November 1, 2009
The recounting of his tenure as a United States senator in the media's compelling coverage of the death of Ted Kennedy and the current successor campaign is more than the story of one man's growth and influence in that body; it is also the latest illustration of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts's unique contribution to the political history of the nation.
From the vice presidency of John Adams to the US House speakership of Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, four presidents and an equal number of vice presidents have been Massachusetts men, as have eight Justices of the Supreme Court. Eight times, twice as often as from any other state, the gavel of the Speaker of the US House had been in the hands of a congressman from the Bay State, and in 40 presidential cabinets, 38 Massachusetts men and women have served their country in various diplomatic positions.
At no time was that influence more apparent than on the day in 1963 when, as a freshman senator, Edward M. Kennedy sat in the crowded chamber of the United States House of Representatives to listen to the last State of the Union by his brother, President John Kennedy.
Presiding as Speaker that day was John W. McCormack of South Boston. In the chamber was a former speaker, Joseph Martin, Republican of Attleboro, and a future speaker, Tip O'Neill, Democrat of Cambridge. Among the dignitaries gathered to hear the president was the attorney general of the United States, who was to turn his brother's administration away from their cautious approach to the struggle for the rights of black Americans, and Archibald Cox, then Solicitor General of the United States and the man who, as special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, was to be instrumental in the fall of President Nixon.
How has a state such as Massachusetts, relatively small in size and population, had such a historic influence on the political history of America? The politics of the officeholders has been varied - Federalist and Anti-Federalist, Free-Soiler and Know Nothing, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Their backgrounds have been disparate: theocratic Puritans, aristocratic Yankees, and the progeny of impoverished immigrants. Their motivations varied. Puritan leaders believed they were the Elect of God chosen by Him to see to the welfare, temporal as well as spiritual, of those He had given to their care. Public office was to the Brahmin Yankee an acceptable way to discharge the obligation to public service placed on him by social standing and financial security. To the Irish and the other immigrant groups that rose with them, to seek and serve in public office was to claim a participation in their own governing denied them in the land whence they or their forebears came.
What, then, is the common thread that has allowed Massachusetts to weave such influence into the fabric of the nation's political history? Perhaps it's the Massachusetts political culture that manifests itself in the Commonwealth to a unique degree, a heritage of political participation inherent in the circumstances of the birth of the Bay Colony, boldly extended by town folk who met in democratic assemblies to see to the governance of local affairs, and nurtured by the early establishment of public grammar schools and a college to train men for service to God and the common weal.
It isn't that progeny of this culture have been universally noble or that their accomplishments were always in the best interest of the people. The Puritans were intolerant, the Yankees mostly haughty, and the Irish sometimes naughty.
Yet there can be no question of the truth in the ringing words of Daniel Webster when he defended Massachusetts against its political detractors:
"There she is. Behold her, and judge for yourselves. There is her history; the world knows it by heart. The past, at least, is secure."
Neil Savage is the author of Extraordinary Tenure - Massachusetts and the Making of a Nation.