Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake
by Paul Musselwhite
University of Chicago Press, 2018
Cloth: 978-0-226-58528-4 | eISBN: 978-0-226-58531-4

The early European settlers who staked their claims in the Chesapeake Bay were drawn to it for a variety of reasons. Some viewed the bay as a wild landscape waiting to be tamed, while others saw potential there for spiritual sanctuary. But all of them had one thing in common with other East Coast colonizers: they all aspired to found, organize, and maintain functioning towns—an aspiration that met with varying degrees of success. As Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth reveals, the agrarian plantation society that eventually sprang up around the Chesapeake Bay was not a preordained result—rather, it was the necessary product of failed attempts to build cities.

Paul Musselwhite details the unsuccessful urban development that defined the bay from the seventeenth century through the Civil War, showing how places like Jamestown and Annapolis—despite their famous names—were relatively fruitless experiments in urbanization compared to more thriving American cities. He explains how unresolved debates around issues including commerce, taxation, legislative representation, and the nature of government impeded the growth of cities and instead fostered the development of a network of plantations, with profound consequences for the course of American history. As Musselwhite reveals, the antebellum economy around this well-known waterway was built not in the absence of cities, but upon their aspirational wreckage.

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