American Aristocracy – Letter from Boston: Toward a New History
West Church, by Maurice Brazil Prendergast
Nearly two centuries after the French Revolution – sister to our American Revolution –Chinese premiere Chou En Lai was asked sometime in the 1970s what he thought about it, famously replying, “too soon to tell.” Probably apocryphal, the quotation nevertheless rings true to the thought of Chou, himself a revolutionary, but a highly educated one. If I understand him correctly, he’s saying history’s judgement is slow in coming and never definitive. Indeed, in the same way as T.S. Eliot famously pointed out in Tradition and the Individual Talent, a new poem written today can entirely alter the meaning of a poem– which we alone are now here to ‘read’ — written originally a century ago, so history stands in constant need of re-study. Boston needs a new history —- a proposition that is given new urgency today by the fact that it is more and more evident that it is now true of American history generally in the 21st century.
In fact, formulating this new history is imperative if the United States is to respond more vigorously — at once more positively and more critically — to the global culture we are all now immersed in, both to learn from it, and to play in it a distinctively American role. In doing so it may well be uniquely Boston’s task, furthermore, to take the lead in spearheading the formulation of that new history, both at the level of the city-state and of the nation-state.
It is a nice question whether or not Boston’s credentials — the city’s present-day repute, as it were — are sufficiently intact to take this lead, to test for which we must for obvious reasons to contemporary journalism go, rather than to scholarship — especially globally-oriented journalism. Do Boston’s credentials register with enough force today to support such a role? And if so, do they ring true looking forward, so to speak, as well as looking backward. “Life is lived forward”, William James wrote “but understood backward.”
Looking backward, the British journalist Chris Wright pointed out in 2001 that “the [American] Revolution is, after all, Boston’s defining moment. The city sits on a historical fault-line, the fissure which marks the breakaway point of the Old World and the New.” A good point of departure, such a fissure — which by definition is never entirely dormant – to begin the enterprise of a new history. Looking forward, in search perhaps of more stability, I pair Village Voice staff writer Camille Dodero’s observation with Wright’s (both made in the same globally-oriented Penguin guide, originally published in Britain) that “though it is the founding city of the most powerful country on earth, and the chosen home of some of the world’s smartest people, Boston wants more…. It is doing everything within its power to win over the world. It shouldn’t matter, but it does.”
Au contraire, Camille, it should matter very much, and always has. Boston is nothing, historically, if not always over-earnest, always-probing, never satisfied. Nothing is more characteristic of the city’s Puritan fathers and mothers. One sees it too in the angst and genius–I would not like to say which predominates – in US founding father and second president John Adams. T.S. Eliot, who his greatest biographer pronounces a New England poet above all and I would insist is as well the greatest of Boston’s Unitarian Brahmin poets, coined to express just this factor the term “the Boston doubt”, essential always to Unitarian Brahminism, itself “the Boston religion, which elsewhere I have called “first American Modernism.”
Read, if you doubt Eliot, the great Boston novels: Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Henry James’s The Bostonians, May Sarton’s Faithful are the Wounds. It is even evident in those most confident pronouncements of the Boston–dare I say the American—religion? Read Self-Reliance by Boston’s iconic thinker, Emerson, – one of two or three formative books of Barack Obama’s, by the way – or Civil Disobedience by Thoreau, which Gandhi read in jail, or John Adams’s Massachusetts Constitution. In her conclusion, if not in her preface, Dodero is wrong. Of course it matters. As Shaun O’Connell points out in Imagining Boston, spiritual quest in the largest sense, another name for doubt, is the essential factor of the idea of Boston, why so many call it less a place and more a state of mind.
Before the Civil War the US hardly claimed any kind of capital city, other than the historic state capitals; no national capitals and only one or two regional ones. Certainly Washington, for all its grandiose plans on paper, was hardly recognizable in Capitoline terms. What else was? However, after the War between the states, three distinct national capitals quickly emerged, and by the First World War a fourth. I do not refer to the regional capitals — Chicago surely the greatest — but national capitals. Washington then began to take shape as the nation’s recognizable political capital; New York surged more and more as the country’s economic and ultimately media capital; ultimately, fifty years or so ahead, in the early 20th century, Los Angeles staked its claim to be the national entertainment capital. And Boston? At the same time Washington was emerging as political capital and New York as economic capital, Boston was consolidating its accumulating Athenian assets to emerge as the nation’s intellectual capital.
Why does Henry Adams–fascinated with presidential politics–move from Boston to Washington? Why does Mark Twain’s perhaps only rival as media master of the day, novelist William Dean Howells, his life pilgrimage to Boston a failure finally, move to New York? Why do the great visionary designers of the visual image of the dawn of the modern American experience, Frederick Law Olmsted and Henry Hobson Richardson, move from New York to Boston? All in the decades just after the Civil War? Why does the capitalist emerge as the New York archetype (think financier J. P. Morgan)? Why does the educator-reformer become Boston’s archetype (think the founder of modern Harvard, Charles W. Eliot)? Why the statesman-politician (think Theodore Roosevelt, or, later, Franklin Roosevelt) grow large as Washington’s archetype and, eventually, the showman –Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer –the archetype of Los Angeles?
One could as easily propose Commodore Vanderbilt instead of Morgan, Wilson instead of TR, Horace Mann for Eliot or Cecil B. DeMille for Mayer; the division of labor, the division of national leadership, still stands. Never more so than in Boston, where do not Morgan and TR, like the originals, ever study under America’s headmaster (as in fact both did under Eliot) Boston: its boast or burden to be Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”, forever hymned by Emerson, never without its causes or its reformers — Abolition in the mid 19th century, for example, as much as revolution in the mid 18th century. And what did the second cause Boston led, Abolition, yield but a second founding, a new country really, the great issue of slavery finally resolved. Was not the Civil War the second act of the revolution? Did it then become settled history? Has the world,even now, in 2011 grown tired yet of the American revolution? Even Chou, I suspect, would say no– and he would be right. That in some sense is why it matters, always matters to Boston.
It is not at all beside the point that in defining what Notre Dame historian James Turner called “the closest thing America has ever had to an aristocracy, the Brahmin class of Boston”, Oliver Wendell Holmes said very much less about money and much more about learning (pace cynics: community standards matter!). Indeed, he posited a nearly hereditary intellectual caste, and named it not after India’s mercantile class, but its priestly caste. And why India, by the way? No one ever asks this question. Sufficient for now to note how unconsciously global Holmes shows himself in his choice.
I I I
One reason so many of us miss a lot of this is the way we dwell on the national myth Boston created for America — Paul Revere rides on and on, his errand into history never done really, nor should it be – but there are not enough scholars like Berkeley historian Mark Peterson, who rightly place it in context; who make the case so well that Boston is also America’s oldest global city. In his forthcoming The City-State of Boston: Ebb and Flow in the Atlantic World, 1630-1865, Peterson will argue, as he has already in a number of places that already in the 17th and 18th centuries, “Boston was the entrepot, the material and cultural broker for virtually all relations between Europe and North America.”
Henry Adams explained his move from Boston to Washington: Boston was fine, he said, for European news. But one got no American news there at all. A century and a half later the venerable Atlantic Monthly would move from Boston to Washington for very similar reasons, the field of Atlantic history founded by Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn having long become the modern substitute for the editorial position of the venerable journal in the days of its glory. Peterson, for instance, writes of Bailyn of the “early Atlanticist bent in his pioneering studies. . . on mercantile life in New England”.
The concept of the global city is really sister, to that of the city-state. University of Florida historian Leonidas Polopolous makes the point that “city-states ruled world trade for centuries, beginning with ancient Greece.” Only comparatively recently have they taken a back seat to nation-states. And whereas “nation-states are mainly political units,” in Popolous’s words, “city-states are primarily economic units.”
Economics thus comes to the fore in a global city even a city led by a learned caste of ‘Brahmins’, some of whom themselves made a good deal of money. But what did they spend it on? Henry Lee Higginson
used to disdain his fellow millionaires in other cities, saying he didn’t need a yacht, thank you, he had the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the first such orchestra in the world, which he not only founded but for over two decades single-handedly financed.
The most authoritative definition of the global city today is derived from Saskia Sasoon’s The Global City–NewYork–Tokyo of 1991, updated by the Foreign Affairs ranking (in association with Sasoon) of 2010, in which those cities held to be “hubs of global integration” – whatever that means – and to “set global agenda’s,” which is a little clearer, are judged to be thirty in number worldwide. Only six are American — welcome to the 21st century! They are, in order, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Boston. Boston in this ranking is 19th among the worldwide thirty.
The Mori foundation of Tokyo proposes another model whose rankings are also highly respected. In their Institute of Urban Strategies “Global Power City Index” — appalling phrase – only twenty cities appear in a list that tries also to factor culture into economics and is shorter; only twenty cities appear and of those twenty only three are American. Indeed, from this Tokyo-centric perspective only New York, Los Angeles and Boston qualify among American metropolises as “global power cities.”
None of this will surprise those familiar with the work of the University of Toronto economist-sociologist, Professor Richard Florida, author of the best-selling Rise of the Creative Class of 2002. This urban studies specialist, who famously declared in 2005 that globalization has changed everything, takes a somewhat more optimistic view from the American perspective, pointing out that we should all keep in mind that not only were five of the key dozen or so world “innovation peak” cites located in the United States — to the usual suspects (New York and Boston) add San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas – but, he adds, surely for shock value:”New York’s economy alone is about the size of Russia’s or Brazil’s, and Chicago’s is on a par with Sweden’s. Together, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston have a bigger economy than all of China.”
What say Virginia? The only documentation I can find, no economist I, to back up this bombshell is a New York Times story of 2001 wherein a chart entitled “If US Metro Areas Were Countries” explains that of the 7 largest US city-states whose economies rank with major First World nation-states — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Houston — the Times’s top four were indeed Professor Florida’s top four. And New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, are, among metro areas comparable to nations, respectively the 14th, 16th 18th and 24th largest economies in the world. Think of that: New York’s economy is bigger than Australia’s. Chicago’s is bigger than Taiwan’s. Boston’s is bigger than Sweden’s.
I urge these statistics upon you to a certain extent because I have been so impressed lately reading The Triumph of Cities by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who is the Director of Harvard’s Rappaport Center of Greater Boston, which along with the Boston Foundation is probably the most notable Boston-centric think tank, I somewhat follow into uncharted waters for a historian. Glazier’s new book is a much needed study indeed, one that argues for the big, dense, skyscraper power city, shall I call it, the core of the city-state, as always the indispensable spark of civilization in whatever era. He explains too in a very real sense the link between learning and money.
The more fundamental reason, however, I insist on burdening you with these statistics is that a new American history in a new global century, its formulation spearheaded perhaps by Boston, must reflect the fact that while Bostonians struggle to keep open those precious vista’s through the skyscrapers to the white Colonial church steeples — there is actually a bronze plaque on downtown Tremont Street pointing out such a carefully preserved vista–either in London-centric or Tokyo-centric rankings cited here, according to your taste, Boston has never allowed, its primary vocation to derail the other reality of life, that, as old Brahmin families were wont to put it, someone always has to be assigned the task of making some money to keep whatever it is–the Lowell Instiute or MIT or the art museum, whatever–going.
Boston today is indeed what British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead hailed it as in the 1940s, the capital city of learning in the Western world. But what it is not is the mid-sized, quaint, history park dotted with old Colonial colleges, as many like to think of it. The statistics I insist on make also the point that Boston is not only America’s intellectual capital but is now a world economic super power, one of only three American “global power city’s.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’s standard may survive historically, but in no other sense.
Bostonians, indeed, have been no quicker than Americans generally to embrace these building blocks of the new history, either of the city-state or the nation-state. But Boston’s needs in this respect are increasingly galvanized today by the fact that they are in a very real sense being overtaken by the larger need of the United States itself for a new overall American history. Both needs, the larger and the smaller, feed into each other, of course, each given new impetus and focus when one understands (and repositions) the New England metropolis on the economic map as a global player despite the fact that this not its primary role today at all.
A key factor here is that because of our American value system, which beyond the sacred groves of New England and rumor has it even sometimes within them, privileges economics, politics and entertainment over the life of the intellect — and therefore privileges New York, Washington and Los Angeles over Boston — the intellectual capital will always be last among equals, to put it politely, never mind that with its left hand, so to speak, it has become a global economic player too. But if the other national capitals, and even some of the larger regional ones like Chicago, will always in the American scheme of things trump the national intellectual capital, that is not at all true in the European scheme of things, nor the Asian, hardly less important in the global era when, furthermore, everything everywhere obviously grows daily more intertwined and interdependent, and any new history, of Boston or America, will have to explain the relationship growing closer almost daily, if not exactly between the economic and the intellectual, then between business and education; and, perhaps, politics too.
Here as well Boston has ancient but still potent credentials. Harvard’s intellectual stature over the years has not been entirely unrelated to Boston’s economic stature! Today, moreover, we live in something called the “knowledge economy”. Never has that been more clear than in the effort to create what Steven Hampton on “Your International Business”, his widely read website, referred to as “the Boston of the East”. Speaking of the European and Asian scheme of things we must now factor into the equation in our global century, that would be the Far East. Singapore actually!
Go to the website of the National Univ.of Singapore, and you will see at once what I’m talking about. “NUS took up the call made by Prime Minister Goh Chek Tong to make Singapore ‘The Boston of the East'”, it declares. And if you want the full monte, so to speak, read the speech of Prof. T. Koh, then Dean of the Faculty of Law at Singapore University and Ambassador-at-large of the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Significantly, Koh arrives at modern Boston by way of medieval Venice. He “wants,” he said, “Singapore to be a new Venice of the 21st century”, and explains why in terms variously historical, political and economic. As “one of the legendary cities of the world [and] . . . one of the world’s longest surviving city-states”, Koh points out it is “natural for a Singaporean . . . to be fascinated by Venice.” and he cites above all the great lesson for his own city state, emphasizing that the primary “ingredient of Venetian success was national unity, a unity its rivals never possessed.”
Then he pivots tellingly: “let me now take you”, he declares, “from St Marks Square in in Venice to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If Venice is a symbol of the great cities of the past, Boston is a symbol of the great cities of the future.” Stop and think. Not the State Street Financial District, not the Back Bay insurance district around Copley Square, not the Seaport, not high tech Kendall Square, not Route 128, but Harvard Square is the central pivotal point of Professor Koh’s Boston city-state.
Now all this is easier said then done, the point made at once by another website, CAPELLA: THE UNIVERSITY ON LINE, which explained that “there are about 60 academic institutions enrolling close to 400,000 students in the Boston area, including such heavy-weights as Harvard and MIT…. So becoming the Boston of anywhere, even ‘the Boston of the East’, is going to be no easy feat.” Yet as a result of many Singaporean subsidies and a number of interesting partnerships, there is now something, for example, called the Singapore-MIT Alliance, the worlds largest interactive distance education initiative.
Not surprisingly to an American, this intersection of business and education has turned out to be, however, a good deal more complicated to negotiate than most thought: a third road, at first unnoticed, pulls the concept toward politics. In 2005, however, a major British university declined such a Singaporean alliance according to CSM journalist Simon Montlake “which faculty and students rejected on the grounds of academic freedom in a semi-authoritarian country.” The example given is this city-state “banning a gay-rights advocate.”
While it is only fair to add that not only MIT, but Representatives of the University of Chicago and Stanford all reported they “never had any restrictions placed on them,” they also agreed “their narrowly focused business and engineering curriculum’s were hardly likely to ruffle feathers.” An attempt to expand these alliances into other fields would clearly be problematic given, for instance, the observation of one academic that “the Chinese concept of originality is quite limited.” One is not surprised therefore that it would seem Singaporeans have overlooked another and historical key aspect of Boston.
The last word in this department goes to the Times of India, where just a year or so ago, H. Chhapia was unforgiving in his conclusions, heading his analysis: “Singapore: not quite Boston”.
Back to Harvard Square, Boston Central: Many a similar story about the intersection of business and education has been played out, of course, closer to home. Consider something we all have in hand right now, thanks to Bill Gates and his first partner, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Writes Laura Rich in her biography of Allen:
[In 1974]Gates . . . found he was happy at Harvard, so he suggested Allen join him . . . [Allen] dropped out of college and went to Boston. . .to be with Gates . . ultimately to form Microsoft . . . . In Boston Allen dutifully fulfilled his job [which Gates had arranged] at Honeywell . . . . On one December day as he crossed Harvard Square in Boston, Allen stopped casually by a newsstand” [yes, it was the Out of Town newsstand] “on his way to Gates’s dorm room. He picked up a magazine that gave him an idea and that’s how it all began!! ["THAT being the personal computer].
But it is important to note the newsstand story ended in many ways badly for Boston. Read the Vivek Wadhuas book The Valley of My Dreams: Why Silicone Valley left Boston’s Route 128 in the Dust. Except for bio-tech, Boston’s failure in this department is unarguable. From our point of view here, however, what is central to all this in our more global era the European and Asian scheme of things may modify significantly the American habit and the intellectual capital may no longer in the future always bring up the rear in a “knowledge economy.”
I’ve always thought as a global city Boston was a 3 act play (like Jerusalem — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — or New York — gilded age robber barons, business and media mecca culminating in United Nations New York) and it is not hard to identify Boston’s three acts: the 18th century American Revolution, the 19th century Emersonian literary renaissance and the emergence of the 20th century capital of learning. Lately, however, reading the latest work of a brilliant Oxford don, Diarmaid MacCullough, I’m not so sure.
I have never I think scanted Puritan Boston, but have rather discounted it on the global stage, as quite secondary to, say, Calvin’s Geneva or Cromwell’s London. But I was thinking perhaps in too narrow theological terms. Then I read MacCullough’s great tome of 3000 years of Christianity, and I was much struck by his approach to that “Society of scholars founded in the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and thirty six by act of the great and general court of the company of Massachusetts Bay convened in Boston the 8th/18th of September of that year” — which is to say Harvard! The second act — the first was Boston Latin School — in the creation of Boston’s educational establishment was only to be expected, MacCullough argues in view of he fact, and here is his bombshell, that what the Puritans had founded, however small and isolated, however narrow minded, was intellectually “possibly the most literate society then existing in the world.”
Of course it was narrow minded! All religions then were narrow minded. The Puritans sought religious freedom for themselves, not for anyone else! But we all know what that seed flowered into! Like Rome – Republic, Empire, Papacy, Renaissance — or London — Chaucer’s, Shakespeare’s, Newtons, Victoria’s (or Darwin’s?). Boston, I have now concluded, seen globally — I no more bring up Curley’s Boston or Caroline London than Mussolini’s Rome – is a four decker.
Then there is Boston Style, perhaps what stitches all this together, Boston discourse. Famously oldest American, first American in the sense only the national founding city can claim – as American spiritual capital only Philadelphia can rival Boston – Boston is also, let us admit it, famously un-American, seen as more and more so as her child liberty, so to speak, has waxed into a trans- continental nation of which New England is now only one small region, albeit the most venerable and honored historically (pace Virginia). Read again those Boston novels, and this time not only The Scarlet Letter, The Bostonians, and Faithful are the Wounds. Now add William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham ,Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy and Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, and Santayana’s The Last Puritan too.
Re-read too the Boston poets, not only T.S. Eliot, but Robert Lowell, and remember that Emily Dickinson, though an outlier of the Boston city-state, was characteristic – yes, even Robert Frost, and also Longfellow, not so much because of his poetry but because he is the maker of America’s national myth; Paul Revere is our Romulus and Remus. Examples can be found in music- the Shaw Memorial as heard by Charles Ives, in architecture (where I am not the first to compare Ralph Adams Cram with Walter Gropius) and in politics too, and perhaps most importantly in religion. That’s where Perry Miller, whose The New England Mind may be the Boston book, advances an ancient Puritan formula: what I’m calling Boston style, Boston discourse, is a matter, Miller writes,of “a speaking Aristocracy in the face of a silent Democracy.”
What does this mean? We must necessarily first ask a very important question: which city of old may lay claim to be Boston’s own “mother city”?
Paris is the obvious choice, of course. Certainly medieval Paris as called to mind by Whitehead is what brings the French capital first to mind. But what crowds even that out at once and wins the day absolutely are the twin revolutions the two cities heroically sparked and struggled through —the two epochal events of modern Western history for the last perhaps 1000 years.
Liberal Boston has not subsequently fallen back either. When awarding Massachusetts onetime senator Edward Brooke the Medal of Freedom President Barack Obama declared that Brooke had “moved the arc of history”. No hyperbole: Brooke’s election in 1967 made him the first African-American ever elected to the US Senate by popular vote. When one recalls also that in 1916 Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis was the first Jew appointed to the US Supreme Court, and keeps in mind Kennedy’s own achievement as the first Irish Catholic president, it would seem that in all three branches of American government Boston has bent that arc continuously.
Focus just on one specific category: the role of woman in religion. In addition to Anne Hutchinson in the 17th century, there was Mary Baker Eddy in the 19th, the creator of Christian Science, and the first woman anywhere to found a church. Then there was Barbara Harris. When consecrated the first woman bishop in the world wide Anglican Communion in Boston for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989, Harris was according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “the first woman consecrated a Bishop in the historic succession [of the Christian Church in 2000 years]“.
But is Paris more sister perhaps than mother to Boston? It’s another nice question. And suggests consideration of another and older city which has also a claim here. Attend to the curious dream recounted in Peterson’s Soundings in Atlantic History:
On the night of January 1st, 1686, Samuel Sewall, Boston merchant and aficionado of apocalyptic speculation, had a dream. . . .[His] head filled with millennial thoughts, Sewall dreamed ‘that our Savior in the days of his flesh upon earth, came to Boston. The next morning Sewall remembered . . . reflections he had had during his dream: ‘One was how much more Boston had to say than Rome boasting of Peter’s being there.’ Sewall’s dream is a vivid example of early Bostonians subconscious pride of place, but the general sentiment was by no means atypical. From the city’s founding in 1630, when John Winthrop claimed that ‘the eyes of all people are upon us . . . .’ [it was the aim of] Bostonians . . . to form a Protestant Atlantic world in which Theopolis America would prosper with a glory that would give Boston more to boast about than Rome had ever had.
To Paris, liberal Paris, we must add Rome, not liberal at all, in fact authoritarian historically, and any reader of Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia will not need to be reminded how authoritarian Boston Puritans won and laissez fair Philadelphia Quakers lost in the leadership struggle of 18th century America, leading, Baltzell declares, to “Boston’s hegemony over the American mind.” I also have explored this subject in my Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston: Michelangelo and Sargent. Furthermore, that authoritarian tradition is not just present in Puritan dreams, but in the supreme ideal of the Puritan Church, exactly a speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy.
Never mind that the average citizen was not a church member, those who were members were part of a “Congregational system”, Perry Miller insists, “quite unlike anything the world had ever beheld. “The mutual consent consisted in this: every church member was “joined together by a covenant into which they entered of their own will, who elected the minister and voted upon administration and excommunication.” Moreover, “the fundamental law, enacted by the church covenant, secured certain liberties”, Miller continues, “and prescribed limits to the power of the elders”. There was good reason the silent Democracy listened to the speaking aristocracy!
It was Edward M Cook who pointed out in his The Fathers of the Towns: Leadership and Community Structure in 18th century New England, that in that century after independence, “popular participation meshed with elite leadership and created a system remarkably like the ‘speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy described . . . as the essence of the 17th-century relationship between Puritan Church leadership and congregations.” Now two modern day examples of this Boston style of discourse are the best work of my old mentor, historian Walter Muir Whitehill, and the most notable decision of Massachusetts’s retiring Chief Justice Margaret Marshall.
V I I
The Centers of Civilization volumes of the University of Oklahoma Press is a landmark series which shows how differently one ranks cities historically than economically. Intended to mark those “cities which from the earliest times to the present, have exercised a radiating influence upon the civilizations in which they have existed”, by 1960 the volumes had included Athens in the Age of Pericles, Rome in the Augustan Age, Constantinople in the Age of Justinian and Florence in the Age of Dante, and in due course a volume was projected along the lines of Boston in the Age of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Naturally, Whitehill was asked to write it.
The holder of a doctoral degree in medieval architecture, and with no particular literary expertise, Walter knew that scholars of world stature like F.O. Matthiessen, Van Wyck Brooks and Perry Miller had, as he put it later, “excavated the [Emersonian] site to the point of diminishing returns” and declined the task. Besides, he said, in the preface to the very different book he finally wrote, “Fundamentally, I care more about the present and future of Boston than its past.” Mark those words, and note that Whitehill was a leading figure in the American historic preservation movement. A Bostonian more than a Southerner, he was not very interested in lost causes, no Romanticist at all, and always eager to take a constructive approach to anything he did.
Faced with the possibility of this book, that’s just what he did, knowing that while Emerson was not for him, there was something that needed doing–whether for America or Boston he probably thought beside the point–and that what the day required was what one might call more a reassertion of Emersonian values.
“In recent years”, he writes in the volume that finally issued from Oklahoma, in the context of a discussion about the building then of the under-the-Common garage, the seeming sacrilege of which bothered him (and in For the Union Dead, perhaps poet Robert Lowell too) more because of the political corruption involved to their minds, “Boston has been crooked and narrow in more ways that one likes to realize.” Citing a Saturday Evening Post article of June 5, 1965, “Massachusetts Rogues and Reformers in a State on Trial,” Whitehill quotes its author as asserting that “the state’s record of exposed corruption is unmatched, not only for its scope, but for its ingenuity and flamboyance.” Whitehill goes on to touch on a certain former Massachusetts Governor and mayor of Boston, no names mentioned, but again quotes the Post piece as asserting “the corruption is so notorious now it is essentially the sickness of a dying system, . . . the fragmented society is mending, however slowly.”
Looked at from the perspective of three fourths of a century later, the heaviest price Boston paid for all this in the long run is the way Bostonians could not get their act together to claim a prize few remember was almost theirs – or, perhaps Philadelphia’s, it is hard to be sure – but went instead to New York because that city’s leading asset has always been its single-minded aggressive self promotion, while Balkanized Boston barely knows how to spell its name. The result was that while the search had finally been narrowed down to Boston, Philadelphia and New York, it was in the last city that in the 1950s was built the world headquarters of a much more Bostonian than New Yorker idea–the United Nations.
Now human nature being what it is — three speakers of the Massachusetts House have lately either gone to jail or been on trial — it would not be fair to suggest corruption has been banished from the New England metropolis. But what was overcome was the whole culture of the Curley era that had hugely empowered it. And Whitehill saw that those Emersonian values, if reasserted, could help the healing of what in the long run was just a brief passage and allow Boston to move on. Notice, he announced, that while the pols had been stealing the the headlines–and the core cities repute–no less than the British philosopher Alfred North Whtehead had pronounced by 1942 that “insofar as the world of learning today possesses a capital city, Boston, with its neighboring institutions, approximates to the position that Paris occupied in the Middle Ages.”
Where have you heard that before? Right here of course. Third time by my count—where are the editors of yore? I keep repeating it because it is my only defense against the economic super power on the one hand and the quaint history theme park on the other (dotted with ye old colleges!). But most of those learned institutions, of course, were Yankee founded, indeed Yankee Boston Brahmin founded, and more than a whiff of ethnic pride–always a tricky thing to distinguish from ethnic bigotry– necessarily attached to Whitehill’s repeating Whitehead’s pronouncement.
Attention must be paid–see how formulating a new history begins! Having risked stirring ethnic embers — because it is not allowed to falsify history and does no good anyway to ones cause in a free society–Whitehill also did something in the same place so startling it still startles today. Listen to his words of 1966 in the preface to what he did not call Boston in the Age of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
When I began this book, a native Bostonian was President of the United States. He was the first since John Quincy Adams, for nobody could claim that Calvin Coolidge, though twice governor of Massachusetts, was other than a Vermonter — a good thing to be, but not the same thing. . . Many of us rejoiced in the vision, literary imagination and energy that John F Kennedy brought to his high office . . . In the Centers of Civilization series, Pericles, Augustus and Justinian” — all political figures,note — “were chosen as points of reference for the volumes dealing with Athens, Rome and Constantinople . . . .[It] is, at least to me,obvious that this book should be entitled BOSTON IN THE AGE OF JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY.”
Now you may deride JFK as the first Roman Catholic Episcopalian, or even Unitarian, or the first Irish WASP, as some Irish-American lefties do, but that is to impute certain assets to Yankees that all human beings may lay claim to if given the opportunity, and you will be closer to the mark to see President Kennedy as a Boston Brahmin — the first Irish-Catholic Brahmin. Whitehill, you see, like some other Yankee Brahmins — like Archibald Cox and Elliot Richardson; the old strain persists too — saw that the problem of Boston was not as literary critic Martin Green thought it; the problem of Boston had changed. As my colleague, Carl Scovel, recalls: a fellow clergyman in suburban Sudbury began in the same era his ministry by telling his flock from the pulpit one day that while it had now been established that the Jews could survive Auschwitz,
what remained unresolved was whether or not they could survive Sudbury, which is to say they had survived murderous persecution but might not survive American prosperity and acceptance.
Notice, too, that Whitehill, taking the lead as only a Yankee Brahmin head of that most absurd and venerable of Brahmin institutions, the Boston Athenaeum, could do, did so in this whole matter of the Yankee-Irish struggle in Boston in such a way as to at once transcend the inevitably small and local and limited aspect of it by citing not the first Irish Catholic governor or mayor of the core city, but the first to be President of the United States, at once reclaiming for Boston a national and international aspect even as to American politics. Whitehill can thus be seen to have revived the heritage of the Adamses in his choice of Kennedy and to have heralded from our perspective today the triumph – with Senator Ted Kennedy’s conspicuous blessing– of Barack Obama in our own day. The arc of history again.
V I I I
Finally, what Walter Muir Whitehill could not foresee, raised as he was in a Boston almost boastfully proud of its role in leading the Abolitionist movement to end slavery, was that the core city would no sooner begin to mend the Yankee-Irish business than be confronted with a whole new and volatile chapter of the white-black side of things. The 1970s busing wars, while centered on Mayor Curley’s old South Boston neighborhood, was like the loss of the UN, rooted again in that Balkanized aspect of Boston — suburbanites determined to keep the core city’s corruption from spreading — thus demanding of less educated city dwellers, in South Boston as well as Roxbury, an open-mindedness to drastic change that the then lily white suburbs were protected from for fear of a much more widespread and irresistible revolution.
Yet even in this corner of the arena Emersonian Boston reasserted itself; the JFK figure in this case being Martin Luther King, who studied for his doctorate at Boston University and was like Kennedy a new kind of Brahmin. Alas, Boston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy has not yet found its companion volume in Boston in the Age of Martin Luther King – King did not remain Boston-based after his studies were completed in the 1950s, though he did leave his papers to BU — but just as the value of his life and work transcended various plagiarism issues, as Kennedy had transcended charges of womanizing in the White House, so has Boston lacked a historian since Whitehill of his character and qualifications to write such a book.
Meanwhile, however, Boston’s characteristic style of discourse, Boston Style, would again come to the fore I think in the life and work of lawyer and justice Margaret Marshall. To see this one needs only to modify the word “silent” as no longer seemly in the 21st century, wherein Boston Style may be ever so slightly but importantly modified as being that of “a speaking aristocracy to a listening democracy.” Or, perhaps, an “alert” democracy. Your call.
Certainly that is the rubric under which was handed down the 2003 ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, that made the state not only the first in the union, but — and notice what a difference the global dimension makes — that made Massachusetts, whose SJC enjoys tremendous prestige as the oldest sitting appellate court in the Western Hemisphere, the first jurisdiction in the world — along with the Kingdom of the Netherlands (in 2002, two years earlier) and the Kingdom of Belgium (the same year as the Massachusetts ruling but five months earlier) — to rule that same-sex couples had equal marriage rights; that same-sex marriage was absolutely legal.
That it was article 1 of John Adams’s Massachusetts constitution of 1779-8-, itself now the oldest continuously operating written constitution in the world, and a considerable influence on the US Constitution, that empowered this historic decision connects many dots of that arc of history previously referred to here.
Margaret Marshall herself is hardly less interesting. I think of a mid-19th-century Irish American and Irish patriot who fled British persecution in Ireland and immigrated to America, and whose son,William Barton Rogers, enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor at the University of Virginia until the furor that was aroused there by the appointment of Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars sparked in turn the sons fleeing from persecution, this time from Virginia to Boston, the liberal tradition of which so attracted him. And that is why MIT, the 150th anniversary of which we have just celebrated, was founded, not in Virginia, but in Boston.
And that was also, a century later, in the nineteen sixties, the exact trajectory of Margaret Marshall, a South African college student and anti-apartheid student who left South Africa and moved to Boston for very similar reasons to begin her legal career, She did not found the worlds foremost scientific university as Rogers did, but her SJC ruling reshaped the Western legal world, becoming as one commentator put it, “the inevitable starting point of what would be the great legal debate surely of the meaning of equality in the 21st century.”
Now Marshall’s move to Boston did not inspire Marshall’s ruling, nor Barton’s move lead at all inevitably to founding MIT. But a pattern many years later is discernible and effects are cumulative sometimes. And a part of that pattern is that both Rogers and Marshall were drawn to Boston–to both its liberal Parisian and authoritarian Roman aspects–not just by its liberal repute but by its academic repute, the pedigree of which we’ve been exploring here all the way back to the 17th century. Barton came to found MIT, Marshall to go to Harvard.
Now when he explained why the 17th century tradition of the speaking aristocracy and the silent democracy had persisted from the 17th century church into the 18th century New England town, Perry Miller insisted that already in the earlier century “Congregational theory assumed” and, indeed, had always had “behind it the prestige of learning and a European conception of intellectual authority”, a conception which in the most European — most global — of American cities, as Boston has always been, has arguably always been the background, or the foundation, if you will, even of always-changing institutions long after the original Puritans had evolved into Yankee Brahmins and non-Yankee Brahmins — think Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr so describing Louis Brandeis –welcomed non-Yankee Boston Brahmins.
The civil magesterium of the SJC ruling came down to us from a chief justice with a Harvard degree in one hand an a Yale degree in the other, who like the Puritans of old found her way to Boston — in her case from even further away, in South Africa — from less liberal climes abroad: thence to the seat of Holmes Jr himself, to interpret the constitution of John Adams, who Marshall confesses is one of her “great heroes”, a seat to which Margaret Marshall was not elected, but appointed, by governor and council, but they elected and by universal suffrage. “A speaking Aristocracy in the face of a listening Democracy”.
I conclude this article by appending a rejoinder to it from a younger friend, associated as both a foreign correspondent and on the business side too, with a major international media organization. I began by appealing to two journalists, Chris Wright, formerly of the Boston Phoenix, and Camille Dodero of the Village Voice, rather to historians, for contemporary evidence in aid of my thesis, and it now seems I should end it the same way, by quoting Abraham McLaughlin of the Christian Science Monitor. The portfolio of the historian and the journalist are different. But their witness can often offset the other very well. And that is true I think in this case. Of course, no city, no more Boston than Athens, can claim any monopoly of progressive and egalitarian deeds. But Boston’s vision, what the Puritans would have called its prophetic voice, has held steady now for many centuries. Enough so that I have chosen to title this article in the wake of Abe’s reaction, “Boston’s Third Revolution? A Speaking Aristocracy to a Listening Democracy” His rejoinder follows:
I wonder if Boston’s third revolution — in the age of China’s rise and all it connotes for lack of rights, originality and equality — is an echo of its first two: articulating and promoting on a global stage, this time through its power as the world’s intellectual and academic capital, the principle of individual rights for all. Given everything from the struggle over gay rights to China’s communistic/nationalistic subversion of individuals — the idea that everyone deserves equal rights is just as revolutionary now as when Adams et al fought Britain and Garrison battled slavery. If all this is true, how thrilling to be a Bostonian in 2011.
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.