In Praise of Massachusetts Liberals

In the 2004 American presidential campaign, the label “Massachusetts liberal” was used as an epithet by Republican against the Democratic candidate John Kerry. In the argot of conservatives, the term signifies a candidate who is unacceptably far left, out of the mainstream of American politics – as indicated by their association with the prosperous, well-educated, gay-friendly state of Massachusetts. (See Conservapedia, which, as always, is not a parody.)

I find it interesting that this term has no parallel on the other side of the aisle. George W. Bush, for example, was not vilified as a “Texas conservative” – although Bush himself seems to have done his best to make that a term of abuse. Perhaps that’s because liberal politics, unlike modern conservative politics, is not founded on demonization and personal attacks against fellow states and citizens – but never mind that. In this post, I want to take a different tack, and rehabilitate the “Massachusetts liberal”. That is not a term that America’s progressives should shrink from, but a badge we should wear with pride.

Where, after all, was America born? Where was the first blow for liberty struck, where was the spirit of American independence loosed? Not the deep South. No, the famous “shot heard ’round the world” was fired in Massachusetts, where the American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concord. And the men who led us to that pass were not Southern conservatives, but Massachusetts liberals in the truest sense of the word.

The earliest stirrings of rebellion against British rule took place in Massachusetts. When Parliament sought to enact stamp taxes on all papers and legal documents, taxing the colonists without benefit of representation, it was in Massachusetts that protests were first and fiercest. When British redcoats sought to put down colonial resistance to taxes by firing into a crowd of protestors, turning colonial opinion against their rulers, it was in Boston that the massacre took place. It was in Boston that American patriots rebelled against British attempts to flood the market with cheap imported tea, organizing the famous midnight raid that dumped tons of the hated stuff into the harbor. And when the British government sought to crush the rebellion by passing the Intolerable Acts, it was Massachusetts’ government and ports that were targeted – leading, soon thereafter, to the battles that began the American Revolution.

And the men who led this rebellion, and shepherded the new nation afterward, were liberals in the truest sense of the word. Rejecting the authority of the king, they founded a country which was to have “a government of laws and not of men” (a phrase, incidentally, that comes from the Massachusetts Constitution). Among these proud Bostonians was Samuel Adams:

Let us contemplate our forefathers, and posterity, and resolve to maintain the rights bequeathed to us from the former, for the sake of the latter. The necessity of the times, more than ever, calls for our utmost circumspection, deliberation, fortitude, and perseverance. Let us remember that “if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom.” It is a very serious consideration… that millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers of the event.

as well as John Adams, later to be our second President, who defended the British soldiers accused of committing the Boston Massacre and called it “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country”. (Can you imagine anyone saying the same thing today about defending prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?) And Paul Revere, John Hancock and James Otis (to whom we owe the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny”) can also be numbered among the ranks of Massachusetts liberals who played a vital role in our nation’s founding.

Although the founding fathers were liberals by the standards of their time, I think we can go further: even by the standards of today, they would still be liberals in most respects. In America, the political right for the past eight years has been defined by its allegiance to a single, supreme leader who is to be given unchecked political power and who, according to many prominent conservative legal thinkers, cannot be restrained by any law – or even the Constitution. This, as has been noted, is what our founders were rebelling against. The idea that they would have found any kinship with the modern right is preposterous – far more likely, they would have been aghast.

From America’s founding to the modern day, Massachusetts liberals have led the nation in the fight for democracy and equality, spearheading all kinds of social movements that later took root and flourished in the country as a whole. (The abolitionist movement is another prominent example.) This is a heritage we should stand proudly behind. The conservatives who demonize Massachusetts liberals are now, as they have always been, on the wrong side of history, and while their appeals to bigotry and prejudice may find favor for a time, in the end they will fall just as all their predecessors have done.

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