The “City Upon a Hill”

In the first of several dispatches from the Democratic National Convention, Jack Beatty advises Democrats on what they can learn from Boston

Boston was old when Chicago was an Indian trading post and Atlanta was still called "Terminus," after the only thing there. When Boston was the "Hub of the Solar System," Dallas and Los Angeles were prairie dog warrens belonging to Spain, and San Francisco was still Yerba Buena and consisted of a single board hut. Boston is older than American politics—yet it had to wait to within twenty-six years of its four-hundredth birthday for a major party to favor it with a national political convention.


The answer hurts the local amour propre: Sometimes the parties did not want Boston's company; other times they did not need it.

"What's wrong with us?" Bostonians have asked. Plenty—and for a long time.

Start when the party caucuses start, in the Age of Jackson. The Democrats were the Slave Power, and Boston did not want to be seen in their company. The antebellum Republicans, to counter southern charges that they were strictly a sectional party, wanted no part of Boston, which shouted "North" to anyone south of Worcester. From the Civil War to the Al Smith realignment of 1928, Massachusetts belonged to the GOP base, voting for no Democrat from Franklin Pierce to Woodrow Wilson, and only for Wilson because Taft and TR divided the Republican vote. Boston? Republican Party leaders preferred to convene in a swing-state city like Philadelphia, Chicago, or Cincinnati.

After the New Deal, the Democrats took Massachusetts for granted. To carry Massachusetts a Democrat had to be a citizen, and picky voters would insist he be able to walk a straight line. If he couldn't carry it, he was a goner—like Walter Mondale in 1984. Conversely, carrying it was no guarantee of victory beyond the Berkshires, as Hubert Humphrey discovered in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. When Massachusetts made it McGovern 1, Nixon 49, Republicans were furnished a slur, "Massachusetts liberal," to discredit any life form—Michael Dukakis, for example—construable as one. Only yesterday holding a Democratic convention in the capital of liberalism would have been thought suicidal.

Since they appear to be stuck with it, the Democrats should turn Boston to their advantage. As a native son, let me suggest two political legacies from Boston's history that still resonate in our political culture: anti-imperialism and community.

Boston was the center of the Anti-Imperialist League, formed to prevent and then to protest America's first lunge for Empire: the conquest and annexation of the Philippine islands at the turn of the twentieth century. For anti-imperialists like Harvard's William James, seizing the Philippines was a betrayal of American democracy. Few newspapers today would reprint, even for historical purposes, the letter James published in the Boston Herald denouncing U.S. pretensions to moral exceptionalism. We had "puked up" our heritage to crush the Filipino independence movement. Now, James wrote, we stood out from the ruck of nations only by our canting hypocrisy. The canter in chief in the White House, William McKinley, said we were shooting the Filipinos with dum-dum bullets and torturing prisoners to bring "Christianity" to islands that had been Catholic for four hundred years.

With polemicists urging the U.S. to begin the twenty-first century as it did the twentieth and assume the white man's burden by remediating "lesser breeds without the law" from Iraq to North Korea, a party could do worse than follow James and the other anti-imperialists and stand against empire, against conquest, against the hubris that cracks nations; and for American exceptionalism and democracy.

Community is Boston's foundational political value. John Kerry's ancestor John Winthrop gave community immortal voice in his address to his shipmates aboard the Arabella, before they had sailed into Boston harbor—when their vision was still upon the waves, seeking a land. He told them that in order not only to survive but also to give their settlement historical meaning "we must abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sake of other's necessities." Only then, formed in a true Commonwealth, would Boston be as "a City upon a Hill."

To sacrifice for the common good, to be part of something bigger than self—against the social Darwinist vision of George W. Bush—"It's your money!"—here is an enduring longing of the lonely American heart which Boston can teach the Democrats to express.

Bring us together, John Kerry.