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The Athens of America

Boston, 1825-1845

Thomas H. O'Connor

Publication Year: 2006

Many people are generally familiar with the fact that Boston was once known as “the Athens of America.” Very few, however, are clear about exactly why, except for their recollections of the famous writers and poets who gave the city a reputation for literature and learning. In this book, historian Thomas H. O’Connor sets the matter straight by showing that Boston’s eminence during the first half of the nineteenth century was the result of a much broader community effort. After the nation emerged from its successful struggle for independence, most Bostonians visualized their city not only as the Cradle of Liberty, but also as the new world’s Cradle of Civilization. According to O’Connor, a leadership elite, composed of men of prominent family background, Unitarian beliefs, liberal education, and managerial experience in a variety of enterprises, used their personal talents and substantial financial resources to promote the cultural, intellectual, and humanitarian interests of Boston to the point where it would be the envy of the nation. Not only did writers, scholars, and philosophers see themselves as part of this process, but so did physicians and lawyers, ministers and teachers, merchants and businessmen, mechanics and artisans, all involved in creating a well-ordered city whose citizens would be committed to the ideals of social progress and personal perfectibility. To accomplish their noble vision, leading members of the Boston community joined in programs designed to cleanse the old town of what they felt were generations of accumulated social stains and human failures, and then to create new programs and more efficient institutions that would raise the cultural and intellectual standards of all its citizens. Like ancient Athens, Boston would be a city of great statesmen, wealthy patrons, inspiring artists, and profound thinkers, headed by members of the “happy and respectable classes” who would assume responsibility for the safety, welfare, and education of the “less prosperous portions of the community.” Designed for the general reader and the historical enthusiast, The Athens of America is an interpretive synthesis that explores the numerous secondary sources that have concentrated on individual subjects and personalities, and draws their various conclusions into a single comprehensive narrative.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiv

Contemporary developments affecting the personal and professional lives of historians invariably cause them to reflect upon those various periods of history in which they conduct their research, looking for contrasts and similarities that might help them make sensible judgments and prudent decisions. The subject of the city of Boston has long ...

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1 A New Day Dawning

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pp. 1-22

On January 8, 1788, a special convention of 364 delegates assembled in Boston in accordance with the order of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts to act upon the proposed Constitution of the United States. Late in the afternoon of February 6, 1788, after a month of heated and often acrimonious debate, the “grand question” was moved: Should Massachusetts ratify the Constitution? ...

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2 From Town to City

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pp. 23-40

“In choosing Old Hickory over John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828,” observes Harlow Sheidley in her 1998 study Sectional Nationalism, “the nation rejected the political ethos of New England conservatives in favor of an expansive, individualistic, and competitive political order.” Realizing that Jackson’s election had put an end to any hopes they had of influencing the nation’s future by political means, members of ...

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3 Reshaping a Community

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pp. 41-65

Considering the extraordinary energy and vigorous determination of Mayor Josiah Quincy, it is easy enough to ascribe the extensive physical changes, the material improvements, and the professional bureaucracy, which arose in Boston during the mid-1820s, to the leadership qualities of a single individual. In many ways, however, this desire for reform, ...

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4 An End to Pain and Suffering

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pp. 66-90

Mayor Josiah Quincy could take great pride that his extensive program of urban renewal and restoration had transformed Boston, he boasted, into one of the cleanest and healthiest cities in the United States. Members of the city’s elite establishment had undertaken successful efforts to lessen crime, reduce poverty, improve conditions for the homeless, modernize the prisons, and make inroads against the debilitating effects of public ...

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5 The Grecian Model

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pp. 91-125

It was a matter of enormous pride, but also of soul searching concern, to be a direct descendant of a member of that great generation of Americans, known collectively as the Founding Fathers, who had led Boston through the precarious years of rebellion and revolution against the powerful domination of Great Britain, who had won their independence ...

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6 Progress and Popery

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pp. 126-148

In the enthusiasm of Bostonians to raise their city to such an elevated level of intellectual achievement and human accomplishment that it would be universally recognized as the Athens of America, the emergence of the Roman Catholic Church as a recognizable influence was the source of considerable anxiety. Most Protestants regarded the city’s growing Irish Catholic immigrant community as one of the most serious ...

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7 A New Generation

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pp. 149-173

The intensity of the efforts to prevent the religious beliefs and social attitudes of Roman Catholics from impeding the progressive reforms of the Boston establishment was just one indication of changing attitudes and disturbing impulses. Up to a certain point, Boston’s serious and self-conscious efforts to achieve an exalted status as the modern version ...

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8 The Politics of Righteousness

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pp. 174-188

The decision of a number of well-educated, fiercely determined, upper-class Boston women to involve themselves in the controversial Abolition movement marked a distinct change not only in the activities of females well outside the strictly defined limits of their “domestic sphere” but also in the character of the Boston abolition movement itself. ...


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pp. 189-202


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pp. 203-218

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761427
E-ISBN-10: 1613761422
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558495180
Print-ISBN-10: 1558495185

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2006