Mark Peterson is Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power (Princeton University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write The City-State of Boston?
MP: I began work on this book by pursuing an observation that emerged while researching and writing my first book, The Price of Redemption—that early 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. And I was also bothered by the way that the history of the United States casts its enormous shadow backward on the pre-independence world, encouraging historians to pay attention to those events, people, trends that contributed to the making of the United States, and obscuring those elements that did not. The sharp break that many historians make between pre- and post-independence North American history also troubled me, as I saw many continuities in the history of Boston and New England across that divide. In the end, I wanted to write what I thought of as a more honest and thorough account of the formation and development of a highly significant American colonial endeavor in its own right, taking the advent of the United States as neither telos nor chronological endpoint, but another shift in the city and region’s long history of negotiating imperial relationships.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The City-State of Boston?
MP: The City-State of Boston argues that the founders of Boston aimed to create an autonomous self-governing republic in church and state, and over the course of its first century, managed to do just that by expanding its political and cultural authority over the New England region, and developing an integrated economy that linked city and region to the slave plantation colonies of the West Indies. Through the eighteenth century, the region sustained much of its autonomy in the face of growing pressure from the British Empire, even to the point of open rebellion, but the compact it joined with the other newly independent states in 1788 gradually eroded the political, economic, and cultural bases for this autonomy, as Boston became economically intertwined with and under the governmental authority of an expansionist American slavocracy.
JF: Why do we need to read The City-State of Boston?
MP: All over the world today, there are signs of crisis in various forms of self-government, regardless of what we call this tradition – liberal democracy might be the most convenient shorthand. From the persistence of various forms of secession movements (Scotland, Catalonia, Brexit) to the rise of authoritarianism in formerly democratic countries (Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, the list goes on) and the rise of far right parties in many more places, dissatisfaction with the current state of many forms of national government is evident. The City-State of Boston was written in part to offer an examination of one form of popular self-government, the small autonomous republic with strong ties to other (often larger) polities, a model that was extremely prevalent before the nineteenth century, but was largely swept away by that century’s various forms of national and imperial consolidations, including the United States. So in addition to simply the intrinsically interesting history of Boston, I would also suggest that its story is good to think with as we contemplate the prospects for a way forward from our current predicament.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MP: I think of myself as an early modern historian whose work focuses on North America (and until now, mostly on New England), rather than simply an American historian. As an undergraduate, I majored in the history and science of early modern Europe, and as a graduate student, working with Bernard Bailyn was a great opportunity to explore the relationship between European colonial projects in America and the wider Atlantic world.
JF: What is your next project?
MP: I am currently working on a small book with a big title, The Long Crisis of the Constitution, which will argue that the purposes for which the US Constitution was created in the 1780s, rooted in eighteenth century assumptions about power, economics, and population, had largely been carried out by the end of the nineteenth century, when the crisis began. It traces how subsequent efforts to shore up the relationship between the evolving nation and the Constitution have come undone and generated the governance problem we face today.
JF: Thanks, Mark!