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Towns, Improvement, and the Contest for Authority in the 1680s

Towns, Improvement, and the Contest for Authority in the 1680s

(p.148) Chapter Five Towns, Improvement, and the Contest for Authority in the 1680s
Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth
Paul Musselwhite
University of Chicago Press

This chapter explores the contentious legislative debate over town development that gripped both colonies throughout the 1680s as both local elites and imperial officials used urban development to attempt to legitimate their authority as guardians of the region’s welfare. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, there was a new awareness that tensions in the Chesapeake were rooted in the frailties of the region’s tobacco economy. All sides agreed that comprehensive urbanization, which would create new opportunities for poorer white colonists, was the most immediate way to address this problem. This chapter focuses on the battle for control of the institutional and commercial structure of these new towns between the centralizing Stuart imperial state and a planter elite anxious to shore up its hegemonic influence. Ultimately, the planter elites’ bitter showdown with the Stuart empire over town development pushed them to develop a new self-conscious identity vis-à-vis the empire and a new commercial patronage relationship with their poorer neighbors. The biggest loser was Lord Baltimore, who lost his colony in 1689; debate over towns in Maryland had galvanized the leading planters’ collective identity and led them to see Baltimore as a dangerous middleman between them and the imperial economy.

Keywords:   Lord Baltimore, counties, Stuart imperial state, improvement, Virginia, Maryland, port towns, colonial assemblies, merchant networks, planter gentry

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