Urban Studies Cities in the Early American Republic
A. Kristen Foster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0028


Cities in America’s early republic developed on the edge of two worlds. The majority of these urban areas had been born in colonies that belonged to European powers, including England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In this colonial world, cities hugged the Atlantic coast and served the interests of Europe’s mercantile empires. After the American Revolution, however, urban areas developed in line with the interests of the United States, expanding geographically, economically, politically, socially, and culturally. The cities of the early republic were central to the first debates about the fate of the fast-changing republic. On 23 September 1800, on the verge of wresting power from the first generation of Federalist politicians, the Republican Thomas Jefferson wrote to his old friend Dr. Benjamin Rush that he viewed “great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” Jefferson, ever the champion of the independent farmer, argued that cities “nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others with more health virtue & freedom would be my choice.” As president, Jefferson tried to expand his agrarian empire of liberty by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, but he could not stay the growth of cities. After the War of 1812, Americans moved westward in unprecedented numbers and used trading hubs and cities to center and connect their own economic growth. The story of cities in America’s early republic thus unfolds in two parts: the first follows the American Revolution and is anchored by its participants’ belief that republican theories and individual virtue would tie the populace together; the second part is paced by the energy unleashed in the 19th century as liberalism and the boundless possibilities of market capitalism sent Americans across a continent, building, dispossessing, and re-envisioning what it meant to be American. This population remained predominantly rural over the course of the early republic, but the nation’s urban centers often anchored and drove change. While early histories focused more intently on urban development and city planning, recent studies have expanded into an eclectic mix of social history topics, including class development, political culture, immigration, religious development, urban slavery, gender relations, and sexuality. In the end, however, studies dedicated to specific cities have remained at the center of historical inquiry about urban development and life in America’s early republic. One yet unexplored avenue for study that might shift conceptualizations of urban spaces would be to examine dense indigenous population centers in the early republic. Looking at Tippecanoe or the southwestern pueblos, for instance, might alter the heavy association of the word urban with European cultures alone and open new conceptualizations of indigenous America and Euro-America.

General Overviews

A few general overviews of cities in America’s early republic exist. Early urban history is covered in single volumes that comprise comprehensive histories of urban America more generally. The edited volume Gilchrist 1967 explores the impact of demographic changes on pre-industrial urban growth. Boehm and Corey 2015 includes three chapters that cover the early republic. Other overviews offer collections of essays that highlight the richness of work in the field, including Sennett and Thernstrom 1969, Jackson and Schultz 1972, Callow 1982, and Mohl and Biles 2012. Green 1957 includes sixteen biographies of early America cities. Boyer 1992 examines 19th-century urban reform, and Bender 1982 looks at the influence of Romanticism on industrial development. A few studies take stock of the field itself, including Monkonnen 1990, which argues that urban history has lost its way by embracing narrow topics. McShane 2006 explores the scholarly bifurcation of the old and new urban history and offers an assessment of the state of the field, including an argument that narrow studies have become increasingly influential but not to the exclusion of more traditional work. Reps 1992 presents a unique history of city planning that includes early cities, but only Shammas 2000 combines questions from the old and new urban histories to explain how competing human interests informed and drove the development of federal-era cities. Informed by social history, O’Brassill-Kulfan 2019 explores the social, economic, and legal lives of the mobile poor and their impact on state and urban development.

  • Bender, Thomas. Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas and Institutions in Nineteenth Century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

    Bender offers a cultural and intellectual approach to 19th-century theories about urban society in America. He interweaves intellectual history with the development of early manufactories like those in Lowell, Massachusetts, to demonstrate the degree to which Romanticism influenced early American industrial development. Nature provided an aesthetic and moral framework that challenged urban development in early America.

  • Boehm, Lisa Krissoff, and Steven Corey. America’s Urban History. New York and London: Routledge, 2015.

    The editors offer a topically and bibliographically thorough overview of American urban history. Chapter 3 (“City, Plantation, Metropolis: The Anglo-American Urban Experience, 1587–1800”) and chapter 4 (“An Urban Frontier: The American West, 1800–1869”) cover urban development in the early republic. For those interested in development outside of the United States during the early republic, chapter 2 offers in introduction to other European urban settlements. This book also includes a comprehensive bibliography.

  • Boyer, Paul. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    Boyer’s excellent social history offers a comprehensive exploration of the birth and growth of urban reform between the moral crusades that grew out of the 19th-century Second Great Awakening and the 20th-century Progressive Era. Of particular interest to scholars of the early republic is his exploration of Jacksonian evangelical attempts to reimagine cities as places where inhabitants comprised a homogenous moral community as a bulwark against the perceived social disintegration inevitable in urban areas.

  • Callow, Alexander B., Jr., ed. American Urban History: An Interpretive Reader with Commentaries. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    This volume comprises thirty-three well-chosen diverse essays on the development of American cities. Included are chapters on “Philadelphia: The Private City” by Sam Bass Warner, “Urban Life in Western America, 1790–1830,” by Richard Wade, and “Urban Growth in the South,” by David Goldfield.

  • Gilchrist, David T., ed. The Growth of the Seaport Cities, 1790–1825. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.

    Gilchrist edited a series of papers delivered at a conference in March 1966 sponsored by the Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, at which scholars discussed the influences of geography, demographics, and institutions on preindustrial urban growth, particularly in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The keynote address, “Urban Growth and Regional Development,” called for scholars to consider the interrelationship between urban and rural spaces rather than seeing the two as mutually exclusive, while suggesting that culture is crucial for understanding urban development. Other topics include demographics, trade and manufacturing, financial institutions, and economic thought.

  • Green, Constance McLaughlin. American Cities in the Growth of a Nation. New York: John De Graf, 1957.

    Green studies the growth of early American cities (starting in 1800) through biographical snapshots of sixteen wide-ranging cities. She explores the origins and growth first of the major Atlantic cities, and then moves west through Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago, among others. A bit general, but an engaging introduction to the topic.

  • Jackson, Kenneth, and Stanley K. Schultz, eds. Cities in American History. New York: Knopf, 1972.

    This volume includes twenty-seven chapters with full chronological coverage from the colonial era into the 20th century. The Introduction is particularly useful, and Parts Two and Three include essays on late-18th-century Philadelphia and the era of pre–Civil War expansion.

  • McShane, Clay. “The State of the Art in North American Urban History.” Journal of Urban History 32.4 (2006): 582–597.

    DOI: 10.1177/0096144205284159

    McShane uses a data-driven approach to explore the state of North American urban history in 2006. He counts the following to make his assessment: how often books appear in course syllabi, how much work is being published in the Journal of Urban History, how many award-winning books are in the field, and how many libraries hold leading books in the field. He concludes that there is a growing emphasis on narrow studies particularly focused on recent history, and he argues that dwindling numbers in all of his categories suggest that the field has lost influence.

  • Mohl, Raymond, and Roger Biles. The Making of Urban America. Rev. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

    With editions spanning before and after McShane’s state-of-the-field expression of loss, this volume demonstrates the richness and vitality of American urban history. This edition has a new introduction, seven new articles, and a detailed historiographical essay. Up to date on the newest scholarship, this volume is valuable for its breadth.

  • Monkonnen, Eric. America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780–1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

    The author argues that the main problem that faces urban America is a lack of self-understanding. He argues that urban histories which focus on cities themselves, and not on the city as a stage for other stories, provide a better approach to the field. Divided into three stages of urban development, and with the emphasis on the middle sections (1830–1930), the first (before 1830) will also be of interest to students of early American cities.

  • O’Brassill-Kulfan, Kristin. Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic. New York: New York University Press, 2019.

    O’Brassill-Kulfan argues that early Americans believed that freedom was measured by a person’s economic, spatial, and social mobility. Looking at the migrant poor in the early republic, men and women who tested and violated laws meant to contain and control them, she argues that interactions between the migrant poor, the law, and those who tried to manage this class helped shape the state, cities and towns, the spread of disease, and ideas about status and punishment in the early republic.

  • Reps, John W. The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    This comprehensive volume on the history of city planning in the United States from early cities through World War I is considered a standard in the field. Explores both European and national influences on the development of city planning. The volume is rich with maps and illustrations.

  • Shammas, Carole. “The Space Problem in Early American Cities.” William and Mary Quarterly 57.3 (2000): 505–542.

    DOI: 10.2307/2674264

    The author explores population density in early federal cities. She examines why federal cities remained compact when they might have spread out during the first half of the 18th century. Looking at spatial development, residential structures, and cost of living, Shammas suggests that urban development resulted from a dynamic and often adversarial relationship between those building and regulating housing and those who demanded it.

  • Sennett, Richard, and Stephan Thernstrom. Nineteenth-Century Cities: Essays in the New Urban History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969.

    The result of a 1968 conference held at Yale University, the articles in this volume defined the “new urban history” emerging at that time. The essays explore class, mobility, social origins of elites, the relationship between politics and class, opportunities for ethnic groups, and the relationships between family structures and the cities. The “new urban history” as defined by these essays demonstrates the influence of sociology on historical study.

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