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A City So Grand: Boston In The 1850s

October 24, 2012

The opening hundred pages of Stephen Puleo’s A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850 – 1900 is a masterful exposition of a pivotal decade—the 1850s—in Boston’s history.  That it’s also a pivotal decade in U. S. history for many of the same reasons only adds to the power of Puleo’s narrative.  It’s like a scientist using a microscope to magnify and illuminate a small portion of the whole, and in doing so, revealing truths about both the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Puleo identifies and describes in minute detail four great trends affecting Boston in the 1850s that continue to influence the city and the nation for the rest of the century:  the rise of abolitionism, the building of the railroads, the irrepressible wave of Irish immigration, and the filling of the Back Bay.

Abolitionism:  In February 1851, “(n)early twenty activists, all of them black, seized (fugitive slave Shadrach) Minkins from the courtroom at the conclusion of a hearing while the federal marshal was preoccupied with newspaper reporters.  Minkins’ rescuers carried him outside, and then helped him flee to Concord, and eventually, Canada.

This raised the stakes over whether and how the new Fugitive Slave Law would be enforced. Just two months later, escaped slave Thomas Sims was arrested in Boston and held under heavy guard by federal marshals.  Puleo recounts day-by-day the events of the second week of April, culminating with the failure of a small band of radical abolitionists led by Thomas Wentworth Higginson to liberate Sims and the predawn march from prison to the brig Acorn, in which 300 guards ensured that there would be no repeat of the Minkins’ case.

Puleo sees the Sims case as a pivot point.  Less than two weeks later the Massachusetts legislature elected radical abolitionist Charles Sumner to complete the Senate term of Daniel Webster (who had resigned to become Secretary of State).  In the following years, conductors on the Underground Railroad in the Boston area helped hundreds of slaves escape to Canada.  Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe are just a few of the prominent abolitionists who operated in and around Boston.  Bostonians like Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe and Theodore Parker were among the Secret Six—wealthy Northerners who financed John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Just as Boston played a leading role in setting the American colonies onto the path of a war for independence, so too did Boston help plunge the nation into Civil War.  This was no accident.  As Puleo makes clear in numerous quotations and citations, Bostonians of the 1850s were vividly aware of the actions of their grandparents in the 1760s and 70s.  They repeatedly and consciously linked—both in their own understanding and in their public statements—the cause of abolition with the cause of independence 75 years earlier.

The Railroads:  “The Great Boston Railroad Jubilee” took place later that year, Sept. 17-19, 1851.  President Fillmore attended the event, “organized to mark the completion of railway lines and the beginning of service connecting Boston with Montreal, Canada, and the West (in 1851, defined as the Great Lakes and Chicago), as well as the establishment of a new line of ocean steamships to broaden Boston’s commerce with England.  Boston would now serve as the most cost-effective and efficient nexus, the link between ship and rail, for goods transported from Liverpool to Montreal.

Beginning 20 years earlier, Massachusetts had built the most extensive railroad network in the nation:  over 1,200 miles of track with seven major rail lines converging in Boston.  The word “commuter” was invented to describe those passengers who paid “commuted fares” because they carried no luggage, first from Dedham to Boston in 1839, then from towns throughout the region as more rail lines opened up.  Whether it was a businessman “commuting” from the fast-growing suburbs to work in the city, or freight shipped from across the Atlantic and then moved quickly by rail to the middle of the continent, the massive public and private investment (equivalent to about $10 billion in today’s currency) in rail technology, played a crucial role in Boston’s growth from a prosperous Revolutionary-era town to a major 19th century metropolis.

The Irish:  “The Irish did not merely descend upon Boston; they inundated the city, a swarm of humanity that crammed every nook, cranny, cellar, tenement, and shanty in the North End and along other waterfront neighborhoods.  For  four defining years, 1846 through 1849, which encompassed the cruelest period of the great famine, enough Irish arrived in Boston to irrevocably alter the city’s demographic and religious profile, and transform it from an influential but quaint large town to a growing and overcrowded ethnic city.  …[snip]… By 1850, the City Census showed a total Boston population of 138,700, of whom 73,300, or 43 percent, were foreigners, the vast majority of them Irish.”

Puleo succinctly covers the devastation that the Great Hunger brought to Ireland, the criminal neglect of the British government, the brutal crossing of the Atlantic in coffin ships, and the fear and contempt with which most Boston Yankees greeted their new neighbors.  He uses the story of Barney McGinniskin who, on Oct. 8, 1851, became the first Irish-born Boston police officer (only to be fired a few years later when the nativist Know Nothings swept to power in Massachusetts) to illustrate the beginnings of the rise of the Irish that would finally take hold in the decades after the Civil War.  With a deft and sure touch, Puleo links the Irish immigration with the physical transformation of Boston:

“The Irish inundation not only brought Boston to the bursting point, it chased many wealthy residents out to more desirable locations in nearby towns.  If the city was to continue its growth, as well as its political and economic leadership, it needed to both expand its boundaries and create an elegant haven for its most affluent (and Protestant) citizens, the eople who would ultimately fund municipal improvements and provide the capital for business investment.”

Filling The Back Bay:  The back bay was an estuary, with salt water flowing into and out of it twice daily as the tides interacted with the mouth of the Charles River.  In 1821 the Mill Dam blocked off the back bay from the rest of the Charles so as to use tidal power for some of the city’s first mills and factories.  One side effect, worsening as the city grew, was what one report called “a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and constantly increasing population.

The solution, proposed by a special state commission in 1852, was to fill the Back Bay and construct on top of it a new neighborhood, designed to “make wealthy Bostonians proud to remain in the city center”—not flee to the suburbs as was happening in industrializing cities across the Northeast.  In addition to creating an attractive urban refuge for affluent Protestants (no Catholic church was built on the entire 600 acre project), the project itself provided work for thousands of workers—most of them Irish—over the next generation.  Before the Civil War, everything east of present day Clarendon Street was filled.  The project resumed in earnest after the war and was completed in 1894.

Puleo argues that Bostonians undertook the Back Bay project—breathtaking in its scale, cost and complexity—in part because of their history of successful innovation—most particularly because of its educational infrastructure.

“Boston and Massachusetts had, since colonial times, viewed themselves collectively as an educational stalwart.  By the 1850s Harvard College was one cornerstone; the influence of a highly literate, prolific, and persuasive clergy another; the breadth and reach of some of the world’s finest writers, authors, publishers, and magazines a third; the contributions of a myriad of private libraries, museums and historical societies a fourth.”

Even allowing for an element of local pride in the above description, Puleo astutely points to two major educational innovations of the early 1850s that speak to the appetite Bostonians had for bold ventures.  In many ways, it was this investment of time, money and energy into education that helped drive the political, social, technological and physical revolutions described above that transformed the city.

The first was an 1852 compulsory education law as Massachusetts “became the first state in the nation to require formal education at least three months of the year for all children between the ages of eight and fourteen.  The initial (1850) law exempted children who worked ‘at any regular and lawful occupation’ from attending school; the critical change in the 1852 amendment was the elimination of the work requirement“—partly because of the commonwealth’s strong education tradition, partly because of the rising fear that, as Puleo puts it, “the perpetuation of an illiterate underclass would be more costly in the long run“.

The second came when the Boston Public Library—“the first publicly supported, free municipal library in the United States, and the first to allow the borrowing of books and materials“—opened its doors in 1854.

The library’s trustees consider it “of the utmost importance as the means of completing our system of public education”.  With the mixture of pride, determination, self-confidence, and self-righteousness that also marked Boston’s other accomplishments of the 1850s, the trustees wrote about building the library that it can be done…there can be no doubt; and if it can be done anywhere, it can be done here in Boston; for no population of 150,000 souls…was ever before so well fitted to become a reading, self-cultivating population as the population of our own city is at this moment”.

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From → Books, History

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