Civic Traditions in the Atlantic World: Research in the UK during Sept 2010

My name is Paul Musselwhite, and I’m a doctoral candidate in the History department at William and Mary. Over the next three weeks I will be undertaking archival research across the UK as part of my dissertation and I plan to update this blog with some of the interest details I uncover.

But before I board the plane I thought I’d give a brief overview of what I’m hoping to achieve and how it relates to my dissertation.

My research focuses upon the many unsuccessful efforts at urbanization in the early colonial period in Virginia and Maryland. If anyone has driven around the Chesapeake tidewater one of the first things they notice is that it isn’t full of compact little towns like New England or most parts of Europe – in colonial times towns were even more scarce here because Richmond and Baltimore were 18th century foundations and ports like Norfolk and Hampton housed very few people until the early 1700s. This lack of urbanization was a product of the plantation style of agriculture pursued in the region from the very first years of colonization, but it wasn’t what English colonial planners or the planters of the region really wanted. They were aghast at the lack of town development throughout the 17th century – one Presbyterian minister in the area even wrote a pamphlet in which he bemoaned the isolated lives of colonists and noted that even “wild beasts” lived together in herds. As a result of this anxiety a lot of legislative efforts were made in the colonies and in London to stimulate urban growth in the region – 17 different pieces of legislation were passed in 50 years.

There was a problem with trying to build towns in the region though – no one could precisely agree on what a town was! English towns and cities – from which lots of colonists came – were generally quite small in this period, but they were also independent governmental units with their own constitutions and rights that they secured directly from the King (a bit like the way that the City of Williamsburg is distinct from James City County even today). If towns were going to be built in Virginia and Maryland, which were already divided into counties, it would alter the political structure of local government dramatically. This was even more problematic because in all likelihood the towns would have come to dominate the trade and wealth of the region.

This brings us back to my research agenda in the UK. Having read exhaustively from the colonial legislative records, I ‘m trying to establish how well informed the men who debated these issues were. Preliminary work has identified a number of assembly delegates whose fathers and brothers served in town councils in England during the 17th century (as Mayors, Aldermen etc.). My job in England will be to see what kinds of actions they took, whether they were staunch defenders of urban independence against outside interference, or whether they were responsible for surrendering urban privileges to higher authorities like the King or a local Lord. Even though Chesapeake colonists were thousands of miles from home, they probably still remembered how to set up a distinctively urban government and whether it would be helpful to them politically.

In this process of this work I’ll be visiting Hull, Derby, Bedford, Portsmouth, and Bristol – each for short stops. Hopefully I’ll dig up some details on the urban wheeling and dealing of Chesapeake ancestors, and I’ll share them here.