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.