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 see, 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 forewarned 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 Staël, 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."

A recent writer accordingly calls Ticknor, with good reason, a paradoxical conservative—that is, someone whose values were rooted in New England village democracy, and whose larger conception of the expanding American republic was based on universal education and the high level of civic consciousness fostered by intelligent political participation. These were precisely possibilities unavailable to the masses of the Old World. To the Ticknor who had grown up in Boston and traveled widely in Europe there seemed no obvious reason why America—or, at least, the portion then coming to be distinguished as the Free States—should not become, in essence, a greater New England. This is a note one hears again and again in Ticknor's letters to English and European friends. "Education is advancing more rapidly, even, than wealth is accumulated," he tells Earl Fitzwilliam in 1838. "If we can . . . continue the diffusion of knowledge and intelligence through the whole people, I know not that we can ask anything more for the country." In his own Boston, he reports to Maria Edgeworth, "there is a great deal of intellectual activity and cultivation," but no visible poverty, little outright ignorance, and almost no crime.

On any present day scale one would have to put a Bostonian like Wendell Phillips at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from Ticknor. For Phillips was not only the powerful orator whose speeches brought thousands over to the abolitionist side— Federal indictment for his part in the attempted rescue of fugitive slave Anthony Burns had given him national visibility—but who after the Civil War would work tirelessly for women's suffrage, Native American rights, and the emergent labor movement. Nonetheless, Phillips's vision of the American republic would always consist, every bit as much as Ticknor's, of America as a greater New England: "My ideal of civilization is a very high one," he said in a labor movement speech in 1871, "but the approach to it is a New England town of some two thousand inhabitants, with no rich man and no poor man in it, all mingling in the same society, every child at the same school, no poorhouse, no beggar, opportunities equal, nobody too proud to stand aloof, nobody too humble to be shut out. That's New England as it was fifty years ago." This resembles as well the idea for which Boston had seen itself as fighting the Civil War: beyond the abolition of slavery, an American republic that looked like a larger version of the ideal Phillips spells out here.

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Copyright (c) 2017 W.C. Dowling