Last Updated July 14, 2003
It would be a city on a hill, John Winthrop wrote of the Massachusetts Bay colony his Puritans were building, an example to the entire world. And Massachusetts, in the nearly four centuries since, has always assumed it has a lot to teach others. The New World Puritans' austere creed taught that only the select would be saved and that they must extirpate the forces of Satan--Indians, Papists, tolerationists. For 150 years, New England was partial to learning, but also insular, hostile to outsiders and economically stagnant. Then, after the American Revolution, the international war between royal Britain and revolutionary and Napoleonic France allowed New England ship owners to cross enemy lines to become the world's leading merchants. They made vast profits and invested the money into textile mills, then railroads, then coal mining and steel-making, providing much of the capital that made industrial America.
Massachusetts made a new America in other ways. Intellectually, New England flowered in the 19th century: Writers from Boston, Cambridge and Concord--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne--created an American literature and popularized an American philosophy, more than 200 years after Plymouth Rock. Demographically, New England Yankees surged across the continent: Long blocked from Upstate New York by mountains and the British-Iroquois alliance, they only reached Syracuse in the 1820s. By the 1850s, they were in Iowa and Kansas and Oregon's Willamette Valley, and by the 1870s, in Los Angeles. They helped start the Republican Party and did much to start--and win--the Civil War. They planted their economic system and their values, articulated in the McGuffey Readers, across the continent.
In the meantime, Massachusetts itself and Boston, the hub of the universe, were being remade. The potato famine of the 1840s and an economy that continued imploding for decades sent Irish immigrants across the Atlantic, and many came to Boston, looking for work in the mills, docks and factories. Yankee Protestants had seen Catholics as their great political and cultural enemy since the 17th century and felt their commonwealth was under siege. As Catholics became a majority, first in Boston and then statewide, Protestants feared the Irish would use their political clout to ladle out government jobs and benefits to their own. And the Irish had a much better flair for politics than instinct for commerce. But they encountered such bigotry and rejection by the Yankees that even as successful an Irish Catholic as Joseph Kennedy felt obliged to move from Boston to New York in 1927. Politics in Massachusetts for years was a kind of culture war between Yankee Republicans and Irish Democrats, an argument not so much over the distribution of income or the provision of services as over whose vision of Massachusetts should be honored, and whose version of history should be taught--not unlike battles being fought between cultural liberals and conservatives today.
Sometimes, the stakes were concrete--control of patronage jobs, command of the Boston Police Department--but more often they were symbolic. Yankee Republicans tended to back activist government programs: Public works and protective tariffs to help business, the Civil War and Reconstruction to help suitably distant oppressed people like Southern blacks, uplifting (and productivity-enhancing) social movements like temperance. The Irish found 19th century Democrats--a party promoting laissez-faire--more congenial. The Irish had come from a place where the government was the enemy and didn't want government spending money to help the rich or to stimulate commerce. They also didn't want government to restrict immigration, to advance blacks (who might compete with them in the labor market), or to prohibit liquor.
The Irish and Catholic populations slowly rose over the years. Yankees had smaller families, moved west, intermarried with people of immigrant stock and lost their Yankee identity. The Irish mostly stayed put, raised large families and maintained their Catholic identity. Eventually, Massachusetts moved from being one of the most Republican states to one of the most Democratic. Economically, early 20th century Massachusetts did not make much progress. The descendants of the Yankees who had been so venturesome in the early 19th century became the most cautious investors in the early 20th, while the predominance of the textile mills in their home state meant that for a century beginning in the 1820s, Massachusetts imported low-skill labor and exported high-skill people. As textile mills started moving south in the 1920s, Massachusetts started exporting low-skill people as well. From the waning of Yankee authority until the national rise of the Kennedys, Massachusetts seemed to run out of things to teach the rest of the nation. The state's Yankee Republicans were backward-looking, out of power in Washington, on the defensive at home, without a cause to champion. The Irish Democrats were hostile to Franklin Roosevelt's pro-British internationalism and receptive to the anti-Communism of the very Irish Joe McCarthy.
Then came the Kennedys. Rose Kennedy was born in 1890 (and died in 1995 after a remarkable life that spanned nearly half this nation's history), the daughter of John ''Honey Fitz'' Fitzgerald, who was elected to Congress at 31 and mayor of Boston in 1906-07 and 1910-14. Her husband Joseph Kennedy, first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1930s and ambassador to the Court of St. James from 1937-40, was perhaps the richest Catholic in the world and a shrewd and ruthless political operator. Their only residence in Massachusetts after 1927 was their summer home in Hyannis Port. Joseph Kennedy moved his oldest surviving son, John, to Massachusetts, and engineered his election to the House in 1946, the Senate in 1952 and the presidency in 1960. The Kennedys, with their elegant manners and great achievements, seemed like royalty to the Irish Catholics of Massachusetts, and John Kennedy's election in 1960 certified to U.S. Catholics, 78% of whom voted for him, that they too were Americans. Joseph and John Kennedy were, on many issues, conservative or skeptical. But Kennedy's administration was increasingly, even before his untimely death, identified as liberal, and his example and that of his brother, Edward, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, moved Massachusetts Catholics to the left. At the same time, Massachusetts Protestants were influenced by the leftward direction on the state's great campuses in the 1960s. The universities also provided the basis for a surging high-tech economy, to the point that Massachusetts started importing high-skill people even as it exported those with low skills.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Massachusetts, with one interval, had the most liberal governance and national politics of any state in the country. Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern in 1972 and, although it voted twice for Ronald Reagan, the son of an Irish Catholic, its Democratic percentage in presidential contests from 1968-88 was 53%, just 0.4% behind Rhode Island and well ahead of every other state. The state's senators included Edward Kennedy, liberal Republican Edward Brooke, and Democrats Paul Tsongas and John Kerry. Liberal governors such as Republican Francis Sargent and Democrat Michael Dukakis vastly increased spending and endorsed the inexplicable policies that sunk Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, notably the law that granted weekend furloughs to prisoners sentenced to life without parole. As historian David Hackett Fischer points out in Albion's Seed, the mindset of the original settlers remains strong even when the ethnic origin of current residents is far different, and the spirit of the Puritans, the faith that they had much to teach the rest of the world, is strong in Massachusetts liberals: In both the quietly smug liberalism of Michael Dukakis and the hearty and combative liberalism of Edward Kennedy. Then, in the early 1990s, Massachusetts had a momentary political revolution. The 1980s "Massachusetts miracle" had turned into a nightmare, as the state's economy sagged badly, as the defense cutbacks long sought by Massachusetts politicians sent unemployment rising and high-tech firms like Wang and Digital withered and Cambridge-based Lotus's software was eclipsed by Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft's. The Northeast real estate bubble burst and Massachusetts banks foundered. The state government essentially went bankrupt. In 1990, as Dukakis retired, voters embraced big tax cuts and elected Republican William Weld in his place.
Republicans have held the governorship ever since. Weld envisioned a government that taxes and spends lightly, that is friendly to feminism and gay rights, that exerts some effort to protect the environment and that is tough on crime. He cut spending and taxes sharply in his first years, and the state's economy began recovering. He was reelected by a resounding 71%-28% in 1994. His policies were generally endorsed by his successors--Paul Cellucci, who took office in 1997, Jane Swift, who took office in 2001 and Mitt Romney, who took office in 2003--and voters seem to have endorsed them too. Much of the coverage of the 2002 campaign concentrated on the rollicking five-candidate Democratic gubernatorial primary, not held until mid-September. But it turned out not to matter much.
But in national politics, Massachusetts has remained overwhelmingly Democratic. The state voted heavily for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996; it eliminated Republicans from its congressional delegation in 1996 and voted in veto-proof Democratic majorities in the legislature. Weld lost 52%-45% to John Kerry in 1996, and in 2002, Kerry had no Republican opponent--the first time one of the major parties has not contested a Senate seat here since popular election of senators began. Massachusetts voted 61%-28% for Bill Clinton in 1996, his biggest margin in the nation; in 2000, it voted 60%-33% for Al Gore, his biggest margin except for Rhode Island. And Massachusetts Democrats have produced another presidential candidate, their fourth in a quarter-century: John Kerry hopes to be more successful in the primaries than Edward Kennedy was in 1980 or Paul Tsongas was in 1992 and more successful in the general election than Michael Dukakis was in 1988.
Massachusetts still has lessons to teach the rest of the country, but they are not necessarily those taught by its successful politicians. Massachusetts is the site of the Big Dig, the building of a new underground freeway to replace the tangle of the Central Artery overhead highway and tunnel bottlenecks in downtown Boston, first approved in 1987 and budgeted then at $6.4 billion. It has turned out to cost far more. Lawsuits, contract disputes, the discovery of unforeseen bedrock, and the firing of the project head in April 2000 for concealing $1.4 billion of cost overruns have raised the cost to an estimated $14.6 billion by the expected completion date of July 2004. It's a deadline that Massachusetts will try very hard to meet: Mayor Thomas Menino got the Democratic National Committee to select Boston as the site for the 2004 national convention--the first national convention in this hyperpolitical city ever--and it is scheduled to open July 26.
Massachusetts is one of the few states in the Northeast that allows voters to decide issues by referendum. And when presented with issues, they have not always been as liberal as their congressional delegation. In 2000, they voted to lower the state income tax from 5.85% to 5% over three years, despite opposition from Democrats and teachers' unions; in 2002, they defeated by only a 55%-45% margin a proposal to zero out the income tax altogether. In 2000, voters defeated a proposition that would have established universal health care; it was opposed vigorously by the state's great teaching hospitals. In 2002, they voted 68%-32% to eliminate bilingual education, which the state pioneered in 1971, and to limit Spanish-language instruction to one year. Meanwhile, state politicians struggled with the Clean Elections law voters passed in 1998. The law authorizes public financing for state candidates who limit contributions to $100 and limit spending (in the governor's race) to $6 million, but Speaker Thomas Finneran, an opponent of the measure, refused to pony up the money. A lawsuit followed, and in May 2002, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered that state property be sold to fund the law. Station wagons and SUVs, armories and other state property were auctioned off. In a November 2002 non-binding referendum, voters voted against using taxpayer money to finance campaigns for public office by a 74%-26% margin--a direct repudiation of the law they voted for in 1998. Liberalism governs in Massachusetts, but sometimes messily.
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