City Growth and Development

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In the popular understanding of the early United States, what began as a republic of farmers became, within a century and a half, a metropolitan nation of cities. There is a measure of truth in this view. The first United States Census of 1790 classified only 5.14 percent of the total population of 3,929,214 as urban; there were only twelve places with 5,000 or more people. But the first American cities and towns did not grow as in Europe from agricultural villages or early military sites. Founded during the worldwide commercial revolution, they served the European powers as bases for the organization of the trade and commerce of empire. Regardless of their small size, they exercised complex economic and urban functions nearly from the start.

The four ports of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston provided the major urban centers of early America and contained the bulk of the urban population. Boston was settled in 1630 by Puritan migrants led by John Winthrop, who sought to establish a "city on a hill" that would be a beacon to the world. The city represented in part a religious effort to reestablish the true Christian church. But

Population of Leading American Cities
Philadelphia 23,750New York 202,589
New York 18,000Philadelphia 161,271
Boston 15,600Baltimore 80,620
Charles Town 8,000Boston 61,392
Newport 7,500New Orleans 46,082

capitalistic enterprisers were a part of the Puritan effort. The growth of transatlantic trade made Boston the "mart town" of the Western Hemisphere and undermined the New England way of the small community organized around the church. Boston merchants early amassed the capital that financed much of the later rapid economic expansion of the United States.

William Penn, a Quaker, founded Philadelphia in 1682 as a holy experiment to establish a "green country town" that would provide a new ideal of commonwealth for the world. But as Philadelphia grew rapidly, Penn was disillusioned with his effort. In the eighteenth century Philadelphia became a thriving metropolis in the midst of a vast agricultural and town and village hinterland. By the time of the American Revolution it had also become a major cultural center of the British Empire.

In 1624 the Dutch had founded a trading center and named it New Amsterdam; in 1664 England seized it and changed its name to New York. Charleston, characterized by its large slave population, was established in the Carolinas (as Charles Town) in 1670 as a major port facility for the export of southern agricultural products. Newport, Rhode Island, also served as a major urban center but later declined in importance. Numerous smaller sites were tied to the new nation's four major cities as part of regional and metropolitan networks of trade.

Much of the unrest and agitation after the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) that led to the American Revolution centered in the cities. After 1763 towns that had achieved considerable governmental independence were threatened by the new British policies. British tax and trade measures particularly affected urban merchants. In their efforts to organize resistance to British policies, colonial leaders were able to capitalize on the class unrest that had developed among the lower classes of the towns and cities.

The United States Constitution of 1787, which permitted Congress to establish a capital district, eventually created an important American city, Washington, D.C. A series of compromises in the early years of the new government resulted in a southern site for the capital. Southern leaders, who feared that the location of a capital permanently in a northern center such as Philadelphia would threaten the institution of slavery, may have influenced this decision.

The transportation revolution and settlement of the trans-Appalachian west sharply affected urban growth. The Erie Canal, built between 1817 and 1825 from Albany to Buffalo, contributed to New York City's first rank among American cities and led to the transformation of the villages of Rochester, Buffalo, and Cleveland into cities. Baltimore, the first American boom town, embraced the new technology of the railroad with the start of the Baltimore and Ohio in 1828. Steamboats on the interior Mississippi River system, following Robert Fulton's launching of the Clermont in 1807, contributed to the rapid rise of New Orleans. Contemporary authorities often viewed Baltimore or New Orleans as the potential American metropolis, but Baltimore was unable to exploit its early transportation advantage. The eventual pattern of the urban network following east-west lines of transportation continued to benefit the eastern ports. By contrast, New Orleans was tied to the interior river system, which had been the site of the first cities of the west such as Cincinnati and St. Louis.

By 1830 American manufacturing had begun to move from the countryside into the heart of cities. The diverse, compact city of small shops and tradesmen had begun to disappear. This change led to greater segregation and a more defined urban class structure.

See alsoBoston; Charleston; Erie Canal; New York City; Philadelphia; Steamboat .


Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743–1776. New York: Knopf, 1955.

Glaab, Charles N., and A. Theodore Brown. A History of Urban America. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Pred, Allan R. Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Charles N. Glaab

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City Growth and Development

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City Growth and Development