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.

But the city was getting to be a real city. Hitherto, it had taken only ten minutes to get anywhere. The sudden dimming of the gas in every parlor had indicated that the chandelier of the Boston Museum was lighted, and that it was time to go to the play. But now the big coves and the space south of the Mill Dam (that extension of Beacon Street across the salt marshes to Brookline) were being filled in rapidly, and the crowded town was overflowing on to the new-made land. Suburbs were being absorbed: Roxbury in 1868, Dorchester in 1870, and Brighton, Charlestown, and West Roxbury in 1874. There were getting to be more carriages than one could recognize.

But the expansion did not mean cosmopolitanism. Boston, no longer on the road to anywhere except the North Shore, was expanding only from inside pressure; it grew, but remained itself. The Brahmins still lived on the water side of Beacon Street or the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue; they still dined at two and had 'tea' at six; they read the Atlantic and the Transcript, held four receptions a year, escaped from the Egyptian heat of summer by moving to the North Shore; sent their sons to Harvard and their dead to Mt. Auburn. Their exclusiveness, as Russell Sturgis noted, was 'as by a law of nature.' Since all the families composing Boston society had reached the city before the War of 1812 at the latest, they had now grown to clans, each privately thinking itself really much better than the others. Perhaps because the Puritans raised no objections to the marriage of first cousins, each family had acquired strong characteristics of its own, which sometimes were summed up in local sayings. One was 'always distinguished and always poor, always rising to resist persecutions they supposed were being aimed at them'; another was 'a tribe living in or about Boston, with customs but no manners'; a third had taste and ran to swells; a fourth was always witty and charming without ever being intellectual; a fifth combined churchiness with worldliness; another had a curse that drove every twentieth child insane.

They addressed each other by their first names, even by nicknames. They valued friendships deeply, but could not be bothered with acquaintances. They repeated family jokes and preserved family feuds; were very independent and yet horribly afraid of each other; were very self-satisfied and self-distrustful at the same time; were given to introspection; were quite unpretentious and purse-proud; were thrifty sometimes to the point of avarice, and yet handsomely generous in behalf of any good cause or any good friend. They were serious about their pleasures, which had to be 'improving,' even ruthlessly 'good'; balls and theatres actually could not compete with the Lowell Institute. They disapproved of dressiness; but there were many who achieved a striking picturesqueness in their clothes, which was more appropriate to themselves than to the fashions. They were unadaptable: when abroad they dressed and acted as though they were still in Massachusetts. They were much concerned with good form, and accepted eccentricities as wholly natural. They avoided visible emotions and original ideas; they encouraged talent, disliked genius in the making, adored it when it was proved, and boasted of it when it was established.

Everybody was somebody, distinguished if not brilliant. The New England conscience caused Bostonians to disapprove flatly of wasting either time or money on frivolities; the celebrities of the Saturday Club pitched the intellectual level high; consequently every person strove to be notable for something—administering a charity, painting china, collecting books, or even leading the german expertly. Less was expected of the women, but when they broke loose they did so in remarkable ways. They might become noted sportswomen, like Louisa Wells; astonishing hostesses, like Mrs. Gardner; or artists, like Mrs. Whitman; or they might vie with the men as wits, like Rufus Choate's daughters,' Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Bell.


Genealogy was a very popular hobby; and at every social gathering were many who could announce the precise degree of relationship between any two persons there. Yet, curiously, they were all but unanimous in detesting their Puritan ancestors, who they vowed were as dismal and dour-faced a lot as ever existed. They blamed them for everything they were not, or fought against. The founders of the Bay Colony, they insisted, were narrow-minded, hypocritical, cruel, and superstitious fanatics who combined all the worst traits of the Dark Ages and Victorianism in a general onslaught against innocent pleasures. The Puritan practice of frankness, of the public confession of sins, as a means of improving their status, furnished what seemed like historical justification. Massachusetts had led the world in getting rid of witchcraft; but Judge Sewall's public admission of error gave the Bostonians a reputation of being witch hunters, while other communities, not having repented their executions so openly, pointed the finger of scorn at Boston. Massachusetts had also led the world in abolishing hell-fire; the controversy was so heated that to this day the sulphur fumes seem to hang peculiarly thick over the Puritan past. So the Bostonians after the Civil War felt very humble and broad-minded in condemning their ancestors.

They were also enjoying quite a little fad of Anglophilism. In their first century and a half, they had customarily called England 'home'; then, after having started the war for independence, they had become violently pro-English again during the War of 1812; and now again, after their horror at England's attitude during the Civil War, they had reverted to their original love. They believed, and said repeatedly, that they were of purer English stock than the English themselves. They preserved the broad a in their speech and the u in their spelling. Only the English were their social equals. They protected their daughters against the nobility from the Continent; and it is told—and believed—that one great lady, on being informed that she was to entertain visiting royalty on a Thursday, replied that she was sorry: Thursday was the cook's day out. But it is also told that, when a Bostonian was fatuously regretting that he was not a subject of the British Crown, Tom Appleton asked: 'Why do you want to be a subject when you are already such an object?'

But no love of London interfered with their believing in their heart of hearts that Boston was the Hub. They adored their sun-faded city, and kept it a town of rose brick rising gently to the golden bubble of the State House dome. The narrow streets still follow the tortuous wild-deer paths of Shawmut, as trodden out by William Blackstone's bull. Bostonians preserved the little houses on the Hill, with their black ironwork balconies (so pretty after a snowfall), preserved the little panes of glass purpled with age, preserved the local ivy. They moved an old church three feet to one side, to preserve it in an epidemic of street widening. They decapitated a hotel that presumed to rear its head a couple of yards above the official sky line. They dammed the Charles for a boat-race basin and an esplanade, and turned the Fenway into a park, planting Stony Brook with iris and bordering it with bridle paths. They set the first example in America for the systematic preservation of natural beauties; and for many years they had the largest park area of any city in the world. They got the world's greatest artists (chiefly American) to decorate their new Public Library, and fought fiercely the question whether a nude bacchante belonged in the courtyard or in the Art Museum. One could hardly cut down a tree without pros and cons in the Transcript. Resenting all criticism from outside, they scolded together constantly because the place was not perfect; and one distinguished citizen concluded a commination with the sad confession: 'I'd move away—but where could one move to?'