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Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth

The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake

The English settlers who staked their claims in the Chesapeake Bay were drawn to it for a variety of reasons. Some sought wealth from the land, while others saw it as a place of trade, a political experiment, or a potential spiritual sanctuary. But like other European colonizers in the Americas, they all aspired to found, organize, and maintain functioning towns—an aspiration that met with varying degrees of success, but mostly failure. Yet this failure became critical to the economy and society that did arise there. As Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth reveals, the agrarian plantation society that eventually sprang up around the Chesapeake Bay was not preordained—rather, it was the necessary product of failed attempts to build cities.

Paul Musselwhite details the unsuccessful urban development that defined the region from the seventeenth century through the Civil War, showing how places like Jamestown and Annapolis—despite their small size—were the products of ambitious and cutting-edge experiments in urbanization comparable to those in the largest port cities of the Atlantic world. These experiments, though, stoked ongoing debate about commerce, taxation,  and self-government. Chesapeake planters responded to this debate by reinforcing the political, economic, and cultural authority of their private plantation estates, with profound consequences for the region’s laborers and the political ideology of the southern United States. As Musselwhite makes clear, the antebellum economy around this well-known waterway was built not in the absence of cities, but upon their aspirational wreckage.

352 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018 

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

Architecture: History of Architecture

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: American History, Urban History


“Recommended. Musselwhite argues that the absence of towns in the Chesapeake and the perceived rurality of the region for nearly 200 years was not an accidental byproduct of tobacco cultivation and part of the emergence of slave societies and plantations. . . Musselwhite uses business records of smaller planters to show the emergence of a distinct political ideology that purposefully kept emerging urban centers small in reality and in their political and cultural imaginations.”


“Exceptionally researched, engagingly written, and thoughtfully argued, Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth reveals the central role cities—both on the ground and “in the air”—played in the origins, settlement, and development of the colonial Chesapeake. Tracing the evolution of two centuries of vibrant and competing debates over the importance of urban and corporate life, Musselwhite fundamentally reverses any lingering notion we might have of early Virginia and Maryland as places destined by geography, economics, or policy to be rural. He offers in its stead a nuanced but bold and compelling account of the dynamic and evolving relationship between town and plantation, which ought to be at the core of our understanding of the rival political and economic ideologies that defined the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Atlantic.”

Philip J. Stern, author of The Company-State

“A brilliant and important book. Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth is part of a new wave of histories that take ideas in early American history seriously. For too many years, the understanding of early American society has been dominated by the brutal realities of profit, geography, climate, and crops. Early settlers cared little for principles and ideas, according to such accounts, and so the unfolding of early American history followed an inevitable path. Musselwhite shows that precisely the opposite was true. But he goes beyond all other recent studies of the early settlers’ ideas because he uses exhaustive archival research and finely textured argument to reveal the ways in which arguments about the city interacted with social, economic, and political life. He is thereby able to reconstruct the ideas of early America from the bottom up, exemplifying the ways in which intellectual, social, and cultural history should inform each other. This is a rare achievement and hopefully a harbinger of future historical scholarship.”

Andrew Fitzmaurice, author of Sovereignty, Property and Empire, 1500-2000

“With Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth, Musselwhite presents an ambitious history of the positive, even exalted, values that early modern English colonizers attached to cities and the resulting influence of those urban ideals on the politics of seventeenth-century colonial development in Virginia and Maryland. Early American scholarship has often touched on colonizers’ preoccupations with town building and the persistent disappointments of the Chesapeake plantations in bringing flourishing towns into being. However, Musselwhite’s book is the first to use the contemporary fixation on urbanity as a lens through which to grasp broader political concerns and change across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is a timely scholarly intervention that fits well with current discussions in the field and that will undoubtedly attract a great deal of interest.”

Alexander Haskell, author of For God, King, and People

"This book is an inspired addition to the field of historical geography."

Historical Geography

Table of Contents

Introduction: “Our Folly and Ruining Singularity”

1              Garrison Towns, Corporate Boroughs, and the Search for Order under the Virginia Company
2              From Corporate Communities to County Courts in the Early Stuart Empire
3              The Political Geography of Empire in the English Revolution
4              Planters, the State, and the Restoration City
5              Towns, Improvement, and the Contest for Authority in the 1680s
6              The Imperial City and the Solidifying of the Plantation System
7              Urban Growth and Country Thought in the Planters’ Golden Age

Epilogue: “This little Common wealth”
List of Abbreviations

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