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American Aristocracy – Harvard Pulpit: Boston Brahmin Liberalism

By (April 1, 2012) No Comment

Boston printmaker William Burgis’ view of Harvard (1726) shows, not the traditional closed and cloistered court, but a three-sided court open to the public street, an early example of Harvard’s architecture reflecting Boston Brahmin liberalism.

“O relic and type of our ancestor’s worth . . . . First flower of their wilderness! Star of their night!, / . . . Be the herald of light … / Till the stock of the Puritan’s die.”

The current U. S. president, his likely Republican opponent, the previous president – never mind FDR, the greatest modern president, or JFK, everyone’s favorite president – all have found themselves on graduation day asked to intone this hymn to Harvard – arguably the West’s preeminent institution of higher learning, also the most enduring achievement of what Notre Dame historian James Turner has called “the closest thing to an American aristocracy, the Brahmin class of Boston.”

Which sets up a certain confusion. Do conservatives with a funny accent create liberal powerhouses? Neither Puritans nor Brahmins seem well cast here. Nor, perhaps, we ourselves. Yet it is our stock, surely, in a very real civic sense: “this society of Fellows,” Harvard’s faculty declared when announcing its tercentenary to the world in 1936, “founded in the year of Our Lord one thousand six hundred and thirty six, by Act of a Great and General Court of the Company of Massachusetts Bay convened in Boston” — was a brave ambition for the “city upon a hill”, in the 1630s precariously perched, in historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s words, “on the edge of the wilderness.”

How account for such a venture? “The Puritans,” historian K. T. Erikson wrote, “were almost a mythical people in their own time, sure they were involved in a special cosmic drama . . . [to] establish New England as the spiritual capital of Christendom, the headquarters of the Protestant Revolution.” Americans ever since have “honor[ed] them as founders of a new civilization,” he wrote in Wayward Puritans. Certainly they were global in their compass from the start, requiring well-educated leadership, and Boston, their bastion, has ever since been as much hobbled by their real world failures as inspired by that other-worldly cosmic drama which simply does not go away, as readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Updike know, creating a Bostonian exceptionalism before ever there was an American version, neither of which can be understood today without reference to the other.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers understood it, so similar he–and so controversial—as Charles W. Eliot 100 years ago, and what it might yet mean – in some measure already has meant. It is true circumstances did not allow Summers the success in bringing Harvard into the 21st century that Eliot had with respect to the 20th century, or, for a more contemporary example, Director Malcolm Rogers has had in the same task at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the challenge and promise of Summers 2006 Commencement speech still resonates:

“All over the world and in every corner of America, Harvard’s prestige and wealth inspires awe . . . .Harvard is a place of great and transforming opportunity. . . . We owe to the next generation, and to our own, every effort we can make. . . . [O]ur university is at an inflection point in its history . . . . If Harvard can find the courage to change itself, it can change the world. . . . I look forward to the time when because of Harvard”s magnetic power, Boston is to this century what Florence was to the 15th, — not the richest or the most powerful, but the city that through its contribution to human thought shone the greatest light into posterity.”


When Harvard’s founders went on to name the new institution after a Charlestown minister, John Harvard, who endowed the college in 1638, it was, according to The Chicago History of American Philanthropy, the beginning of that whole aspect of American civilization. Digby Baltzell, in his Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia catches the much wider significance of this, distinguishing between “Charity, in the Catholic and the aristocratic ethic, . . . a spontaneous, stopgap and Christian response,” which Philadelphia Quakerism was close to, and “Philanthropy, an infinitely Puritan and rational response to social conditions.” He adds: “In contrast to charity, the systematic philanthropy of the Puritans lacked sentimentality; it translated society, inadvertently bringing power and authority to the participants in the emerging world of careers open to talent.” Here the theme becomes profoundly American.

As 17th-century Puritan become 18th-century Patriot became 19th-century Brahmin, the conviction that fueled this philanthropy waxed rather than waned. A landmark was the creation of the first modern foundation, the Peabody Educational Trust in 1867, by the widely acknowledged father of modern philanthropy, financier George Peabody. His first grants of the 1850s were to his hometown on Boston’s North Shore, which changed its name to Peabody, and two of his benefactions were to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Peabody’s gifts, however, extended to Baltimore and London, scenes of his success.

Another example is John D Rockefeller, who in 1893 began the disbursement of the largest estate in American history, “entranced” according to Ron Chernow, his biographer, with the 19th century Boston merchant, Amos Lawrence. Wrote William Moran, in his The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills: “Lawrence. . . gave away most of his money to educational and charitable organizations.” Rockefeller called Lawrence’s memoirs “a great inspiration to me,” impressed when he read how “Lawrence gave away crisp bills. Crisp bills! I see and hear them,” Rockefeller said in 1917. ‘I made up my mind that, if I could manage it, some day I would give away crisp bills too.'”

If Harvard’s founding makes clear the global compass of the Puritans, while also marking the beginning of American philanthropy, another Puritan principle was autonomy, which accounts for the fact that although Harvard was founded in Boston, the new college was ordered to be built in an independent township on the capital’s periphery named after the English Cambridge. Disclosing what Max Savelle has called the ” basic principle of congregational autonomy” beloved of the Puritans, “this Congregationalism became the basis, indeed, of [Puritan] civic and political institutions, and many historians have pointed to the significance of this in fueling the American Revolution, child as it was so often of the New England Town Meeting.”

That impact, however epochal, does not exhaust the significance of this principle of autonomy in American history, prompting one of 20th century Harvard’s leading scholars to an insight few have: “From the founding of Cambridge in 1630 to the establishment of industrial parks along Route 128 in our own day,” John Coolidge wrote in his introduction to Old Cambridge, “Boston has created these out of town communities as specialized complements to the central city.”

The result of this Puritan view was that by the Civil War era Cambridge had become what Henry James called Boston’s “academic suburb,” by the 20th century the focal point of “Academic Boston,” or as the still independent municipality of Cambridge likes to call itself today in its tourist brochures, “Boston’s Left Bank.” By the mid 19th century there was not only “Academic Boston” in Cambridge, but “Horticultural Boston” (as well as “a tax haven for affluent Bostonians” in historian David Hacket Fischer’s words) in Brookline. Then too there was “Industrial Boston,” developed by the Boston Associates, first in Waltham, later in Lowell.

As I have written in “Brooklyn/Brookline” (2010), following Coolidge’s lead as I see it, this pattern was widely emulated in the 19th-century in the expanding United States. With the exception of a brief period in the 1870s, Bostonians built their metropolis in a very distinct way. As opposed to what urbanologist Kenneth Johnson in his Crabgrass Frontier calls “municipal imperialism” – New York in 1898 actually annexed the 4th largest city in the country, as Brooklyn then was – in Boston what fellow urbanologist James Carroll has called “municipal fragmentation” was the rule. The rejection by the “Bostonians of Brookline,” as I insist on calling them, of their town’s proposed annexation to the core city, famously established Brookline as famously the first American suburb. It became Boston’s pattern, the pattern of “all the Boston towns” – in landscape architect Charles Eliot’s eloquent phrase – and to the dismay of city planners everywhere it became the American way.

Three Puritan become American themes – globality, philanthropy, autonomy. But the crux of the matter, the controlling factor in Harvard’s founding, was otherwise.


We do not at once see this fourth factor, however controlling. One reason is that it does not figure as prominently as it should in my view in the explications of the Brahmin value system – of which more soon here when we come to Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr’s classic definition of Boston’s Brahmins – or, indeed, in the “state of mind” we accept as characteristically Bostonian, always excepting the writings of Perry Miller and Van Wyck Brooks and F.O. Matthiessen. Most scholars who have worked in this field have discounted this fourth factor. Frederick Cople Jaher, for instance, does this in his otherwise excellent The Urban Establishment, where he deals with learning and culture in the Puritan/Patriot/Brahmin continuum only after a far more extensive discussion of Brahmin economics and politics. Similarly, sociologist Betty Farrell, in her Elite Families of 1993, and Thomas Adam, rather more negatively in 2009’s Buying Respectability. Boston Brahmins, he asserts, were “an economic, political, social and philanthropic elite.”

Similarly, and more in our context here, Ronald Story, in his Harvard and the Boston Upper Classes, though he admits “what distinguishes ‘Proper Boston’ of pre-Civil War days from its New York or Philadelphia counterparts was precisely its singular cultural sheen . . . its ethic of stewardship,” insists that in the post-Civil War era as “the Boston elite’s consciousness of itself [came to reflect] what the world would perceive as a Brahmin aristocracy,” the reality was more and more that “culture itself and the institutions which embody and support it are products of economic forces.”

I disagree. Learning and culture – the life of the mind – comes first in the Puritan/Patriot/Brahmin value system, not economics, nor politics either for that matter. No one would deny someone has to pay the bills, though it is worth pointing out the first Boston aristocrat to influence global economics, Francis Cabot Lowell, did much more than that. Nor do I deny that later Brahmins like William Hathaway Forbes, the key figure of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the railroad magnet Charles Francis Adams, or James Jackson Storrow, who led the early automobile industry through his financing of General Motors, payed their share of those bills, again with interest. Yet the need for economic ballast in any great urban center of civilization notwithstanding, in all three of Boston’s first three centuries – Puritan, Patriot, Brahmin – above all in the case of Harvard’s founding – the energizing, controlling force that stands out, as it does not, for example, in Philadelphia or New York, is the Puritan devotion to learning.

In this Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard’s historian, concurs. Remember the speaking aristocracy and the listening democracy? A very high percentage of the original settlers of Boston were graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, and as Morison emphasized, their leadership was from the first “accepted by the community, not imposed on it, say I; for men of education were the chosen leaders of the Puritan migration.” It was as much a pattern, and, say I, a more important one, as globality, philanthropy or autonomy.

A reason Americans tend to downplay this passion for learning — and to accept economics as always the driving force – is, I suspect, not just that it is, so to speak, the American way to devalue the intellectual side of life, but because of the link in the case of Puritan learning to their so very unattractive (to moderns) religion, the religion of the book, after all. Fair enough. But the way the early devotion to the life of the mind on the part of Bostonians was linked to religion was different than we imagine, the entirely secular aspect of which is supplied by Diarmaid MacCulloch in his Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. In that work, the Oxford historian dwells on an astounding fact of his wide-ranging study of three millennia – that Puritan Boston from the beginning – however precariously situated on the Atlantic rim – was “possibly the most literate society in the world.” That is surely the outstanding characteristic of Boston from the beginning, an inheritance Americans can all claim without taint of Puritan religious intolerance.

The implication of this were considerable. The United States would create over time three of its four national (as opposed to regional) capitals – its political capital, Washington; its economic capital, New York, and eventually its entertainment capital, Los Angeles – each in the developing nation-state’s own image. Boston, however, the fourth of the national capitals, the intellectual capital, Americans inherited. Boston Latin is forever America’s first school, Harvard its first academy of higher learning, like so many Colonial establishments models for the institutions of a new American nation-state so importantly created in the image of the Boston city-state that in large measure birthed it. And however much they would privilege the political, economic and entertainment capitals over the intellectual capital, Americans early formed the habit of checking in, so to speak, periodically, with the New England capital, which may be said to have come to function as something of a spiritual capital given its historical role as – in British journalist Chris Wright’s blunt words – “the founding city of the most powerful nation on earth,” for something like an ongoing national vision. Not, it must be admitted, always to good purpose! But once or twice to very good purpose indeed; perhaps most successfully at the crisis point of the Civil War, provoking as it did something of a second founding of the Republic.

To misunderstand all this is to make constructing a new history almost impossible. Not just Boston studies, but American history, is endlessly distorted, for example, by the way Boston’s cultural renaissance of the 1870s, 80s and 90s – so important to post bellum America – the era of modern Harvard’s beginnings, of MIT’s, of the new Museum of Fine Arts, the Copley Square library and the Boston Symphony, all generators of much new thought and learning from the work of William James to Alexander Graham Bell – is too often depicted as a consolation prize for Brahmin decline then in political power within the city and for Boston’s overall decline in economic power nationally, with no thought given to the fact that Brahmin values had always privileged learning and intellectual life and culture above economics and politics, none of which had risen, for example, to the sort of reward a Charles Francis Adams, for example, had sought. Thus when the first of the extraordinary cast of Bostonians, Edward Morse, projected for “Boston by far the greatest collection of Japanese art in the world” for its new art museum, it represented more a reassertion of traditional Boston Brahmin priorities than some sort of fallback position for loosing control, for example, of the mayor’s office.

No more was the Boston Public Library in Copley Square a consolation prize. Remember British critic Matthew Arnold’s astonishment at encountering the barefoot news boy, the most astounding thing he’d ever seen he said. Boston’s library was an epochal institution, and its apotheosis in Copley Square was a breakthrough in western history: the world’s first tax-supported big city circulating library free and open to all. (There had been “public” libraries in Europe even in ancient times, but they were never open to all classes – barefoot newsboys, for instance – and even for those classes who were welcome, none were circulating or lending libraries; rather, scrolls could only be read on the premises. The tax-supported circulating public library open to all, like its sister, the modern public art museum, is an Anglo-American creation of the 19th-century.)

Hardly less important was the new thought and breakthroughs in several fields that occurred in Copley Squares institutions – the pioneering work of the father of brain surgery, for example, Harvey Cushing, at Harvard Medical School next to the Public Library – and the often seminal Lowell Lectures of the Lowell Institute in the square, under the auspices of which William James lectured free to all on his latest work on mental states and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr on the Common Law, the origin of his famous book on the subject.

Similarly the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is true that business was no small thing to the Boston Brahmin. Nathan Appleton could say in 1828 that he knew of “no purer morality in any department of life than that of the counting house,” evidence that “throughout the 19th century Boston’s commercial and intellectual communities lived together in easy harmony.” But it is also true that “Boston’s romance between mind and Mammon was not to last,” Russell Adams wrote in The Boston Money Tree, where he quotes [Brahmin financier] “Henry Lee Higginson [as] see[ing] Boston’s attitudes toward the time-honored pursuit of wealth, no matter how creditably conducted, change from approbation to scorn” in the post Civil War years of the robber barons.

Indeed, qualms about a too great emphasis on money-getting surfaced noticeably –according to Paul Goodman in his Ethics and Enterprize: The Values of a Boston Elite – when Boston was at its economic height, a generation or two before the city’s late 19th-century business decline. “During the first half of the 19th century, as a group of Boston businessmen were transforming their region’s economy, they were also elaborating a value system,” Goodman writes: “Rejecting the single-minded pursuit of wealth, Bostonians claimed to prefer the balanced personality that tempered the quest for wealth with standards of gentlemanly decorum and the purifying influences of culture and stewardship,” all in the conviction that “by pursuing culture, the businessman might broaden his sympathies, refine his sensibilities, and escape the moral dangers of a consuming thirst for gain.” Moreover, Goodman adds, “within Brahmin society sons of merchants turned their back on the life of trade, . . . [r]evolted by a growing commercialization.” Dickens saw this, writing of Boston that there: “The almighty dollar sinks into something comparatively insignificant amidst a whole Pantheon of better gods.”

The change from approval to scorn, furthermore, registered in the parents generation too. Henry Lee Higginson was among the most scornful, finally judging “material success as a corrupter of his generation. . . . In 1878, at the peak of his business career, he lamented” according to Russell Adams, “to his literary cousin, Thomas Wentworth Higginson: ‘I have become a money-getter.” But what Thomas did for literature (Emily Dickinson), Henry would do for music! Ten years later Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony – and even the New York musicologist Joseph Horowitz in Classical Music in America, who entirely misunderstands most things Brahmin, credits that legacy so highly he calls Higginson “a colossus, an American hero.”

Suddenly we are searching again for the capitol of the world! And of the literate world in the 1630s – at least in the Atlantic world – that would be Boston! Recall Richard Hofstadter’s declaration that “the Puritan founders had their terrible faults, but the Puritan clergy came as close to being an intellectual ruling class. . . as America has ever had.” More than half the tax levy of the entire colony at its most fragile stage was allocated to support Harvard. There is a sure sign of Puritan values, and an economic one too! And it was as sure a sign of Brahmin values in the 19th century when British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in the mid 20th century pronounced at the end of the Brahmin era on what would be seen as its chief legacy, that “insofar as the world of learning posses a capital city, Boston with its neighboring institutions, approximates the position that Paris held in the Middle Ages.”

Now no one should argue that the circumstances of the 1630s compelled those of the 1940s; only that the circumstances of the 1940s had very deep roots, long cultivated. How long is startlingly obvious when one considers the temple – the stately vestibule of the city’s storied public library in Copley Square – 20th century Boston decided upon for the statue of the governor, Sir Henry Vane the younger – who presided over that “Great and General court houlden at Boston on October 28 1636 … that passed the legislation” in Morison’s words, “that founded Harvard.” Such a temple is no surprise. More so the fact that its chief votary in the 1930s was John Brooks Wheelwright, one of America’s foremost Modernist poets–and a Marxist– illustrating the sort of continuities Bostonians find so fructifying.

The chief continuity, furthermore — easy to miss because it becomes as it evolves two-fold — is that the passion for leaning of the first Puritan generation was compounded within two generations, still in the 17th-century, by an increasing passion too for liberal learning.


“Most beautiful, most Tuscan, most useless Public Building in America” – Wheelwright’s brusque, disillusioned opening line in the “Banned in Boston” period of his of 1940 poem – “Boston Public Library,” says it all. Twelve generations of Wheelwrights preceded the poet at Harvard, spanning the three centuries we have just leaped. Furthermore, when Wheelwright XII, himself the son of one of Bostons leading architects, became the sort of activist at Harvard who could so chastise Boston’s library, he was in his view emulating Wheelwright I, a Puritan ministerial ally of Vane three hundred years previously.

Both the Puritan governor and the Marxist poet haunt the BPL’s vestibule-temple still, Vane most obviously, who as Erikson points out espoused “a brand of Puritanism . . . [that was] . . . slowly bringing them to the notion that states might tolerate a diversity of religious opinion.” Vane’s huge popularity in the capitol – he was called “the champion of Boston” – derived from the fact that he possessed what Erikson called “a quick, easy sympathy with the more advanced ideas of the day.” No wonder the 20th century poet identified with Vane, especially through the ideas of Anne Hutchinson’s Antinomian Rebellion, a bid for religious freedom the specifics of which are obscure today but were a dominant aspect of the decade in which Harvard was born, ideas ultimately enshrined in the US Constitution.

Sufficient for us today is to refer to the judgment of Charles and Mary Beard in their Rise of American Civilization. In this world view, Wheelwright’s too, “the Antinomian controversy of the 1630s, the abolitionist movement led by [William Lloyd] Garrison and [Wendell] Phillips and the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau have to be assessed as expressive of leftward moving and more militantly democratic forces within the bourgeois revolutionary movements,” each of which “wave of revolution,” according to Wheelwright biographer Alan Wald, was led by men and women who “came from the upper strata of society.”

The last sentence is key, and therein lies the most important parallel between Vane, my Puritan choice for proto-Boston Brahmin, and Wheelwright, very much by the 1930s a Brahmin relic. Indeed, what stands out historically about the governor is also what stands out about the poet. A longer glance at Macmonnies’ statue of Vane at the BPL makes the point. Was there ever more elegant, more confident a cavalier than this booted, spurred and plumed figure putting on his riding gloves? A convinced Puritan – Vane would ultimately be beheaded by the royalists – he nonetheless never tried to hide where he came from, that he was an aristocrat. In the 1930s it was not plumes but a raccoon coat that conveyed Wheelwright similar stand. Indeed, when he was once pulled out of a Depression bread line where he was proselytizing by a policeman who noticed how well dressed he was, he protested “I am a poet.”

Thus one sees in both the Puritan and the Marxist, a stubborn refusal to change in small things allied to an equal openness to complete change in larger things. It would become characteristic of the Puritan-Patriot-Brahmin continuum, highlighting the trajectory of Boston historically as an intellectual center. Although on the all important surface, custom reigned, the overtones, so to speak, disclosed not a narrowing, but a broadening of attitude; not a more and more rigid conservatism, but a more wide-ranging liberalism.

Indeed, by as early as in the 1690s Bostonians counted among their leadership a growing number of liberal Puritans. Nor is there any secret how this came about really. This liberalism first appeared in England, Samuel Eliot Morison pointed out, and it was Morison who elsewhere explained the differences between Harvard and Yale’s development, “New Haven was a small place, Connecticut a rural colony . .. at a time when Massachusetts was a royal province with a miniature vice-regal court, and Boston a trading metropolis that ape[d] the manners and reflected the whims of England,” in fact an Atlanticist port capital.

Evidence of this 17th century liberalism abounds in both the arts and the sciences. Boston’s reception of the Copernican revolution, for example.. Edward J. Pfieffer, the historian of science, in Thomas Glick’s The Comparative Reception of Darwinism in America, casts his mind back to an earlier century and recounts “American acceptance of new scientific thought – for example, Galileo’s at 17th century Harvard,” an acceptance Pfeifer writes that has “been taken by historians as the mark of a sophisticated but still colonial culture.”

As telling was 17th-century Harvard’s choices in art. What Harvard inherited from the English collegiate scene architecturally was the typology of the cloister – serene, harmonious, but also insular, introverted, discouraging contact with the world. However, when a new architectural form emerged in the English Cambridge – the open three-sided court, seen at Gonville and Caius College and then at Emmanuel, John Harvard’s college, only 45 years before Harvard was founded in far away Boston – Harvard was quick to take it up. Interestingly, in Bainbridge Bunting’s and Margaret Henderson Floyd’s architectural history of Harvard, they refer to the same John Coolidge who so unusually well understood deliberately Balkanized Boston to explain why Harvard was in this respect so innovative. It was another aspect of liberalism. Coolidge’s conclusion was that it was a desire for “interaction with the city.”

That dovetails with Bernard Bailyn’s observation in Three Glimpses of Harvard History that Harvard “was an artifact of the community as a whole.” Significantly, there was a daily stage by 1795 over what has now become the Red Line subway route from Beacon Hill to Harvard Square, and Bunting writes of the omnibus that replaced it by “1862 . . . [as] apparently the first high-frequency transit route in America, and one that developed two years after the appearance of the omnibus in Paris, three years before those in London.”

One may be sure that frequent passengers of this service included William Brattle and John Leaverett, 1680 Harvard classmates and sole resident Harvard tutors and fellows in the late 1680s and 1690s, both liberal in thought, and Williams’ elder brother Thomas Brattle, a mathematician whose work won Sir Isaac Newton’s praise in his Principia. Historian Rick Kennedy in the American National Biography testifies to the importance of “the example of [Brattle] gave to his students of an orthodox Puritan committed to the ideals of the founders of New England, but open to the beginnings of the Enlightenment.”

Kennedy also focuses on the same learned Harvard trio in connection with the State Street area leading to Boston Harbor. Max Savelle details the matter: “it was Thomas Brattle … and his brother William who together with John Leavertt, later president of Harvard, organized the liberal Puritan dissidents in Boston by the creation of the Battle St. Church in 1699 …The organization of the Brattle … indeed, marked … the beginning of the liberalization … of Puritan doctrine.” Furthermore, writes Kennedy: “No better expression exists of the moderate Puritanism to which Brattle and many other Bostonians subscribed, than the Brattle Street meeting house of 1699, whose Wren-like tower and steeple were the first constructed in America.” Eight years later the Liberals gained a majority on the Harvard Corporation and elected John Leavrett president.

Of course liberal does always equate with patriot. But to peruse the membership lists of the Brattle Church is to discover therein Abigail and John Adams and John Hancock, patriots all on the verge of becoming Brahmins, and nimble enough Brahmins that the Torys had hardly fled to England before the triumphant patriots were seen to be moving into their Boston mansions. Like the new Napoleonic nobility whose riposte to the old Bourbon one was that they were their own ancestors, thank you, Boston’s now sole and unrivaled patriot aristocrats were a case of what one can only, again, call “liberal conservatism.”

Consider John Adams, conservative enough to favor not only aristocracy but monarchy. Though he believed that all were created equal, Adams saw that as “a statement of personal rights” according to Richard Brookhiser, “not that all are approximately or potentially equal in condition and therefore equal in their political rights.” Asserting that “people have advantages at birth or in their character,” he insisted that “some men are created aristocrats.” Although he and Jefferson agreed that the citizen should always decide the matter by his vote, Adams argued for what he called the five pillars of aristocracy. They were beauty, wealth, birth, genius and virtues. He argued too that any of the first three can at any time overbear the . . . both of the last two,” and as Brookheiser points out drolly, “Adams knew whereof he spoke. He possessed himself only the last two, and had many times been defeated by the first three, thus foreseeing Roosevelt’s and Bushes and Kennedys and Clintons and Gores alike.” “As long as there are elections,” Adams opined, “people will vote for candidates they recognize. It is the tribute democracy pays to aristocracy.”

Yet this patriarch of Boston’s leading Brahmin dynasty was also the author after the Revolution of the new Massachusetts’ constitution, a most radical document indeed, so radical Peter Kadzis, editor of Boston’s leftist alternative newspaper, The Boston Phoenix, could recently write of Massachusetts that it was “arguably the world’s freest political entity… its [constitution’s] Declaration of Rights [being] far more ambitious and inclusive than the national Bill of Rights.” As we saw last time here, 200 years later Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall judged it inclusive enough to mandate same-sex marriage. It remains the oldest written constitution in the world still in use.


It would be too much to call the Massachusetts Constitution a Brahmin constitution, or even a Unitarian constitution, I suppose, but Adams was certainly both, and Jefferson the first, he of the “Jefferson Bible,” out of which Jefferson had razored out all miracles! In post-revolutionary Boston there was no need for such discretion, and the equivalent of Jefferson’s very private Bible were the very public services of King’s Chapel, from the old Anglican liturgy of which all Trinitarian references were removed by America’s first Unitarian Church, itself become the flagship of what historian M. A. DeWolfe Howe called “the Boston religion,” consolidated in Boston in 1825 with the founding of the American Unitarian Association after the new philosophy had established its dominance at Harvard Divinity School.

Led by a saintly Christian humanist, William Ellery Channing, Unitarianism’s thrust was that “to understand God we begin,” in Channing’s words, “by looking inside ourselves.” Which was surely to more than live up to Matei Calinescu’s sharpest definition of the avant-garde: “to overthrow all the binding, formal traditions and to . . . explore completely new horizons,” the last state of which would prove to be in Puritan terms surely a completely de-Christianized denomination the least reason Brahmins and immigrants often talked past each other. As political scientist John F Stack points out in International Conflict in an American City, “the dominance of Unitarianism among the Brahmins frequently made them appear anti-Christian to many Irish and Italian Catholics.” As religion in some sense waned, learning waxed. What Diarmaid McCullough observed of the 17th century Baltzell observed of de Tocqueville in the 18th, when he reported that the Bay Colony must contain the highest proportion of educated men the world had ever seen.” Even more than his beloved Paris. There is the underpinning of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s classic definition of the Brahmin caste.

Holmes is a hugely misunderstood and undervalued figure today, more often judged by his poetry than his prose, and as entirely a literary and not at all a medical figure. Charles Bryan, a medical school professor at the University of South Carolina, can help us here. He sees, as does William Dowling in his recent study of Holmes’ years in Paris, that far from being a being a provincial, Holmes was a cosmopolitan, one reason he ended up Dean of Harvard Medical School. Writes Byran: “Holmes had a hand in every great medical advance of the 19th century; in aseptic practices and articulation of germ theory . . . in the introduction of anesthesia (it was Holmes who proposed the term) and in the anticipation of clinical psychology and psychiatry.

Indeed, it is quite a joke on more than one scholar that Holmes’ classic definition of the term “Boston Brahmin” comes about in the course of his “arous[al of] public interest in the then unnamed fields of psychiatry and psychology” – I am quoting Byran – “through his three novels, [the first of which, The Professor’s Tale, later named Elsie Venner] was where the subject came up’” That is the milieu in which the Boston Brahmin was first named. I think at once of a friend who insisted to me that the Boston Brahmin must be understood as not just a “custodian of taste, but an agent of thought.”

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, which began in 1831-32 in New England Magazine and was revived in 1857-58 in the Atlantic, shows Holmes’ growing interest in the American class system. “We are forming an aristocracy, as you may observe, in this country . . . a de facto upper stratum,” Holmes concluded in Autocrat, and “of course, money is its cornerstone,” what Holmes biographer Peter Gibran means when he alerts us that “the first development of the Brahmin theme comes near the end of Autocrat.” Note it is a monied aristocracy that comes up first. It is not for another year, untill 1859, that a learned aristocracy arises significantly in The Professor’s Story.

About the first aristocracy, “merely the richer part of the community,” Holmes writes that “some of these great folks are well-bred, some of them are only purse-proud and assuming,” but, he continues, “the millionocracy” – note the sarcasm – “is not at all an affair of persons or families, but a perpetual fact of money with a variable human element . . . this trivial and fugitive fact of personal wealth does not create a permanent class.” But he takes quite a different view of the learned one. An “aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a far greater character of permanence,” Holmes pronounces it “a caste, not in any odious sense, by the repetition of the same influence generation after generation.” Contends Holmes: “a scholar is in the large proportion of cases the son of scholars or scholarly persons . . . . He comes of the Brahmin caste. . . . Our scholars come chiefly from a privileged order, just as our best fruits come from well chosen grafts”; thus the learned aristocracy is hereditary.

Always, he differentiates between the two aristocracies absolutely, even though he admits that “the New England Brahmin caste often gets blended with connections of political influence or commercial distinction,” and that it is “a charming thing for the scholar when his fortune carries him in this way into some of the ‘old families’ who have fine old houses. . . and [access to] dividend-paying companies.” (“His narrow study expands into a stately library”). Indeed, Holmes took up the subject again in “Bread and Newspaper,” writing “our poor Brahmins – whom a critic in ground-glass spectacles (the same who grasps his statistics by the blade and strikes his supposed antagonist with the handle) oddly confounds with the ‘bloated aristocracy. ‘Brahmins’ only birthright,” Holmes stubbornly wrote, “is an appetite for learning.”

Holmes was not for long the only definer of ‘Brahmin,’ and two influential historians seem not to have. Story points out that John Lothrop Motley in his Memorial to Josiah Quincy (1864) defined Brahmin as “rich, well-born and virtous,” and Stephen Kandler shows in his “Francis Parkman’s Ethnography of the Brahmin Caste…” that Parkman undertook a very racist comparison of the term with reference to the American Indian. Moreover, most scholars also take Story’s view that “the employment of this term before the mid [19th]-century is an anachronism, for it did not enter the lexicon until the time of the Civil War,” having gradually “displac[ed] the terms ‘Federalist (or Whig) aristocracy” and “Boston Associates” (How quickly is hard to say; the New York Times, where the term “Boston Brahmin” appeared first in 1874 – three years ahead of the Boston Globe – published a rave review of Elsie Venner without once mentioning the author’s coining of the term.) But whether the caste being newly named changed is a nice point. May we properly call Saint Peter a Christian, or Michelangelo gay? Even Story writes of what he calls, somewhat awkwardly, a “finished Brahminism at a particular if not quite definable point in the 1860s.”

Not at all definable in my view. Consider Peter Dorkin Hall’s perspective. “In order to understand the context in which privately endowed American cultural institutions developed,” he insists, one must focus on a group – “called the ‘Boston Brahmins’ after the 1850s . . . descendants of about a hundred individuals living in the 18th century,” particularly Amorys, Lawrences, Lees, Lowells and Peabodys. The senior aristocracy’s history in Boston is seamless, whatever one calls it. Which, by the way, finally, was more important, Holmes’s view aside? It is no surprise that Baltzell pronounced that “Massachusetts was dominated by an educated rather than a propertied upper class.” But Emerson biographer Lawrence Buell leaves little doubt either of which aristocracy he thought more formative:

The Boston into which [in 1803] Emerson was born was…proud of its revolutionary heritage, but a cultural backwater compared to London and Paris….Yet within a mere half century New England — and the Boston area in particular — had become a center for literature, for avant garde American thought in religion, philosophy and education, and for a host of reform movements from temperance to abolition to feminism. The reason? One, perhaps te most important, was the man Buell pronounces “one of the great literary essayists of all time and one of the most influential figures in the history of American thought.


Two years before Holmes coined the term “New England Brahmin” in the Atlantic to describe the Boston city-state’s senior aristocracy, another leading figure of the day used the same word in the same magazine in 1858, and quite pointedly claimed to be a “Brahmin” himself in what Robert Richardson calls “one of [Emerson’s] last great poems.” “If the red slayer thinks he slays, / Or if the slain think he is slain? They know not well the subtle ways? I keep, and pass, and turn again./ . . . . .They reckon ill who leave me out; / when me they fly, / I am the wings; / I am the doubter and the doubt, / And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.”

Deeper down that urges us, and no surprise, for the Boston Brahmin was always more engaged with Asian thought than most realize. As an indication of how profound and intimate was this engagement I like to cite the funeral of William Stugris Bigelow at Trinity Church, a funeral in the Anglican rite, presided over by Episcopal bishop, but where the body was clothed in the vestments of a Buddhist priest, which Bigelow was. Yet who reads the Buddha’s pronouncement – “he who is noble, heroic, a great sage, passionless, pure and enlightened, him call a Brahman” – and then reads Emerson’s “Brahma” and does not see how each reflects the other will not understand why critic Pico Iyer could tell Christopher Lydon recently on Open Source that “the higher form of globalism, I’ve always thought, is Emerson. That’s why I chose to write a book about the dalai lama.”

Pico calls that religious leader the “best sort of New England Transcendentalist” and Emerson’s globalism “not at the level of Microsoft, McDonalds, or Britney Spears, but at the level of conscience, imagination and the heart.” If that is the deepest reason Holmes reached into India to name Boston’s learned caste, Emerson, it is well to recall, lest he be mistaken for an exotic, was also the American Plato; “the angel with whom we must struggle,” critic Harold Bloom has written, “if we are to win the blessing of a new name, whether it be the American scholar or some 21st century equivalent.”

Which is to pose a nice question: When a present-day scholar, Dr. Robert Gordon, in Mandala of Indic Traditions, urges the author of “Brahma” as “the first Boston Brahmin,” I am reminded of Protap Chunder Mozoomdar’s pronouncement over a century ago now in “Emerson as Seen from India,” that Boston’s iconic thinker “had all the wisdom and spirituality of the Brahmans [of India] .. . . And in that sense Emerson was the best of the Brahman’s.”

Best in India? First in Boston? Accolades worth repeating because unique, but I suspect both, though I can really speak only to the second. I will leave it to Dr. Rajat Chandra to say that the great Indian luminary “[Rabindranath Tagore’s] Brahmo faith had Unitarian influences,” and that the “writings of Ralph W. Emerson, the famed Boston Brahmin who had great regard for Indian culture, inspired many educated Bengalis.” Certainly there is on the Boston side near contemporary documentation of this. In 1908, in an article entitled “Young Hindus in Boston,” The Boston Globe reported of a group of University of Calcutta graduates visiting the New England capital that they “belong[ed] to the Brahmo Sanaj reigion, a comparatively new sect, referred to by them as similar to Unitarianism here”. As to the Boston accolade, Emerson’s father, the Reverend William Emerson was as much a Brahmin as his son. On the other hand, it may truly be said of Ralph Waldo Emerson, scholar-son of a scholar father, neither ever well off, that no one ever better fulfilled Holmes’s definition of the Brahmin.

Emerson’s place in the development of the Unitarian movement can be seen by consulting a work like Sam Storm’s Modern Theological Liberalism, where Storm divides Unitarian history into three periods: The introductory one dominated by the establishment of King’s Chapel, the consolidating period dominated by William Ellery Channing, and the mature period, wherein Emerson inspired a “flowering” of the movement – Transcendentalism. What all shared was a conspicuous and increasing liberalism and elitism: as the old saw has it—the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.

Historians of religion who have addressed the matter are clear about the nature of Unitarianism. “Archetypal modern intellectuals,” Daniel Walker called them, “celebrat[ing] the characteristic features of modernism . . . capitalism, theism, liberalism and optimism.” Kavel van Baalens agreed. In his The Chaos of Cults, he called Unitarians the “Modernists of Protestantism.” In The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, William R Hutchinson declares that “in opening religion to. . . scientific method and . . . in alleviating the astounding American provincialism about world religions, the 19th century Unitarians made incalculable contributions [as] pioneers of a modern synthesis.”

In this connection, “scholars now argue,” Frank Schulman writes, “that Emerson did not reject his Unitarianism, but transformed it through Transcendentalism,” creating what has been called an American Renaissance. Yet as he became more and more American, Emerson hardly became less Bostonian. It is true, as Lawrence Buell points out, that “most Boston businessmen found Emerson’s ideas both disconcerting and contemptible,” and that Emerson returned the favor – disdaining “the greed and philistinism of State Street” – Henry Adams was the rare intellectual who agreed with State Street, if for different reasons – but the sage of Concord insisted on Boston as Vasari of Florence, whether of its core city, which he insisted must lead American civilization and where he lectured and published and haunted bookshops and joined clubs, or the suburb of his constant retreat; and who could mistake Concord for the suburb of an other capital? Concord joined Cambridge, Brookline, Lowell and so on as another of the “specialized complements” Boston created around itself – this time “Philosophical Boston”.

Emerson, of course, is a classic example of the Boston-centric global orientation, for his essays and orations – think especially of his “American Scholar,” the so-called “American intellectual Declaration of Independence” – made him an international figure. Still do. Not just in obvious ways, such as President Obama binding Emerson’s essay on Self Reliance into the publication of his Inaugural Address, but in the way Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell constantly engages Emerson and Thoreau in the company of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, pointing especially to how Emerson in Cavell’s world view, describes – even to Nietzsche, of all people, who borrowed much from Emerson – to each reader everywhere “his own idea . . . never final, always initial, always on the way.” Adds Goodman: In Emerson’s way of seeing, “one finds God only in the present; God is, not was.” One is reminded that Emerson charged that “historic Christianity” proceeds “as if God were dead.”

Emerson on God, Cavell on Emerson, Goodman on Cavell’s Emerson – it is in the last category perhaps one does well to seek the role in Emerson’s thought of Indian philosophy. Though one can too much urge the importance of this – “Emerson,” Goodman writes,”was a philosophical original and he transformed everything he touched.” Yet his “Over-Soul” is one of his “quintessentially Hindu writings,” and his “Indian associations shape the images and doctrines of his greatest essay, Experience.”

The depth of the Boston elite’s relationship with India particularly needs to be remembered. It was symbolized not only by the huge bulk of India Wharf, four stories of counting rooms and stores and warehouses extending hundreds of yards into Boston Harbor, but by the intensity of interest of Charles Eliot Norton, for instance, an uber-Brahmin of national repute eventually. Of Norton and India historian James Turner writes that India interested Norton because, like Alexis de Tocqueville seeking France’s future in the American present, Norton always pondered foreign cultures with an eye to elucidating his own. Parsees prowling the pages of the North American Review became a case study in the national interweaving of religion, literature and the arts and individual moral formation. . . .[Parsee] religion exemplified the historicist principles by which Unitarians explained religious development, in this case the corruption of belief into superstition.” Unitarians in turn had many important connections with liberal Indian thinkers.

Emerson came by his interest in things Indian chiefly through his father, William Emerson, the founder in 1804 of the Anthology Club and the editor of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, which regularly carried articles on Indian philosophy, a subject young Emerson also pursued at Harvard. So it does not perhaps surprise that the Transcendentalists in the 1830s were “the first group in America, however loosely knit, to pay serious attention,” in Leyla Goren’s words, “to Indian thought.” It is Goren who most closely links through Indian philosophy the Puritan ethos with the Emersonian ethos, asserting I think persuasively that Emerson and his colleagues were drawn to Indian thought because “it was profound without being gloomy. The Puritans harsh insistence on the pre-eminent importance of Salvation was suited to the exigencies of reform, or of revolution, or of migration and settlement,” Goren suggests, “but was simply not sufficient to appeal to the spiritual hunger of Emerson,” the nature of whose achievement is such, she believes, that Indians themselves have described the Boston icon as a “kindred spirit…[as] a voluminous literature attests.” Emerson’s was truly an achievement of global dimensions that fulfilled the highest ambitions of Harvard’s founders.


One very alert scholar, T. K. Wayne, in her Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism, has suggested that “referring to himself as the Brahmin’s hymn might be seen as a play on words, since the term ‘Brahmin’ was just coming into use in New England in the 1860s, to refer to Boston’s cultural elite.” Holmes’ biographer Peter Gibran, moreover, cites “a long March 1856 letter from Emerson to Holmes . . . suggest[ing] that Holmes and Emerson had been conducting an ongoing discussion, that Emerson’s notions about ‘The American Scholar’ and about the scholars’ necessary disengagement from irrational mass movements, may have had a significant impact on Holmes’ later published description of the Boston ‘Brahmin’.”

Gibran is on to something when he resolves one issue here, suggesting suggesting Holmes’ definition of the Brahmin caste was a reflection of ‘a major nineteenth-century transformation in the role of the ‘Boston Brahmin’ in American life. He writes: “If, in the past, New England’s secular priesthood had combined intellectual, political and social leadership, by the time Holmes names the caste. . . it is purely an ‘academic class’, a community of scholars’, . . . defined by intellect alone . .. . .Holmes’ ‘Brahmin’ is clearly disengaged from operations of power, and more literally engaged in education.”

Alas, Gibran seems not entirely to understand the transformation in the post Civil War era when three of the four 20th century national capitals – New York, Washington, Boston – would emerge as dominant in national life. Boston, though it has come to be an economic superpower today, was not then anymore than it is now, the economic capital. That is New York. Nor is it the political capital any more than it would become the entertainment capital. Boston is the intellectual (which would mean more and more the academic) capital and for that capital its leaders are intellectuals and academics, and that is where power chiefly resides.

However, Gibran is much closer to the mark when he goes on to say – of a period (though he does not himself allude to it) when Boston gained five new universities – the new Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College and Tufts – that the “claims that Holmes does make for this new sort of ‘Brahmin’ seem to be based on a an important distinction between the new role of the intellectual and the traditional one of the ‘clerisy’. . . Holmes’ writings can be seen as primary signs of a shift in the ideal of a ‘life of the mind” . . .from a model of end-oriented intellect in the service of power to disinterested intelligence with a goal of free speculation and criticism; from living off ideas to living for them.”

In this connection, historian Morton Keller’s “The Personality of Cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia” is worth reading. He is most pointed in his analysis of the three cities’ distinctive cultural characteristics and how “they preserved these characteristics through three centuries of profound cultural and economic change,” and in Boston’s case a dramatic early 20th century decline. Writes Keller: “As the 20th century wore on, the Puritan city upon a hill once again became a force to be reckoned with in American life . . .traditional Boston personality reasserted itself . It did so by drawing upon – and ultimately bending to its tradition – the vitality of the [immigrant] newcomers . . . The[ir] long struggle produced the Kennedy’s, the leading modern American political family . . . [while] Boston as a seat of learning entered into yet another flowering of Education, scholarship, scientific research, and high technology, making what Keller calls “the largest college town in the history of the world.”

How and why and who accomplished this? Listen to Notre Dame historian James Turner, whose analysis deserves as close attention as Gibran’s. Of even the revolutionary privateers, the parvenu’s of the “Salem junta,” drawn to Boston as the Tory Loyalists departed in the 1770s and ’80s, Turner writes that these nouveau-riches bequeathed to their Brahmin children a “shared ethic still recognizably Puritan in one respect: trade was honorable; ceaseless pursuit of wealth was not. Ancestral convictions imposed restraint. Piety, virtue, intellect outweighed profit, or were supposed to. Surprisingly, often, they did. . . . Along with moral and religious precepts went a high and hereditary regard for the clergy. . . . As religion shaded gently into learning. . . . the distinguishing characteristic of Boston’s elite was the melding, achieved to perhaps a unique degree in American history, of the lives of the mind and the counting house.”

He sees this trajectory persisting, moreover, as I do, throughout the 19th century business crescendo. “Manufacturing in New England, then the railroads that opened the West, provided . . . a stable investment . . . . As a result, children . . .could eschew the temptations of avarice without risking the comforts of gentility. . . Avocation became vocation . . . Barely had the mercantile elite consolidated itself when it began to evolve into something more varied. . .”

Which was? “An aristocracy not of money,” pronounces Turner, “but of mind . . . bred from the crossing of the Unitarian clergy with the merchant princes . . . in its heyday from 1840 to 1890.” That’s what Oliver Wendel Holmes seems to have foreseen, able to do so with a clear eye perhaps because Holmes did indeed believe in democracy. The Boston elite’s untroubled assumption of its duty to lead was not at all incompatible with democracy. Turner wrote: “A belief in hierarchy implied neither contempt for American republicanism nor enthusiasm for European aristocracy; quite the reverse . . . America escaped [the evils of the European system] because of ‘our political and civic institutions,’ including most notably general access to education, the staircase by which any citizen might rise.”


Emerson, the thinker – the individual apotheosis of the Brahmin ideal – is often faulted for not having been more of an activist, and it must be said – Louis Menand being right that what Holmes Sr meant by “scholar” we would call an “intellectual” – that intellectuals-as-activists played a very strong Brahmin hand, arguably the strongest, something one can see most clearly perhaps in the way that American conservatives today are apt to identify with yesterdays Boston Brahmins. Historically, however, conservatives have more often despised Brahmins; and because enemies, more than friends, can usually be depended upon to tell the truth, one of these critics must be called as a witness here. Indeed, in many ways the best evidence of the nature and thrust of Boston Brahmin leadership – there are always, as Digby Baltzell remarks, more George Apley’s than John Adams’s – is that the Brahmins’ most implacable enemies, historically, continue to be extremist American conservatives.

Accordingly, while I discourage students from reading resentful anti-Brahmin authors (George Santayana: The Last Puritan; John P. Marquand: The Late George Apley), or their cousins the entertainers (Cleveland Amory: The Proper Bostonians), and insist immigrant-oriented anti-Brahmin rants (James Michael Curley’s speeches about “Back Bay Bourbons”) be balanced by pro-Brahmin hymns of praise by other immigrants (Mary Antin: The Promised Land), I absolutely require students read, first: the great Boston novels (Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Henry James’s The Bostonians, Howells’ Silas Lapham, O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, May Sarton’s Faithful are the Wounds, and West’s The Living is Easy) and, second: conservative critiques like that of editor-author Samuel L. Blumenfield.

An ardent enough conservative to have written regularly for the John Birch Society, Blumenfield’s chief cause is disclosed by the title of his best known book, Is Public Education Really Necessary? (1981) in which he asserts that “socialists who were very active in the public school movement began operating in secret cells in America as early as in 1829.” He is talking about Boston Brahmins, misled in his view by the British social reformer Robert Owen, whose ideas “reached the Boston Unitarians soon after their publication in 1813, disseminated in America by John Quincy Adams,” then US minister to Britain.

Blumenfield disparages, above all, Horace Mann, the Father of American Public education, whose statue now stands in front of the Massachusetts State House. Mann’s educational model, influenced by the Prussian system, was adopted by nearly every state in the Union, and nothing discloses better the way the Puritan passion for education waxed rather than waned in Brahmin Boston. Blumenfield’s response?

Only in Boston did the public schools receive unflagging public support . . . mainly because . . . of the Unitarian movement, which strongly favored public education. . . The takeover of Harvard in 1805 by the Unitarians is probably the most important intellectual event in American history . . . It became the Unitarian Vatican, so to speak, dispensing a religious and secular liberalism that was to have profound and enduring effects on the evolution of American cultural, moral and social values. It was, in effect, the beginning of the long journey to the secular humanist world view that now dominates American culture.”

That one paragraph is perhaps the most telling its author ever wrote. And having reached back to condemn Harvard, the venerable Puritan-inspired flagship of Boston Brahmin liberalism, Blumenfield wastes no time also condemning Harvard’s modern sister, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded in 1861 by William Barton Rogers. Noting that William’s brother, Henry, had in 1832 written a series for the Free Enquirer, which Blumenfield explains was “the mouthpiece of the Socialist movement, advocating . . . women’s liberation, atheism . . . and, above all, a national public school system,” he continues, “out of these [articles] he and his brother William “later developed a plan for a poly-technical institute which would in 1861 be established as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology … It is not without significance that America’s leading scientific university should have been founded by a socialist working in concert with Harvard Unitarians.”

It hardly seems necessary for Blumenfield to add, but he does, of uber-Boston Brahmin James Savage, that “William Barton Rogers married the daughter of Savage, one of the leading Unitarian activists in the cause of public education.”


Although Blumenfield considerably over-reaches with his polemic, the truth is that many Brahmins did admire Robert Owen, in whose circle it is a fact the word socialism first arose. Our old friend Francis Cabot Lowell, the Brahmin master spy of the English textile industry, may indeed have known Owen. Certainly Owen’s name comes up more than once in Robert Daltell’s Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates, where the author notes “an eerie amount of similarities between the communities of New Lanark (an Owenite settlement in Scotland) and the Waltham-Lowell mill towns.

All of which is very much to the point that it would be a mistake to lose track of those other Puritan themes we began with here. Autonomy continued to figure importantly. The choice by Francis Cabot Lowell of Waltham, and of his successors of the town they named Lowell after him, was not just about water power. As Mona Domish has documented in Invented Cities, Boston Brahmins showed clearly in the their decisive choice not to develop (as Middle Class Yankee Bostonian merchants wanted) the Back Bay as a dock area extending Boston Harbor, that they wanted “Cultural Boston” where they wanted it, just as surely as was the case with “Academic Boston,” “Horticultural Boston,” and “Industrial Boston.”

Similarly with philanthropy, about which there is more to say of the Brahmin chapter than has already been touched on here. Thus George W.Cooke in his Unitarianism in America quotes B. B. Frothingham to the point that

The Town of Boston had a poorhouse and nothing more until the Unitarians initiated humane institutions for the helpless, the blind, the insane. The Massachusetts General Hospital (1811), he McLean Asylum for the Insane (1818), the Perkins School for the Blind (1832), the Female Orphan Asylum (1800) were of their devising . . . . The Unitarian conception of the relations of altruism and religion was pertinently stated by J. T. Kirkland, president of Harvard . . . when he said that ‘we have as much piety as charity, and no more.

A more detached witness agreed. After his 1842 visit, Dickens wrote of these philanthropic efforts: “I sincerely believe that the public institutional charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerable wisdom, benevolence, humanity can make them.”

It was not just the case that Lowell was determined in C. M. Rosenberg’s words in his biography of the Brahmin entrepreneur to “prevent the squalor and social unrest he had observed in the British factory towns in any of his own factories in Boston,” but the “quiet paternalistic capitalism that built the boarding houses, the company store and schools at Waltham,” was just one example of his biographers claim that “Lowell [was] always eager to combine goodness with profit,” as keen a philanthropist, interestingly, as his son John, founder of the Lowell Institute of which more in this series soon, was an educator. Other examples and on the part of all Lowells partners and the Boston Associates generally abound. According to University of Michigan sociologist Dorceta Taylor, “the Boston Associates … gave generously to … Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital.”

On the other hand the magnificent Beacon Street palazzo overlooking Boston Common of Nathan Appleton, a leading Boston Associate, discloses how splendid was the state the Associates lived in, never mind providing quite the setting for the marriage of the daughter of the house to poet Henry Wadswoth Longfellow, wherein, by the way, it was she, not he, who was said to have risen in the world. Furthermore, Robert Dalzell’s study argues that the idea “[the Boston Associates] primary goal [was] increasing the return on capital” is actually a case not proven. “The truth is, ” Dalzell writes, “that the facts do not fit this thesis,” and he insists that although “in its day the Waltham-Lowell system represented the greatest single concentration of industrial resources in the US,” in many important ways that concentration was “unique,” and cannot be understood by analytical models that “rely on economic factors alone.” It is a striking conclusion. And led to another.

“The tradition of service in Boston . . .has run especially deep,” Dalzell noted, and “it was the Boston Associate who, more than any other single group of individuals, who created that system . . . .The world the Associates made is with us still.”

Perhaps just as we owe the beginnings of American philanthropy to the Puritans, we may also owe the overall principles of that philanthropy to the Brahmins. Yes or no, why is this possibility, one wonders, such a secret? For the same reason that as I observed here in “Brahmin Dreams” last time, the Lowell/Curley era in Boston attracts so much more attention, historically, than the Eliot/Fitzgerald era. The fact that of the two Boston mayors, Curley was an entirely local figure, and Fitzgerald the founding father of the greatest American political dynasty of the 20th century, whose name John Fitzgerald Kennedy bore and whose legacy was discernible as well in the career of Edward Kennedy, seems hardly to matter.

Similarly, the Harvard presidents as well as the Boston mayors. Lowell, influential in education, was nothing like Eliot, a figure of huge historical importance, whereas Eliot, the founder of modern Harvard and a founding professor of MIT – “America’s headmaster” – is the archetypal Boston figure (the reformer) in the same way JP Morgan (the financier) is New York’s, Theodore Roosevelt (the statesman) is Washington’s, and Cecil B. DeMille (the movie mogul) is LA’s. Yet Eliot was also the great liberal champion. He appointed the first observant Jew (Charles Gross) to a Harvard professorship, and as well the first practicing Irish Roman Catholic, Jeremiah D. Ford. He railed constantly, moreover, against the notoriously arch-bigoted Brahmin sponsored Immigrant Restriction League of which President Lowell was an officer.

Why does every one of Lowell’s persecutions – of Jews, blacks and homosexuals – become the subject of whole books, while Eliot is rather noticeably ignored? The question arises with special intensity because Eliot was also an important religious figure. He was an ardent Unitarian who has been compared to Unitarian founder William Ellery Channing, the son of a father of whom Richard Norton Smith called in The Harvard Century a “high priest in the Unitarian Sanhedrin that dominated Boston.” Only Jerome Karabel in The Chosen underscores fairly the conflict “within the Protestant elite between its progressive, inclusionary wing and its conservative, exclusionary wing,” a conflict “embodied” – Karabel’s word – “by the “two Boston Brahmins who were . . . bitter personal and political enemies.” Eliot, for instance, “struggle[ed] desperately” as president emeritus to block Lowell’s efforts to restrict Jewish admissions to Harvard in the 1920s.

Is all this explained by anti-Brahmin or perhaps, anti-Unitarian prejudice, and if so, cultivated by whom? Certainly – and Eliot, alas, was a leader in this too – Unitarian Brahmins were often hostile to Catholicism. (Italian unity and independence was a favorite cause, the enemy being the always detestable Pope; Irish unity and independence much less so, the enemy being good Queen Victoria!) But we too often confuse Yankees with Brahmins. As Oscar Handlin and Deborah Solomon and other scholars since have documented, for example, the bigoted mob that burned down the Catholic convent and school in Charlestown in an action cited repeatedly to illustrate the depth of ethnic and religious hostility in Boston in the mid 19th century was a working class Yankee mob, while most of the students enrolled at the convent school were the daughters of Boston Brahmin Unitarians.

Brahmin bashing? Consider the title of a book on the subject, Brahmins and Bullyboys: G. Frank Radway’s Boston Album (1973). Bad enough to characterize Irish Americans as bullyboys; equally ignorant to suggest that their antagonists were, not Yankees, but Brahmins. Worse was an article in Slate by Andy Bowers, “What’s a Boston Brahmin?” which mindlessly announced that Brahmins were “well known for their hostility to the Irish and other immigrants.” I say mindlessly because an hour with Oscar Handlin would have confirmed that Bowers, again, was confusing Brahmins with Yankees.

Who A. D. Richmond was confusing with whom in his book of 2001, Unmasking the Boston Brahmin is a little more difficult to discern, but perhaps a somewhat unconscious part of the same Brahmin-bashing. Few would protest his thesis that that “the slow progress of racial integration into the social and academic life of a university that professed to have a liberal ideology that supported reform” justified entirely “[b]lack students and academics . . . push[ing] through a reform agenda [in the] struggle to to reform Harvard and Radcliffe from 1945 to 1990.” Much more problematic, however, is Richmond’s contention that “the Boston Brahmin construct describes the white administrators who were in the position of power” and that “when the Brahmins expanded to include black and white administrators by the 1970s Harvard’s institutional position changed slightly to accommodate the new affirmative action policy.”

As we will see in more detail in the last article in this series, from the perspective of nearly a century later, it was in 1927 that the final act of the Brahmin Ascendancy played out – President Lowell’s presiding over the final negative response to the appeal of Sacco and Vanzetti – a very public surrender of the ground from which recovery was probably never possible and in the wake of which any claim of Brahmins to be still a speaking aristocracy to a listening democracy was utterly incredible.

To call anyone a Boston Brahmin in the sense Richmond clearly means it in 1990 or even in 1970, even if one allows him a certain latitude in 1945, is problematic. We have already encountered here in Samuel Eliot Morison and John Brooks Wheelwright individuals who in the generation after the end of the Brahmin Ascendancy still felt the pull of the old values. Children of the last of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy whose mandate was widely accepted, these individuals – who included such figures as PBS god-father Ralph Lowell, Watergate hero Eliott Richardson and poet Robert Lowell – earned their place in the new ethnically diverse Boston ruling class of the post Brahmin Ascendancy entirely on their own, as individuals, no longer as members of a caste or aristocracy as Holmes defined it. To identify such men as Boston Brahmins, rather than as descendants of Boston Brahmins, is hopelessly misleading.

In contrast to such present-day American confusions about the term Boston Brahmin, the Times of India in recent observations about the subject – by Chidanaand Rajahatta in an article of October 24, 2009 – is a model of clarity, as well as subtlety in venturing what may be Americans difficulty with the term today:

Indians who study or teach at Harvard or MIT (both in Boston) are not areas often kidded about being Boston Brahmins. The expression was first used by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1860 . . . [who] borrowed the idea of the pedagogic Brahmin from India, and saw them as a ‘race of scholars’, whose aptitude for learning was congenital and hereditary.’ There was quite a bit of traffic in those days between Massachusetts and south and east India. . . .However, the term has died a quiet death in the US. Perhaps it has something to do with political correctness. John Kerry was briefly described as a Boston Bramhin when he ran for president in 2004 . . . but the moniker did not catch on.

Given that neither learning nor philanthropy, but riches and ethnic bigotry and oppression, are the definition of Brahmin for most Americans, that was perhaps fortunate for Kerry.


Back in Harvard Yard, finally, none of the US presidents we opened with were or became Unitarians. Except, perhaps, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

What say? In his book, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, a most telling anecdote of Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy’s influential speechwriter and a Unitarian, was the one in which Kennedy asked him once, jokingly, if anything of his Catholicism was rubbing off on Sorenson. “No” Sorenson replied, “but I think some of my Unitarianism is rubbing off on you.” Admits Sorenson: “Many of the speeches I drafted reflect Unitarian principles.”

Each was arguing from his own background, of course. But Jane Greer once pronounced even Kennedy’s inaugural address as pure Unitarianism. And the distinguished Roman Catholic journal Commonweal titled Robert Lander’s review of Sorenson’s book, “Unitarian Advice.”

Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.