Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2010
Many Virginians in the antebellum period would have readily agreed with Jane Jacobs, the twentieth-century sociologist who declared that great cities are “the wealth of nations.” Lacking a large city of their own, they realized through hard experience that metropolises were engines of development that made innovation and improvisation part of everyday economic life. George Tucker, a political economist at the University of Virginia, wrote in 1859 that cities “are more favorable to the cultivation of science and the arts of every kind. If they also more favor human depravity and misery, they afford readier means of punishing the one, and of alleviating the other.” State Senator Charles Bruce wrote in 1858 that “I care not how gentlemen cry out against towns and cities, as being sores upon the body politic, for they are, nevertheless, unfailing indices of the wealth and prosperity of the country.” Even George Fitzhugh, the most famous of Virginia's proslavery writers, argued that an independent South “must manufacture for itself, build cities, erect schools and colleges, and carry on all the pursuits and provide for all the common wants of civilized man.” No matter how reactionary their politics, most Virginians could not part with the idea of cities and the progress that they represented.
This chapter tries to explain why antebellum Virginia never came close to developing a city of the size and wealth of Philadelphia.