In music, as everybody knows, the blues were born in the Mississippi Delta and traveled up the river and the railroads from New Orleans to Memphis, St. Louis and on to Chicago.
In politics, the blues were born farther north: in the Puritan commonwealth of 17th century New England centered around Boston. For the Puritans, the construction of a godly society was the first order of business. The state was not the enemy of liberty; the state was society’s moral agent.
Today’s libertarians sometimes like to call their blue model liberal opponents “unamerican”. Nothing could be farther from the truth: if Yankee New England isn’t American, nothing is. If John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, the Mayflower Compact and the first Thanksgiving aren’t part of the American story, friends, we don’t have a story. That doesn’t mean Boston is always right, much less that in its current state the Puritan big-state tradition in American has useful answers to offer, but it also means that Americans inspired by this tradition will continue to add to the discussion over our future.
And far from being dead and buried, the Puritan political tradition in America is best represented by our current president; intellectually and morally, President Obama is a distinguished representative of Boston at its best.
New England Blues
New England government was charged with the creation of a moral society. There was nothing that was not its business: how much did a master pay his apprentices? Who celebrated Christmas? Who was cheating on his or her spouse? The duty of government was to make society live right; the university, the pulpit, the newspaper — these were to be the allies of government in the struggle for good.
Even after the old alliance between church and state in New England was broken up for good (the establishment of religion at the state level lasted almost 50 years after the ratification of the Constitution in Massachusetts and Connecticut) the acolytes of New England righteousness worked to make the American government a force for the moral uplift of the American people. Many of their causes today look prescient: the abolition of slavery and voting rights for women. Others, prohibition, eugenics and various forms of food-nuttery matching the changing scientific fashions of the day, look weird.
Over the centuries, New England has changed its theology while remaining loyal to its cultural foundations. The Calvinist orthodoxy of the seventeenth century yielded increasingly to Deism and Unitarianism in the eighteenth — and Harvard officially became Unitarian in 1803, dropping its belief in the divinity of Christ. In the nineteenth century literary and intellectual New England hedged its bets, backing a range of horses from Emersonian transcendentalism to the more evangelically flavored Calvinism of the Victorian years. During the second half of the twentieth century the mind of New England became more secular than in past generations– but nothing has ever changed the deep belief in this cultural stream that, however defined, morality exists and that it is the job of the state to enforce true morals and uphold right thinking.
Cotton Mather (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Political correctness” and tortured attitudes toward language and gender have long been part of the New England Way. Victorian New Englanders pioneered feminist ideas and daring new styles of dress — but enforced rigid standards of ‘political correctness’ that stifled American literature, restricted its range of subjects, and drove authors like Mark Twain to paroxysms of rage and frustration. In the nineteenth century Bostonian literary puritanism was so focused on sex that “Banned in Boston” was a label that helped sell books around the country. Today’s Puritans want to regulate “hate” speech on college campuses and engage in tortured debates over topics like “heteronormative” discourse not unlike the hair-splitting theological debates their ancestors were famous for.
But there was never any doubt in the New England mind that the State was the chosen instrument of the righteous in the ongoing mission to make a better world. Then as now New England loved urban density; in the 17th century the divines wanted laws passed to force settlers to live close to the town center to ensure better social control. These days they support a “new urbanism” aimed at preventing the diffusion of Americans out into the exurbs where they will live as they please rather than following all the rituals and requirements that the New England mind knows are best. The godly must keep the rabble in line or intellectual, political and social chaos will ensue. The Bostonian mind doesn’t just believe this; it knows it, and the path of duty is clear.
To be a Bostonian meant to live in frustration during much of American history. Before the Civil War the power of the slave owning South frustrated the far reaching plans of New England for national uplift and consolidation; after the war it was the power of the industrial tycoons and the national rush for growth that kept the best New England men on the sidelines of politics, grousing and bemoaning the decadence of the republic.
In the twentieth century, Boston got a boost from an unexpected source. The millions of European immigrants who streamed into the United States after the Civil War teamed up with native born Americans trapped in the ghastly factories and industrial wastelands of the day. The Europeans brought with them a less individualistic, more communitarian outlook than previous generations of non-Bostonian Americans. They looked to government to defend them against the greed of the robber barons much as their forebears in Europe hoped that strong kings would keep their feudal oppressors in check.
Many non-New England Americans instinctively saw government, and especially the federal government, as a danger to liberty. This was not the view of Boston’s new allies. The social-democratic and Catholic social justice ideas current in the growing cities had much in common with traditional New England ideas about the need for a strong moral state — and out of this mix came the waves of twentieth century liberalism that so powerfully reshaped American institutions and ideas for the next 100 years.
New allies appeared as Blacks moved toward the Democratic Party beginning with the New Deal. The full force of New England reform reformers and progressives went into the Civil Rights movement and programs like affirmative action designed to use the growing power of the state to put the American nation on a firmer moral footing by breaking the power of racism once and for all.
Kennedy Ushers in a New Era
The marriage between Boston and immigrant America was not an easy one. Henry Cabot Lodge was not fond of the Boston Irish — and vice versa. It was not until John Fitzgerald Kennedy — a son both of Harvard and of the old Irish political machine — that the two traditions really fused. Kennedy summoned McGeorge Bundy, John Kenneth Galbraith and all the legions of Harvard to his side; Camelot was the brief moment when Boston’s age-old dream seemed on the verge of realization.
John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The marriage between the blue noses of the Yankee ascendancy and the blue collar workers of the industrial North and Midwest took longer to forge than it took to begin to dissolve. As the children and grandchildren of northern immigrants moved to the suburbs and sent their kids to college, many of them began to gravitate away from the communal values their forbears brought from Europe and embraced the more individualistic attitudes of the American past. “Reagan Democrats” applauded the crushing of PATCO (the federal air traffic controllers’ union that Ronald Reagan destroyed after an illegal strike) and began to wonder whether low taxes weren’t better than government programs.
Currently, the blue alliance in American politics cobbles together the Yankees and their true-believing heirs, part of the old ethnic world that remains alienated from non-blue American ideas ranging from individualistic social and economic policy to religion, most African-Americans and a great many Hispanics.
For many Boston Blues, President Obama’s 2008 election was such a high point because it looked as Camelot might return. Barack Obama does for Blacks and blues what Kennedy did for the Irish and the Brahmins; like JFK he is an outsider who bought into the New England worldview. The high school he attended in Hawaii was founded by New England missionaries; his Ivy League education at Columbia and Harvard Law further steeped him in the values and outlook of the New England mind. To have a charismatic Black politician sweep the nation with a campaign evoking the communitarian big state vision New England had long favored was both a vindication of core Boston values and a sign that more victories were coming.
The 2010 midterms set that optimism back, but many analysts, especially on the liberal side, suggest that the big question in American life is whether enough Hispanics will join the blue coalition to replace what looks to be a continuing drift of exurban whites in the other direction. That’s important; in the short term one wonders whether a further deterioration of the government’s fiscal position will make the whole question moot. If the blue model falls apart under its own weight, rather than being pulled down by its enemies, where does American politics then go?
In any case, nobody should expect blue thinking to go away. Boston and its daughter cities of Greater New England (including Seattle, Portland and San Francisco) will be here for a long time to come. A rich heritage, deeply woven into American life for more than 300 years, will not vanish away. The New England way may go into political opposition, as it did during so much of the nineteenth century, but as an intellectual and creative force in American life, it is anything but finished. Blue may go down, but it will not be out.