The Genesis of Boston

"By 1700 Boston was, next to London, the chief literary centre of the British Empire."

Boston is a perplexingly individualistic city, more revered and more attacked than any other city in America. Its character was predetermined by its founders, whom history caused to be of one spiritual type and of one purpose. The purpose was to establish the perfect community, the 'City of Saints'; and through all the changes that have since come about the place has never lost its idealism, with its accompanying conviction that Boston is really better than any other city in the world, or at least in the New World.

The social system that developed there sprang directly from Calvinistic theology. The discrediting of kings and saints, in the attack on hierarchies, produced a democracy on earth as in heaven. At first, to be sure, the franchise was limited to church members; but after the Reverend John Wheelwright, exiled for antinomianism, founded the first completely democratic church at Exeter, New Hampshire, the other New England settlements insensibly followed suit, until every man had his voice and vote in town meeting. Unmodified democracy, however, tends toward envious leveling; this danger was checked by the doctrine of Providence, which produced the cult of Individualism. In practice, this doctrine meant that God had distributed talents according to a higher plan of His own; to further that divine purpose, these talents should not be hid under a bushel, but should be developed. Not only were gifts to be cultivated: the mere perception of an evil was the divine command to right it. Who does not do so is opposing God's will; unhappiness follows automatically. But who does so has full right to the authority and place that he earns. However, Individualism also has its danger—pride or selfishness; this in its turn was checked by the doctrine of Predestination, which taught that, as talents were divinely bestowed, one deserved no credit for them. They were given to further God's providence; whoso used them for selfish ends simply brought misery upon himself. Even the attempt to gain Heaven or avoid Hell was useless, as all our fates had been fixed before the Creation; furthermore as it was self-seeking, it was essentially evil.

Thus the Calvinistic theology strove for the perfect community by developing a democracy which gave the fullest opportunity to the individual, who was to use his powers for the community. Rising from the place in which one was born socially to the place for which one was fitted mentally was considered right and even divinely ordained.

Progress was thus made inevitable, but it was not made easy. The very stubbornness of revolt provoked stubbornness of resistance. The divine command operated on both sides. And when liberalism triumphed at last it soon was defending itself to the end against newer ideas. The lava from one eruption hardened and became the crater for the next eruption. Therefore, while Boston history reads as a series of advanced ideas, we always find its great figures complaining of the city's bitter conservatism.


Like citizen, like city. Historically, Boston proved itself to be revolutionary, though in a curiously conservative way. Its passionate belief in Christian liberty more than once made it stand upon its rights and thus shape the world of the future. The English royalists complained of its influence in bringing about the Puritan Revolution of 1642; in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 it did not await official action, but had a private revolution of its own against Governor Andros; in 1774 it made itself the focus of the conflict which initiated the American Revolution; in the days of Mr. Jefferson's embargo and Mr. Madison's war, it was among those who considered secession; and its part in the Civil War was also a leading one. Not that Boston was ever unanimous in these matters. There was always hard pamphlet fighting before the city could be carried. Even in the earliest days, among the immigrants were those who came for economic, not religious, reasons; in the Revolution, long after the surrounding countryside was Whig to a man, the Boston Tories remained powerful; the quarrels of families inspired by the War of 1812 still sputter faintly in odd corners; and in the next generation there were those who mobbed Abolitionists and hissed Negro regiments.

The Conservatives never lost wholly, however; at least they ensured that Boston liberalism sprang from conservative roots. The original Puritans looked back to Scripture in their claim of reestablishing ancient liberties; the revolutionists of the eighteenth century reasserted the principles of 1688; the Abolitionists took their stand upon the Declaration of Independence; and its present liberals look back to the Civil War.

Their spiritual history was like their political history. Their creed proved progressively self-destructive in the direction of further liberalism. Having argued themselves out of Romanism and Anglicanism, they reached the conclusion that truth was still in process of revelation, and thus continued arguing themselves out of Calvinism into Unitarianism and finally Agnosticism.

The influx of university men soon made Boston one of the most intensively educated spots on the face of the globe. Within six years of its founding it had established its school of higher learning, Harvard College, to educate the sons of the Boston gentry and also to prevent 'an illiterate Ministery'; and the famous Massachusetts School Act of 1647 provided for a grammar school to each township of one hundred families or more. Thus the state took the lead in American education which it has held ever since.

Intimately allied to the Puritan passion for education was the Puritan passion for books. Boston was preordained a literary city. The Bible itself was a book, for the possession of which they had fought; and every New England child read in his primer:

My book and heart
Shall never part.

The seal of Harvard showed three open books inscribed 'Veritas.' Books were the great weapons in the search for truth, for liberty. The Puritan college was named for him who left it his library. In the president's house was set up the first printing press north of Mexico City; that and the Foster press in Boston were for many years the only ones in the colonies. For nearly a century (1658-1747) a library stood on the site of the present 'Old Statehouse.' The King's Chapel Library—a collection of two hundred theological works sent over by William III in 1698 was another memorable early library; it is still preserved in the Boston Anthenaeum. By 1700 Boston was, next to London, the chief literary centre of the British Empire.

The other arts also flourished. The Bostonians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enjoyed music; the cult culminated in the choral Handel and Haydn Society (which flattered Herr Beethoven once by ordering an original composition) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Their taste in buildings can be seen in their churches—as fine a display of Georgian architecture as can be found anywhere. The portrait painting of a hundred years came to flower in Copley and Stuart. Theatres were not allowed until after the Revolution; but plays were quite another thing—the Harvard undergraduates wrote and acted plays before the Revolution, possibly before the eighteenth century, without raising the slightest protest; indeed, one of the features of the Commencement came to be comic dialogues performed in costume. And when the Boston Museum stock company demonstrated that actors need not be customarily immoral, the last objection vanished.


After the storm clouds of the Civil War had passed, the sun shone golden upon Boston again. A new era had come. Its poets were the glory of America and in their light the whole city basked collapsed into a remarkable complacency. It had solved the problems of heaven and earth. All its enemies were conquered—Archbishop Laud, George III, Satan, Simon Legree; and its crusaders (including the 'strong-minded women' supposedly a peculiar product of the city, along with 'thoughtful girls'), without a common enemy to unite them in one grand moral purpose, diffused their energies in a hundred charities or causes. Religion was no longer an outlet. Soul searching had dwindled to a painful self-consciousness; deity itself manifested only in 'the New England conscience.' 'High thinking and plain living' were still ideals, though any thinking that led to undue action was somewhat suspect, while the plain living might be very rich indeed if it were not ostentatious. Good morals had simply become good manners; convention was crystallizing; insensibly the clergy were losing their intellectual leadership. Moses and Darwin were set at loggerheads no longer. Unitarianism and Trinitarianism were equally respectable, and the agnostic was indistinguishable from the others when on fine Sundays they all walked down Commonwealth Avenue to King's Chapel or Trinity Church, the gentlemen gracefully removing their silk hats in the weekly greetings.

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