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Urban Growth and Country Thought in the Planters’ Golden Age

Urban Growth and Country Thought in the Planters’ Golden Age

(p.219) Chapter Seven Urban Growth and Country Thought in the Planters’ Golden Age
Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth
Paul Musselwhite
University of Chicago Press

This chapter addresses the paradox that the mid-eighteenth-century, widely recognized as the golden age of the Chesapeake’s rural plantation society, also witnessed a flurry of urban development. New systems of tobacco inspection and marketing, and also diversification away from tobacco in parts of the region, encouraged settlement nucleation by the late 1730s. Individual members of the planter elite capitalized on these opportunities by establishing or investing in urban land, but these new projects were completely private in nature, unlike the planned towns of the seventeenth century. The provincial legislation that was passed in response to town-founding sought to confine and delimit the influence of urban places and not empower them. Urban authority was limited exclusively to controlling poor and enslaved individuals within towns and cities in the interest of preserving rural civic order. The chapter argues that this experience with urban development explains the particular appeal of “country” or radical republican thought among elite Chesapeake planters. It concludes by demonstrating the way that this new suspicion of urban communities shaped planters’ growing opposition to the British empire during the 1760s and 1770s, culminating in the burning of the Borough of Norfolk in 1776.

Keywords:   planter gentry, urbanization, agrarianism, merchant networks, political economy, American Revolution, Chesapeake, diversification, tobacco economy, civic virtue

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