As convention time approached, I asked one of America’s most prominent historians, Eric Foner, for some political history about Boston and Massachusetts. Foner, a valued member of The Nation‘s editorial board and an award-winning author, is a Professor of History at Columbia University, and former President of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. His textbook, Give me Liberty: An American History will be published later this year.
Host for the very first time to a national convention, Boston is a perfect place to reflect on this country’s alternative tradition of visionary thinking. It is a city, according to Foner, which illuminates “how the rights and freedoms of all Americans have, again and again in our history, been strengthened and expanded by the struggles of dissenters, and those excluded from the full benefits of the society, to create liberty as they understood it.”
Take Roger Williams–the founder of the idea of religious freedom in America, driven out of Puritan Massachusetts for daring to challenge the entrenched orthodoxy. Foner says, “Williams insisted that religious liberty rests on the separation of church and state. He rejected the idea that any one leader or one people had a monopoly on religious truth or enjoyed the special favor of God, and insisted that merging church and state corrupted both politics (by leading rulers to think they were infallible) and religion (by making it the subject of political rivalries).”
Boston was also the cradle of the abolitionist movement, several of whose leaders helped found The Nation in 1865. Their example, Foner says, shows “how a small, couragous band of men and women challenged the most deeply entrenched economic interest in America, insisting that human rights took precedence over the rights of property and that economic activity must be held to a higher standard than more profit and efficiency.”
Massachusetts was also one center of the early labor movement, including the legendary female factory workers at Lowell, just outside of Boston, who, Foner observes, “insisted that a modicum of economic autonomy and economic security is essential to freedom–an idea that has found expression at numerous moments in American history including Franklin Roosevelt’s Freedom from Want (one of the Four Freedoms)–an idea that has dropped out of our political discourse–and down to those who today insist that economic globalization must be accompanied by labor and environmental safeguards.
And Massachusetts has always been a major center of the women’s movement, in both the 19th and 20th centuries, which not only demanded for women the same rights in the public arena as men–the vote, education, economic opportunity, etc–but expanded the idea of freedom and of individual rights into the most intimate realms of life, insisting that the right to control one’s own person is the foundation of personal independence (a right that Republicans are today working hard to rescind).”
During this convention week, many actions and gatherings will be devoted to calling for an end to the occupation in Iraq. Boston is the ideal city for such debates because, as Foner reminds, “it has a long tradition of patriotic opposition to unjust wars and to the violations of civil liberties that often accompany wars. Massachusetts was a center of opposition to the Mexican War (Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes to support a government that invaded a neighboring country). Every war in US history, with the exception of World War II, has been the subject of strong opposition and internal debate. And the right to criticize the government in wartime, and to retain constitutional protection of civil liberties, is another major strand of patriotic dissent. I’d cite the opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1918, both of which made it illegal to criticize the federal government, and the recent Supreme Court decisions rebuking the Bush Administration for seeking to abrogate the basic civil liberties of Americans accused of crimes as the latest in a long tradition of instence that the constitution is not suspended even in times of crisis.”
And as this Administration attempts to rollback the social and democratic achievements of the 20th century, Boston–home to Senator Edward Kennedy, Congressman Jim McGovern and the late Congressman Joe Moakley, among many others–powerfully reminds us of the victories of 20th-century social liberalism, of using the government to promote greater equality and to aid the weak and disadvantaged. This is a winning legacy which Kerry would do well to evoke and emulate.
After all, as Foner points out, “It is important to note that this tradition, which originated in the Progressive era, and reached its flowering under FDR and LBJ, was originally bipartisan, but that Republican Progressivism has fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by a dog-eat-dog view of society and an alliance with the privileged rather than ordinary Americans.”