cover topics that one might expect to find in an ordinary urban history. Peterson has little interest, for example, in the kind of detailed economic and environmental analysis that William Cronon provides in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

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