updated 7/16/2008 5:12:25 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:12:25

It would be a city on a hill, John Winthrop wrote of the Massachusetts Bay colony his Puritans were building, an example to the entire world. And Massachusetts, in the nearly four centuries since, has always assumed it has a lot to teach others. The New World Puritans’ austere creed taught that only the select would be saved and that they must extirpate the forces of Satan—Indians, Papists, tolerationists. For 150 years, New England was partial to learning, but also insular, hostile to outsiders and economically stagnant. Then, after the American Revolution, the international war between royal Britain and revolutionary and Napoleonic France allowed New England ship owners to cross enemy lines to become the world’s leading merchants. They made vast profits and invested the money in textile mills, then railroads, then coal mines and steel mills, providing much of the capital that made industrial America.

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Massachusetts made a new America in other ways. Intellectually, New England flowered in the 19th century: Writers from Boston, Cambridge and Concord—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne—created an American literature and popularized an American philosophy, more than 200 years after Plymouth Rock: Hawthorne was as far away in time from the Salem witch trials as he is to us. Demographically, New England Yankees surged across the continent: Long blocked from Upstate New York by mountains and the British-Iroquois alliance, they only reached Syracuse in the 1820s. By the 1850s, they were in Iowa and Kansas and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and by the 1870s in Los Angeles. They helped start the Republican Party and did much to start—and win—the Civil War. They planted their economic system and their values, articulated in the McGuffey Readers, across the continent.

In the meantime, Massachusetts itself and Boston, the hub of the universe, were being remade. The potato famine of the 1840s and an economy that continued imploding for decades sent Irish immigrants across the Atlantic, and many came to Boston, looking for work in the mills, docks and factories. Yankee Protestants had seen Catholics as their great political and cultural enemy since the 17th century; they felt their commonwealth was under siege. As Catholics became a majority, first in Boston and then statewide, Protestants feared the Irish would use their political clout to ladle out government jobs and benefits to their own—and the Irish had a much better flair for politics than instinct for commerce. But they encountered such bigotry and rejection by the Yankees that even as successful an Irish Catholic as Joseph Kennedy felt obliged to move from Boston to New York in 1927. Politics in Massachusetts for years was a kind of culture war between Yankee Republicans and Irish Democrats, an argument not so much over the distribution of income or the provision of services as over whose vision of Massachusetts should be honored, and whose version of history should be taught—not unlike battles being fought between cultural liberals and conservatives today.

Sometimes, the stakes were concrete—control of patronage jobs, command of the Boston Police Department—but more often they were symbolic. Yankee Republicans tended to back activist government programs: Public works and protective tariffs to help business, the Civil War and Reconstruction to help suitably distant oppressed people like Southern blacks, uplifting (and productivity-enhancing) social movements like temperance. The Irish found 19th century Democrats—a party promoting laissez-faire—more congenial. The Irish had come from a place where the government was the enemy and didn’t want government spending money to help the rich or to stimulate commerce. They also didn’t want government to restrict immigration, to advance blacks (potential competitors in the labor market) or to ban alcohol.

The Irish and Catholic percentages slowly rose over the years. Yankees had smaller families, moved west, intermarried with people of immigrant stock and lost their Yankee identity. The Irish mostly stayed put, raised large families and maintained their Catholic identity. Slowly but surely Massachusetts moved from being one of the most Republican states to one of the most Democratic. Economically, early 20th century Massachusetts did not make much progress. The descendants of the Yankees who had been so venturesome in the early 19th century became the most cautious investors in the early 20th, while the predominance of the textile mills in their home state meant that for a century beginning in the 1820s, Massachusetts imported low-skill labor and exported high-skill people. As textile mills started moving south in the 1920s, Massachusetts started exporting low-skill people as well. From the waning of Yankee authority until the national rise of the Kennedys, Massachusetts seemed to run out of things to teach the rest of the nation. The state’s Yankee Republicans were backward looking, out of power in Washington, on the defensive at home, without a cause to champion. The Irish Democrats were hostile to Franklin Roosevelt’s pro-British internationalism and receptive to the anti-Communism of the very Irish Joe McCarthy.

Then came the Kennedys. Rose Kennedy was born in 1890 (and died in 1995), the daughter of John ‘‘Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald, who was elected to Congress at 31 and was mayor of Boston in 1906–07 and 1910–14. Her husband Joseph Kennedy, first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1930s and ambassador to the Court of St. James from 1937–40, was perhaps the richest Catholic in the world and a shrewd and ruthless political operator. Their only residence in Massachusetts after 1927 was their summer home in Hyannis Port. In 1946 Joseph Kennedy moved his oldest surviving son, John, to Boston, and engineered his election to the House that year, to the Senate in 1952 and to the presidency in 1960. The Kennedys, with their elegant manners and great achievements, seemed like royalty to the Irish Catholics of Massachusetts, and John Kennedy’s election in 1960 certified to U.S. Catholics, 78% of whom voted for him, and quickly to everybody else that they too were Americans. Joseph and John Kennedy were, on many issues, conservative or skeptical. But Kennedy’s administration was increasingly, even before his untimely death, identified as liberal, and his example and that of his brother, Edward, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, moved Massachusetts Catholics to the left. At the same time, Massachusetts Protestants were influenced by the leftward direction on the state’s elite campuses in the 1960s. The universities also provided the basis for a surging high-tech economy, to the point that Massachusetts started importing high-skill people even as it exported those with low skills.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Massachusetts, with one interval, had the most liberal governance and national politics of any state in the country. Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern in 1972 and, although it voted twice for Ronald Reagan, the son of an Irish Catholic, its Democratic percentage in presidential contests from 1968–88 was 53%, just 0.4% behind Rhode Island and well ahead of every other state. The state’s senators included Edward Kennedy, liberal Republican Edward Brooke, and Democrats Paul Tsongas and John Kerry. Liberal governors such as Republican Francis Sargent and Democrat Michael Dukakis vastly increased spending and endorsed policies that helped sink Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, notably the law that granted weekend furloughs to prisoners sentenced to life without parole. As historian David Hackett Fischer points out in Albion’s Seed, the mindset of the original settlers remains strong even when the ethnic origin of current residents is far different, and the spirit of the Puritans, the faith that they had much to teach the rest of the world, is strong in Massachusetts liberals: In the smug liberalism of Michael Dukakis, the hearty liberalism of Edward Kennedy and the combative liberalism of John Kerry.

Then, in the early 1990s, Massachusetts had a momentary political revolution. The 1980s “Massachusetts miracle” had turned into a nightmare, as the state’s economy sagged badly, as the defense cutbacks long sought by Massachusetts politicians sent unemployment rising and high-tech firms like Wang and Digital withered and Cambridge-based Lotus’s software was eclipsed by Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft’s. The Northeast real estate bubble burst and Massachusetts banks foundered. The state government essentially went bankrupt. In 1990, as Dukakis retired, voters embraced big tax cuts and elected Republican William Weld in his place.

Four different Republicans held the governorship for the next 16 years. Weld favored a government that taxes and spends lightly, that is friendly to feminism and gay rights, that exerts some effort to protect the environment and that is tough on crime. Referenda limiting taxes and Weld’s sharp spending cuts reduced the burden of government, and the state’s private economy began recovering. Weld, who was reelected with 71% of the vote in 1994, has since left the state, but his basic approach prevailed, with variations, under his successors—Paul Cellucci, who took office in 1997 when Weld resigned, Jane Swift, who took office in 2001 when Cellucci resigned, and Mitt Romney, who was elected in 2002. But they were able to reduce the cost of government only so far; the biggest policy innovation was the health care plan passed by the legislation and supported by Romney in 2006. It required everyone to buy health insurance, levied taxes on employers who do not provide it and subsidized it for low earners. Romney tried to hold down the cost to government and argued that it would reduce the need to provide free care to the uninsured; but he warned that the Democratic legislature might make it more expensive after he left office. That would be a problem in a state where since 2000 the economy has sagged. Massachusetts has held its own in high-tech and defense industries, but showed little growth as the nation’s economy surged. There has been a net out-migration of non-immigrants from metro Boston of some 265,000 people since 2000, most of them young, many professionals, many with fewer skills and unable to afford Massachusetts’s high housing costs: the state’s work force declined by nearly 2%. They have been only partly replaced by about half as many immigrants, about half of them Brazilians; Massachusetts has many descendants of Portuguese and Azorean immigrants and the Brazilians have evidently been attracted to the most Lusophone part of the United States. Massachusetts’s population declined between 2003 and 2005, and increased only 1.4% between 2000 and 2006, the sixth lowest of any state, ahead only of industrial Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, rural North Dakota and hurricane-stricken Louisiana.

At the same time the cultural liberalism which Weld championed has prevailed. Weld was one of America’s first politicians to endorse gay rights, and he appointed Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, who pushed through the 4–3 decisions in November 2003 requiring the legislature to give equal marriage rights to gays and then, when the legislature declined, in May 2004 declaring that same-sex couples have the right to marry. There was an initial rush of same-sex couples to clerk’s offices, though not out-of-state couples, barred from marrying in Massachusetts by a 1913 law; there were some 2,500 same-sex marriages the week after the court’s decision and in the next six months only 1,700. (In heavily gay Provincetown and heavily lesbian Northampton same-sex marriages outnumbered opposite-sex marriages during that period.) Romney opposed the decision, and House Speaker Thomas Finneran pushed the legislature, acting in joint session in March 2004, to vote 105–92 to send to the voters a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and endorsing civil unions. But under the Massachusetts Constitution, the legislature must vote for an amendment twice before it goes on the ballot. In Democratic primaries and in the general election, opponents of same-sex marriage fared poorly, while Speaker Finneran was ousted by Salvatore DiMasi, a same-sex marriage backer from the once heavily Italian and now gentrified North End of Boston. In June 2005, Romney announced he would support a proposed constitutional amendment in the form of a citizen's initiative, which would ban same-sex marriage without creating civil unions; the earliest it could end up on the ballot would be 2008. Signatures were gathered but the state Constitution provides that it doesn’t go on the ballot if it gets fewer than one-quarter of the votes in the bicameral session. Throughout 2006 DiMasi refused to let it come to a vote, and the state Senate refused to vote on it November 9. Romney, who had not run for reelection, told a rally November 19, “The issue before us is not whether same-sex couples should marry. The issue before us today is whether 109 legislators will follow the Constitution. Let us not see the state which first established constitutional democracy become the first to abandon it.” He filed a suit in the Supreme Judicial Court; on December 27 the court unanimously said that the legislature was required to vote, but said it couldn’t compel it to do so. On January 2 the legislature voted 134–62 against the amendment, but since it got more than the needed 50 votes it survived. In early 2007 it was not clear whether the legislature would vote again. Same-sex marriage advocates said they had gained seven seats in the legislature, but that appeared not to be enough to kill it; incoming Governor Deval Patrick, a strong advocate of same-sex marriage, seemed certain not to apply the pressure Romney did. Then on June 14, the legislature voted 151–45 against the amendment, five votes shy of the 50 needed to place the measure on the ballot, ensuring the right of same-sex couples to wed in the state until at least 2012. Ironically, given all the energy same-sex marriage advocates have put into their drive to keep the issue off the ballot, polls suggest that same-sex marriage may now be supported by most Massachusetts voters.

In other states ballot propositions opposing same-sex marriage have brought Republicans and religious conservatives to the polls to the detriment of Democrats. That is not a problem in Massachusetts, where there are very few of either. With Patrick’s 56%-35% victory over Romney’s lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, Democrats now hold all six statewide offices, all twelve U.S. House and Senate seats and 176 of the 200 seats in the state legislature (whose official name is the Great and General Court). Republicans failed to contest seven of the U.S. House and 130 of the state legislative seats. The state voted 62%-37% for its own John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election and 69%-31% for Edward Kennedy in 2006 for a term which will bring him to his 50th year in the Senate. In recent elections the most heavily Democratic parts of the state have not been the blue collar wards of Boston (they’re mostly either gentrified or heavily black or immigrant), but the university towns like Cambridge, the Berkshires and the college-rich Pioneer Valley in the west and variously fashionable resort areas like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Provincetown. The most heavily Republican (or less Democratic) areas are what political scientist Robert David Sullivan called the “Offramps,” towns near the I-495 ring road and “cranberry country” in Plymouth County and Cape Cod, working class Worcester County in the center of the state and high-income Essex County in the northeast.

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