The Magazine

The Boston Democrats

From the August 2, 2004 issue: Why it took them 200 years to hold a Democratic convention there.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By JAMES PIERESON
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Sumner, a Harvard graduate, was a particular object of hatred to Democrats. Elected to the Senate in 1851 on an antislavery platform, Sumner, like other prominent Massachusetts politicians, joined the Republican party in the mid-1850s when it was formed to provide a vehicle for antislavery forces across the North.

Sumner never hesitated to attack slavery or abuse its defenders. On one occasion, in May 1856, he took to the floor of the Senate to denounce the practices of the pro-slavery insurgents in the Kansas territory. In doing so, he singled out Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina, comparing him to Don Quixote, "whose mistress, though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot, slavery!" This insult was regarded by southerners as a calumny against the character of an upstanding gentleman. A few days later, Butler's nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks, found Sumner working alone at his desk in the Senate chamber, and avenged his uncle by beating Sumner with a cane so severely that Sumner was disabled for three years. Both men, as a consequence, were treated as heroes in their respective states. The episode greatly intensified sectional animosities.

The Civil War merely cemented in place the conflicts symbolized by the clash between Sumner and Brooks. During the war, Massachusetts sent into battle many prominent sons and daughters, not least of them, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Clara Barton, and Robert Gould Shaw. Col. Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists, led the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment, which consisted of Negro soldiers he had recruited. When the "Fighting 54th" took the field of battle in South Carolina, Confederate troops were enraged at the sight of Negro soldiers. Shaw himself was killed, and many of his men slaughtered on July 18, 1863, in a desperate assault at Battery Wagner in South Carolina. Their sacrifice is commemorated in a magnificent bas relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common.

Massachusetts, as a consequence of these conflicts, was among the most reliably Republican states from the Civil War down to the New Deal. Between 1856, when the Republican party contested its first presidential election, and 1928, when Al Smith was nominated by the Democrats, Massachusetts went for the Republican ticket in every election save 1912, when a split between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt threw the race to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. It is in keeping with our story line that President Wilson's main adversary was still another Bostonian, Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge, whose very reasonable objections to the League of Nations covenant left Wilson sputtering with rage. When the president embarked on a tour of the country to rally support for the League, he suffered a stroke that incapacitated him for the rest of his term. The League went down to defeat in the Senate, with Lodge taking the lion's share of the credit (or blame).

Beginning with the election of 1928, and continuing through the Roosevelt years, Massachusetts moved steadily away from Republicanism and into the Democratic column. The city of Boston had already moved in this direction, as immigrant Irish and Italians challenged the Protestant leadership class that had governed the state since the Revolution. After supporting Eisenhower twice in the 1950s, Massachusetts cemented its loyalty to the Democratic party with John F. Kennedy's presidency and the continuing influence of the Kennedy family--whose power and prestige in the state today rival those of the Adamses and Lodges in years gone by. Ted Kennedy, however, in his virulent rhetorical attacks against Republicans, resembles nothing so much as a modern day Charles Sumner.

Today Massachusetts is perhaps the most liberal state in the union, as safely Democratic as it was safely Republican between 1856 and the New Deal. But its liberalism is, to a great degree, one of its own creation, for the politics of culture and style that defines contemporary liberalism was an innovation of the Kennedys, crafted to appeal to an increasingly sophisticated electorate through the medium of television.

As Massachusetts has moved into the Democratic column, its natural rivals in the union have moved toward the Republicans. Indeed, the electoral maps of the 1896 (McKinley-Bryan) and 2000 (Bush-Gore) elections look almost exactly the same, except that the states have reversed their party loyalties. In 1896, the Republicans carried New England and the Midwest, plus California, while the Democrats took the South and the Mountain states; in the 2000 election, those results were reversed. The South is today a Republican stronghold, while New England leans heavily to the Democrats.