In my first GFHC post last week, I explained how I found out only this year that my ancestry (which I thought to be 75% Irish Catholic and 25% Eastern European), also includes a long line of New England Yankees - Protestants of English ancestry – going back to the earliest days of the colonies. I also suggested this caused me no small amount of angst. To fully comprehend why this was a shock to me, you have to understand a little bit about Massachusetts political history.
In many ways, despite the Puritans' strict religious conservatism, Massachusetts has been seen as a beacon of progress and intellectualism from the start. The Virginia colony was founded thirteen years before Plymouth, but the legacy of the Mayflower Pilgrims and their Puritan brethren looms so large that many Americans don’t remember that. This state has a glorious history (see beginning of comments for more on that), about which I’ve always felt deeply ambivalent.
Why? Because so many great Massachusetts achievements were achievements of the Yankee Protestant elite. That Protestant elite advanced many progressive positions that were, as they say, “on the right side of history.” But if they had a blind spot, it was surely my other ancestors, the ones I knew about: Irish Catholic immigrants. And therein lay my problem: the Irish ancestors I’ve always known about were politically on the other side of the Yankees responsible for most of those great progressive accomplishments.
For a century, starting from the Civil War era, the Yankee-Irish division was the fault line in Massachusetts politics. Party identification itself in Massachusetts was largely defined along ethnic and religious lines. The “natives” of Protestant English stock were overwhelmingly Republican, the Irish Catholics (and most other Catholic and Jewish immigrant groups) overwhelmingly Democratic.
In the mid-1800s Boston did not have Philadelphia’s long tradition of religious tolerance or New York’s long tradition as a melting pot of ethnic cultures. Boston high society was very intellectually advanced, but very monolithic. Diversity meant “Congregationalists of English stock” and “Unitarians of English stock,” with some token Episcopalians tossed in. Protestant Boston was wholly unprepared for the hordes of starving, uneducated Irish Catholic immigrants who flooded in in huge numbers during the Famine years. Generally speaking Protestant Boston (and particularly the elite known as “Boston Brahmins”) despised the Irish and discriminated against them for decades.
So there wasn’t much doubt about which party most Irish immigrants in Massachusetts would join when they arrived. The Whigs, the virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Irish Know-Nothings, and (after 1856) the new Republican Party wanted little to do with the newcomers. And so the Irish flocked into the Democratic Party – the party of the Southern slaveholder – and, over time, built huge Democratic political machines in the state’s larger cities. For years afterward, though, state government (and the state’s top financial and legal institutions longer still) remained largely the province of the Protestant Brahmin Republicans.
Every single Republican U.S. Senator from Massachusetts has been Protestant, and all have been of English ancestry except the African-American Ed Brooke. The Democrats elected to the Senate between the Civil War and Elizabeth Warren have all been Catholic except the old-line Yankee Marcus Coolidge in the 1930s and the very non-WASP Paul Tsongas, whose family were Greek, like Mike Dukakis’s.
For Irish immigrants in Boston, a long-established city, assimilation and mobility were much harder to come by than in the new cities of the Midwest and California. This promoted cohesiveness, even clannishness. Even today, many Irish-Americans in the Boston area identify more strongly as Irish than people of Irish ancestry in other parts of the country, and I’m no exception. As a history buff of Irish Catholic identity, I’ve always been of two minds about the great accomplishments of the Massachusetts Yankee tradition. I’d spent my whole life admiring New England Yankees’ gumption and progressive stances, while resenting their hostile and condescending treatment of my own ancestors.
It’s hard to forget that Sam Adams thought “the spread of Popery” was a bigger threat than the Stamp Acts he started a Revolution over.
It’s been hard to get excited about the accomplishments of Charlestown native Samuel F.B. Morse, paranoid anti-Catholic, anti-Semite, and virulent anti-immigration activist.
It’s hard to forget that in the 1830s, when William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator to fight for the abolition of slavery, Protestant mobs burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass. in a hysterical fit of anti-Catholicism.
It’s also hard to forget 1854. That was the year Boston’s abolitionists did all they could to protect escaped slave Anthony Burns, attempting to help him escape federal custody and, when that failed, buying his freedom from his owner. In 1854 the New England Emigrant Aid Company formed and sent settlers to found Lawrence, Kansas, in the hopes of establishing an anti-slavery majority there. The town (not surprisingly the home of the University of Kansas) was named for Amos Lawrence, from an old New England family, and its main drag to this day is Massachusetts Street. Near it, on Vermont Street, is the oldest church in Kansas, the Plymouth Congregational Church (the Congregationalists being the successors of the Puritan church of Massachusetts).
But in that same year, the fiercely anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Know-Nothing” party swept to victory in the Massachusetts elections, and the first Irish policeman in Boston was unceremoniously fired just for his background.
It’s hard to forget that, in 1870, the Jesuit Boston College was founded largely because of the hostility of Harvard to Catholics, or that Joe Kennedy Sr. found himself unwelcome at Harvard forty years later. In my own lifetime, not that many years ago, many Catholics in the Boston area were disappointed to hear one of their own had gone to Harvard instead of Boston College, and a Double Eagle (BC High School + BC) carries much cachet in certain neighborhoods, still more so a Triple Eagle (BC High, BC, BC Law School).
It’s hard to forget that the state built the Orange Line elevated subway right past the front of the Catholic Holy Cross Cathedral in the early 1900s, hiding the center of Boston Catholicism from view for almost a century. Or that the Orange Line was so named because the street it ran down, Washington Street, was originally called Orange Street in honor of Protestant William of Orange’s victory over Catholic forces in Ireland’s 1690 Battle of the Boyne, meaning the subjugation of Ireland’s native population for centuries to come.
I can’t forget that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., the poster child for the elite Boston Brahmin class, achieved in 1924 (the year he died) his longstanding goal of legislation severely restricting immigration, a deed not undone until Ted Kennedy’s efforts in 1965. Lodge, like many a Boston Brahmin, had been a founding member of the Immigration Restriction League in the 1890s. During that decade Lodge had sponsored a bill requiring immigrants to be able to read the Constitution in English. Then-Congressman John F. Fitzgerald (JFK’s grandfather) spoke against the bill, earning him a strong rebuke from Lodge: “You are an impudent young man. Do you believe the Jews or the Italians have any right in this country?”
Honey Fitz’s answer was one for the ages: “As much as your father or mine. It’s only a difference of a few ships.” I can imagine Lodge was apoplectic at the comparison of his own father with Fitzgerald’s, let alone with Italian and Jewish immigrants.
I certainly can’t forget the crosses that were burned by the KKK in rural towns not too far from Boston in the 1920s. The “Northern” Klan of the second, post-Birth of a Nation, wave was more concerned with anti-Catholicism and anti-Judaism than racism against African-Americans. This came to a head in 1928, when the Democratic Party nominated the Irish Catholic Governor of New York, Al Smith, for President. Although there were, by this time, scores of American-born Irish Catholic mayors, governors and senators, “responsible” Protestant journalists and intellectuals (many in Boston) argued, as their ancestors had eighty years before, that the “Papist” Smith was under the control of a foreign dictator and espoused values fundamentally incompatible with American democracy. These same arguments were used, to lesser effect, against JFK in 1960.
I’ve always felt that the Yankee Protestant Republican history in New England (in its good and its bad aspects) was my history as an American and a New Englander, but wasn’t my personal history. As I’ve traveled around Massachusetts, I’ve felt pride in its glorious past. But the Lexington Battle Green and the white New England church steeples that add beauty to the landscape around me always seemed not only like someone else’s history, but the history of people who despised my ancestors.
For all of my life I’ve been conflicted about this. I felt consternation at the fact that, in the 19th century, the Democratic Party that took my Irish ancestors in was largely a racist and reactionary anti-government party. It has been hard at times to reconcile my admiration for New England’s abolitionists with my knowledge that my Democratic ancestors who were their contemporaries saw them as the enemy. I took some comfort in the fact that the “Party of Lincoln” became the “Party of Big Business and Anti-Immigration Snobbery” about ten minutes after Lincoln died.
Imagine my astonishment, then, to find out at the age of 36 that the enemy is me. I have, in my veins, the blood of people who were on the other side of that divide. My great-grandfather grew up in a Protestant Republican family, in a Protestant Republican small town in Vermont, which was until the 1960s one of the most reliably Republican states in the nation. I’m sure most folks in Hartland, Vermont in the 1890s didn’t like the idea of huge Catholic and Jewish immigration. I’m sure some of his ancestors are turning in their graves at the thought of having a slew of Irish Catholic descendants who went to Catholic schools for thirteen years.
After a good laugh, I’ve emerged from all of this feeling more complete. First, because I know a lot more about where I come from. That’s usually good. Second, because I feel like I can embrace more fully the positive aspects of the Puritan New England legacy. It turns out it is my personal history after all. The old white steeples and colonial-era houses around here are mine as much as anyone’s. In fact, my direct ancestors served as the first pastors in a number of those erstwhile Puritan churches. But because I’m still Irish, and still me, I can continue to shake my head sadly at the anti-Irish and anti-immigrant views those people espoused.
My family has long been in the Democratic Party because it was our heritage, the Irish-American heritage I knew about. But people live in the present and must follow their own consciences. If the Democratic Party still stood for some of the things it stood for in 1830, I likely wouldn’t be in it today, just as many thoughtful lifelong Republicans have moved away from that party.
Today the ethnic and religious lines that led Irish Americans of earlier generations into the Democratic Party have largely blurred. Some people of Irish ancestry, like Bill O’Reilly, have indicated a desire to shut the door of opportunity now that they’re in. I strive, like John Fitzgerald in his day, to remain true to the spirit that welcomed immigrants and sought to alleviate the inequality of our economy. That’s why I was happy this year to vote for a Barack Obama instead of a Paul Ryan, and to vote for Oklahoma-born Elizabeth Warren over Massachusetts-born Scott Brown.
History has worked in my favor in resolving these internal conflicts. In the early 1900s the urban, immigrant-backed, progressive Democratic Party of the North started to win out over the rural, WASP, racist Democratic Party of the South. The good aspects of the historic Democratic Party (its aversion to elites, its economic populism, its welcoming of different kinds of people) have largely remained, while the bad aspects largely migrated to the other side of the aisle. The anti-tax, small-government, anti-education, states’-rights Democratic Party of the early 19th century has essentially, and ironically, become today’s Republican Party.
The Democratic Party of the early 21st century believes that regulation of the economy is necessary, that racial equality should be self-evident, and that public investment in education and infrastructure is important. It shares more common ground with the old Whigs and abolitionists than with the Democratic Party of 175 years ago.
The leadership of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson made the Democrats the party of civil rights. The cynicism of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made the Republicans, that erstwhile “Party of Lincoln,” the party of the conservative white South. The secular social movements of the 1960s, and the resultant move away from conservative religion, have made it possible for someone with centuries of Irish Catholic tradition to feel comfortable in a party that supports women’s rights and equal rights for LGBT citizens.
I’m fortunate in that I can stay true to my Irish Catholic Democratic heritage, true to all my own progressive values, and true to the best of my newfound New England Yankee heritage, all at the same time, by being a Democrat today. Even the Puritan churches my ancestors served as pastors of back in the 1600s are now Unitarian or Congregational, with big rainbow flags and liberal mission statements.
Now we add more diversity to the family mix. My sister’s husband came here from El Salvador, my brother’s girlfriend from the former Soviet Union. My wife is from Puerto Rico and a native Spanish speaker. Her heritage, like that of so many people on the island, is a mix of many different cultures. Our kids will be far less than half Irish (which surprised me when I realized it), but they’ll be Mayflower descendants with Irish, Eastern European, Italian, German, Spanish, African, and Native American blood. They will personify the American story. My until-recently 100% Irish-American dad couldn’t be prouder of his newly diverse family, and I’m proud that the Democratic Party of my ancestors – the ancestors we always knew about! – still affirms the essential dignity of all of the traditions my children will represent.