Introduction: the Problem of Boston


"The story of nineteenth-century Boston," wrote the noted British scholar Martin Green some fifty years ago, "is full of the most poignant interest for anyone who cares about literary and cultural values in a democracy." The title of his groundbreaking study, The Problem of Boston, announced its subject: why had the remarkable vitality of the civic and intellectual culture of antebellum Boston—the Boston of the North American Review and the Atlantic Monthly and the Saturday Club, of the Boston Latin School and Harvard and the Athenæum, of Emerson's "The American Scholar" and Thoreau's Walden—seemed shortly after midcentury suddenly and mysteriously to have died away to survive as little more than a receding memory? The Boston of 1840, Edward Everett Hale would recall at the end of the century, "really believed that a visible City of God could be established here by the forces it had at command." But so early as 1885, he sadly remembered, it would have been hard to persuade anyone living in the Boston of that year to "believe any such thing." Green's own attempt to account for the problem is then announced in a later chapter heading: "What Went Wrong?"

Green's great strength was that he grasped nineteenth-century Boston as a setting in which literary and intellectual energies flowed from a sense of organic community. Yet at the time he wrote The Problem of Boston an important piece of the puzzle was missing. As works like J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment and Bernard Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution would subsequently permit one to see, the roots of Boston civic humanism had all along been in a tradition of classical republican thought powerfully influential in both eighteenth-century Britain and her American colonies. America had emerged from the War of Independence as a republic, and republics, as the celebrated Harvard legal theorist Joseph Story wrote in 1833, "are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens." The key word was "virtue"— the virtù of Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy—which in post-revolutionary Boston would imply a polity in which citizens collectively and individually, as it were by shared instinct, put the good of the community as a whole above individual or private self-interest. The precedent typically invoked by Bostonians was Athens in the age of Pericles.

The notion of civic virtue would lie at the center of Boston civic humanism from the Monthly Anthology generation at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the Civil War. In classical republican discourse its mighty opposite was what the Monthly Anthology writers, as we shall hear, called Luxury, arising from the abandonment of citizens to wealth and personal display. In the immediate background of the opposition between virtue and luxury, in turn, lay a long established theory of cyclical history according to which the same virtue that permits nations to rise in power and consequence produces a material prosperity that, as it encourages individual self-gratification, leads inexorably to civic enfeeblement. This is cyclical history as envisioned at the close of the eighteenth century by William Cowper, a poet greatly esteemed in the Boston of The Monthly Anthology and the North American Review: "The course of human things from good to ill," Cowper had soberly concluded in The Task, "From ill to worse, is fatal, never fails. / Increase of pow'r begets increase of wealth; / Wealth luxury, and luxury excess."

In Boston, the heritage of classical republican thought had inspired figures like John Adams in the Revolutionary and Fisher Ames in the early Federal period. But for the generation immediately following it had an import somewhat different than the grim prognostication delivered in Cowper's lines. For the great promise of the young American republic could seem to those raised in Boston to be that, precisely as they had been warned by the fate of ancient Athens or early republican Rome, they were in a position to withstand the forces that brought earlier civilizations to decay and eventual ruin. The idea is essentially conservative. On the American continent there has emerged a set of fortuitous circumstances in which feudal property relations and hereditary privilege are unknown, and in which republican equality has thus been allowed spontaneously to flourish. In such a situation, the main object should be simply to promote those measures—universal education, private endowment of institutions that benefit the public, a strong emphasis on intelligence and personal probity in politics—able to nourish and perpetuate a spirit of civic virtue in the population as a whole.

To Europeans, for whom conservatism usually meant attachment to some version of an ancien régime, while egalitarian ideas implied a progressive or radical outlook, Boston civic humanism was a puzzlement. Thus, for instance, one hears George Ticknor, whose Beacon Hill home was in the antebellum period the acknowledged center of Boston literary and intellectual society, in conversation in 1836 with the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Where in the world, the Duke asks—fully aware that Ticknor moved easily in circles that included such luminaries as William Schlegel, Goethe, Humboldt, Mme. de Staél, and Chateaubriand—does Ticknor think it the greatest good fortune for a person to be born? In America, Ticknor unhesitatingly answers. The Duke is clearly perplexed. Why? Because, Ticknor explains, in America every citizen takes part in affairs of state, and is therefore a more truly realized human being than in Europe. This makes it, he tells the Duke, "more agreeable and elevating to live among them," in comparison to whom the inert and dependant masses of Europe seem to an American—as he says in another letter written to his friend R.H. Dana—"an inferior order in creation."

If not for the strong sectional antagonisms leading to the Civil War, Ticknor would no doubt have gone down in the cultural history of Boston as a reformer, even a radical. So, for instance, he would return from his studies in Europe to work for educational reforms—elective courses, lectures as opposed to rote recitation, assignment of students to classes on the basis of "proficiency and capacity"—that would, if adopted, as Samuel Eliot Morison later said, have put Harvard a full generation ahead of other American colleges. In the same way, Ticknor would become the moving spirit behind the Boston Public Library, raising funds for its endowment, overseeing the gathering of its collection, and insisting in the face of strong and vehement opposition that the institution, if it were to answer its civic purpose, must be a circulating library from which all citizens, rich or poor, might borrow books on equal terms. At a time when libraries were still largely conceived as repositories for the exclusive use of a few highly-educated scholars or antiquaries, this was a radical proposal. It was also hugely successful: by the end of the nineteenth century, the Boston Public Library would have become the largest free circulating library in the world.

The episode that would lead to the image of Ticknor as an unbending conservative, as well as a prominent representative of what one recent commentator understands to be "Harvard and New England elitism," was his banishment of Charles Sumner from the intellectual circle presided over by Ticknor and his wife at Nine Park Street on Beacon Hill. For Sumner, earlier one of Ticknor's most brilliant students at Harvard, had since become an abolitionist and spokesman for the Free Soil Party. Nonetheless, the great problem was not so much Sumner's political opinions—Ticknor himself regarded slavery as a curse, though he agreed with Daniel Webster that a splintering of the Union would be a greater curse—as Sumner's habit of injecting them into conversation on otherwise uncontentious topics. Sumner's banishment from Nine Park Street was taken as a symbolic episode, Charles Francis Adams would conclude many years later, largely because it occurred during a time when "slowly but surely the country was working itself up to the war point." Yet the after-effect of the episode would be to leave Ticknor, when the war was over and the Union restored, marooned in the eyes of later historians on the wrong side of history.

As such examples may suggest, a great part of the problem of Boston is that certain terms marking distinct points on any present day ideological spectrum—such terms as conservative, reactionary, reformer, radical, and the like—make little sense in relation to figures who, like Richard Henry Dana or Charles Sumner or Wendell Phillips or Ticknor himself, inhabited the world of Boston civic humanism in the period leading up to the Civil War. For Ticknor was, as Martin Green saw with admirable clarity, in some fundamental sense "a radical innovator and a democrat." Nor was Ticknor's commitment to American democracy as it had evolved in his own Boston in any way tentative or circumscribed. "Boston is a happy place to live in," he told his friend the English novelist Maria Edgeworth in 1838, "because all the people are educated." He would have been thinking at this point primarily of the New England common school system. But at just this time Ticknor was also pushing forward energetically his plans for the Boston Public Library, where no barrier of personal wealth or social background would stand in the way of anyone seriously bent on self-education.

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Copyright (c) 2017 W.C. Dowling