April 13, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 15

In his latest book, University Historian Thomas O'Connor examines how what he calls a "leadership elite" sought to make Boston "like ancient Athens, a city-state among nations." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Not Just a Hub, But an Athens

O'Connor offers a look at one of the highwater marks in Boston history

When was the best time in history to live in Boston?

University Historian Thomas H. O'Connor, the city's foremost chronicler, can suggest any number of answers. But in his latest book, O'Connor makes a strong case for the period of 1825-45.

During those years, says O'Connor, progressive thinking and planning by this region's community leaders set Boston apart from other cities and sections as the young American nation grew into adulthood.

"It was a unique period," says O'Connor of the 20-year time frame featured in his new work, Athens of America: Boston 1825-45. "It has always fascinated me, for example, how many outstanding literary figures appeared during this period - Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitter, Holmes - all together at one place and at one time.

"They kind of lived and flourished and worked in an atmosphere, in an ambience, in which they were part of a 'larger' Boston. These people didn't just do their own thing and stand alone, they were also utilized to spread their ideas throughout the whole community."

O'Connor will discuss Athens of America - his 12th book on the history of Boston - as part of the "Writers Among Us" series next Wednesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101. Sponsored by Boston College Magazine and the BC Bookstore, "Writers Among Us" features BC faculty authors speaking about their recent books. Admission is free.

"One of the values of history is that you are able to look at your own times through the prism of the past and maybe get a more balanced sense of what is going on," says O'Connor.

"This was a period of time where you had a community of culture and learning and literature, but it was organized and directed by a larger group of people - I call them a 'leadership elite' - with background and education and wealth," he says.

O'Connor says this "leadership elite" - many of whom were scions of the nation's founding fathers - was determined to make Boston a great city "like ancient Athens, a city-state among nations." Their ranks included doctors, lawyers, ministers, industrialists and merchants, working together to make the city's development exceed even the economic bounty of the era's Industrial Revolution.

The civic leaders sponsored a comprehensive series of free public lectures, for example, taking advantage of the city's great literary and political figures of the day. This effort spawned a general intellectual curiosity that brought about the establishment of the Boston Public Library, bigger and better public schools, graded classes and formal teacher training, O'Connor says.

Other innovations included shelters for the homeless, institutional care for the mentally ill, temperance groups for drinkers, prison reform and treatment for juvenile offenders.

O'Connor writes that the city's leaders of the day felt a responsibility to include all Bostonians in their comprehensive plans. "The word 'general' in the Massachusetts General Hospital is interesting," he says, "because it made it clear that it was for the 'general' population."

But as O'Connor notes in the book, Boston's comprehensive civic philosophy was not widely shared. Other parts of the United States looked askance at many of Boston's innovations, deriding "the long-haired men and short-haired women up there," says O'Connor, referring to an expression of the period.

"If Boston had an idea that they were going to create this 'Athens of America' and it was going to be a model for the rest of the country - which I think they did - this certainly wasn't the case."

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