Massachusetts and the Nation

Title: Massachusetts and the Nation

Date: February 2, 1923

Location: Washington, D.C.

Context: A speech before the National Geographic Society


The place of Massachusetts in the life of the nation has been made by continuing adherence to fundamental principles. This unchanging attitude raised her to primacy in the long struggle for individual liberty and local self-government. The background of her early people peculiarly fitted them for this leadership. They were possessed of an experience, training, and tradition in the art of government which was surpassing. It reached back behind the veil of myth and mystery. While other peoples turned aside, that stock which settled New England, both by reason of their character and environment, swept on from the tribal customs beyond the North Sea to the foremost achievement in human relationship, the Republic of America.

The Pilgrims and Puritans did not come hither empty-handed. They brought with them a perfected conception of rational liberty under the orderly process of public law. They had a clear idea of established rights duly defined and recorded. The heritage which they claimed, that privilege of birth which they had marked out for themselves, was not an estate measured merely by lands and tangible possessions, but a heritage unaffected by these, dowered by inalienable rights of which no government and no power could dispossess or despoil them. This estate they had claimed from days of old. It had been set out in charters, not unstained by the blood of the people, which bore the sanctions of parliaments and the seals of kings. It had been enacted into the statute law of the realm. It carried the approbation and authority of a long line of judicial decisions. But it derived a dominion which surpassed all these from the unalterable convictions of a great people, who had the courage and genius to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to follow right and truth to their logical conclusions.

These founding fathers came of a race which was not without a conception of the supremacy of the people. They had a clear idea of chartered liberty. They understood the principle of parliamentary government and royal authority acting within definite limitations. They were familiar with the jury system and enforcement of civil and criminal liabilities in accordance with existing laws.

The immediate cause of the settlement of Massachusetts was a profound religious movement. Green tells us that in the age of Elizabeth England became a country of one book; and that book was the Bible. When the people took that Book into their hands, the right of personal judgment in matters of religion became established, and from this there was derived the principle of personal judgment in matters of government. The conclusion of the whole matter was individual liberty.

This did not occur all at once. Toleration is not a self-evident truth. Wherever power is lodged in a monarch, always he has sought to maintain and extend it by encroachment upon the liberties of the people. When the more advanced of the Puritans sought to put their principle of freedom into practical effect by separation from the established church, they were met by the notorious threat of the King that he would make them conform or he would harry them out of the land.

In that threat lay the foundation of Massachusetts. That little band, from among whom were to come those made forever immortal by that voyage of the Mayflower, sought refuge in Holland, where, by an edict of William the Silent, freedom of religion had been established. What manner of men they were, what ideals they cherished, are described to us by their pastor, John Robinson. “The people,” said he, “are industrious and frugal. We are knit together as a body in a most sacred covenant of the Lord, of the violation whereof we make great conscience, and by virtue whereof we hold ourselves strictly tied to all care of each other’s good and of the whole by every one, and so mutually. It is not with us as with men whom small things can discourage.” In that simple statement is to be found the principle of prosperity, responsibility, and social welfare, all based on religion.

A pride of race and of language determined them to seek out a location for themselves where they would be equally free, and where they would not be in jeopardy of losing their identity, through being absorbed in an overwhelming mass of people. They were of humble origin. The bare necessities of existence had been won by them in a strange country only at the expense of extreme toil and hardship. They did not shrink from the prospect of a like experience in America. “They knew they were Pilgrims,” said Robinson, “and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” Such was the sentiment cherished by those who were setting out to exert so large an influence in the building of the most powerful empire which the world has ever seen.

They left behind their old pastor, John Robinson, a great man possessed of a great vision and inspired by great piety, not only a clergyman but a statesman. Winslow reports that in his final charge to this congregation he told them: “If God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of His, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry: for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to breake forth out of His Holy Word,” an admonition to keep an open mind, an expression of firm belief in progress.

It was such a people, strengthened by such a purpose, obedient to such a message, who set their course in the little Mayflower across the broad Atlantic on the sixth day of September, 1620, old style, which is celebrated under the new calendar as Marne Day.

The country they sought lay around the Delaware River, which was under the charter of the London Company, from which they had secured a grant of land. A providential breeze carried them far to the north, while storms and the frail condition of their ship prevented them from continuing to their destination. They came to anchor off Provincetown far outside the jurisdiction of their own patent and the authority of existing laws.

Undismayed they set about to establish their own institutions and recognize their own civil authority. Gathering in the narrow cabin of the Mayflower, piously imploring the divine presence, in mutual covenant they acknowledged the power “to enacte, constitute, & frame just & equall lawes, ordinances, actes, constitutions & offices,” to which they pledged “all due submission & obedience.” So there was adopted the famous Mayflower Compact. It did not in form establish a government, but it declared the authority to establish a government, the power to make laws, and the duty to obey them. Beyond this it proclaimed the principle of democracy. The powers which they proposed to exercise arose directly from the express consent of all the governed. The date of this document, remarkable for what it contains, but more remarkable still because it reveals the capacity and spirit of those who made it, is November 11, 1620, old style; under the new calendar it is destined long to be remembered as Armistice Day.

Such was the beginning of Massachusetts, men and women humble in position, few in numbers, seemingly weak, but possessed of a purpose, moved by a deep conviction, guided by an abiding spirit, against which both time and death were powerless. It is said that upon the old Colony of Plymouth there is no stain of bigoted persecution. They carried with them the atmosphere of holy charity. Their efforts and their experience stand forth distinctly, raising a new hope in the world.

They were soon to be reinforced by the great Puritan migration which established a vigorous colony at their north, known as the Company of Massachusetts Bay. It was among them that there was worked out more in detail the fundamental institutions of the Old Commonwealth. They had a royal charter granted in 1629, which provided for a governor, a deputy governor, and a council of eighteen assistants, annually to be chosen by the Company. They were likewise given authority to make laws for the government of the settlers, provided they did not conflict with those of England. Here there came into existence the frame of a miniature republic.

One of the main objects of this movement was to provide a retreat for those of Puritan faith in case they were overwhelmed at home by the rising tide of despotism of Charles I. For this purpose men of such prominence as Winthrop and Dudley and their associates, came to the new colony, transferring with them the location of the government. Congregations and clergymen followed. With the arrival of thousands of people churches and towns were established and there began the making of American constitutional history.

These people were of the Puritans. What they have wrought in the Old World and the New is known of all men. Their prime motive was self-mastery. To them the great reality was the unseen world. They had a high disdain for every assumption of earthly authority, whether exercised in the name of the state or of the church. They were guided by the inner life. They rebelled against all government by others, but were humbly solicitous to govern themselves. With that same intensity of spirit with which they scorned kings and bishops, they reverenced the authority which came from on high. They trampled under foot and destroyed despotism in England, but they raised up and established freedom in America.

It was these people, moved by such convictions, that from the day of her settlement guaranteed that Massachusetts should be grandly placed in history. The Puritan spirit has always worked toward freedom and independence in all things. Its ultimate goal has not always first been reached within the domain of that Commonwealth. There have been times when it has seemed to be denied by some of her own people, but the foundation of it was laid there. The ultimate support for its progress has ever been found there. If, occasionally, she has been outstripped by those who have gone out from her in the practical application of this spirit which her entire history has illustrated, it is but just to remember that there was located the American source of the original inspiration.

The Puritans cherished as their immediate purpose not a broad latitude in either religious or political life. Their chief thought was to escape from the intolerable tyranny of Charles and of Laud. If they were to maintain their safety against the Indians, or their freedom against the King, it was necessary to maintain solidarity in all things. They could not tolerate those who would set over them a tyranny in church or state, or those who, by a division of council lessened the military or political resistance of a weak and exposed outpost. When to the colony toleration meant extermination, they rejected it, but they held to principles which, when they had the strength broadly to apply them, led to greater and greater freedom.

The leading clergy and many of the Puritans belonged to the established church, yet on reaching Massachusetts they naturally became separatists under the Congregational form of church government. Religion was their first thought. They at once built places of worship and formed church societies on the principle that each congregation was free and independent.

While the early magistrates and clergy were divided between the principle of aristocracy and democracy in the government of church and state, the people themselves held to the principle of democracy with a sturdy and unswerving tenacity. It was the view of Governor Winthrop that “the best part is always the less, and of that best part the wiser part is always the lesser,” while the most eminent clergyman of the colony, John Cotton, probably voiced the opinion of the majority of the profession when he declared he did not conceive democracy “as a fit government either for church or commonwealth.” These views were more than balanced by such men as Sir Harry Vane, who was chosen governor in 1636, a liberal to the point of toleration, and who returned to England to stand on the side of liberty in the great rebellion, and propose a settlement of government under Cromwell which would have been on the pattern of the American Republic. Of a like 1nind was Thomas Hooker, pastor of the church at Cambridge, who was later to tell Winthrop that “in matters which concern the common good a general council, chosen by all, to transact businesses which concern all, I conceive most suitable to rule, and most safe for relief of the whole.” It was he and his congregation which moved through the wilderness to establish Hartford. It was there he preached that remarkable sermon in which he announced that “the foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people,” and saw at once that doctrine completely recognized and established, in the free republic under a written constitution, of the Colony of Connecticut. Such was the first offspring of the Puritan spirit of Massachusetts. It was possessed of a vitality capable of creating a political structure of great strength and forming free institutions wherever it might go.

The democratic attitude of the people was very early apparent. The freemen of the colony at first undertook in public meeting to administer its affairs. When numbers made this impossible, the authority was lodged with the board of assistants to make laws and elect the governor. But when the inhabitants of Watertown hesitated to pay a small tax which was levied for public defense in 1631, on the ground that English freemen could not be taxed without their consent, the result of the agitation which then arose restored to the freemen the right to elect the governor and gave to each settlement the right to choose their own deputies to a general court. As early as 1644, these deputies, withdrawing from the assistants and forming a second house, became a co-ordinate branch of the legislature. Thus the principle of representative government was developed at once for the purpose of safeguarding the liberties of the people. To gain that end no more capable instrument has been devised by man. It is scarcely too much to say that while the general court then established has sometimes ceased to sit, it has never ceased to exist. From that day to this in Massachusetts it has been the chief repository of the powers of government.

For a period of more than fifty years the Commonwealth was administered under this liberal charter, virtually independent and self-governing in all its affairs, a political training never ceasing, the results of which have been world-wide.

The church having been formed and the government organized, the next thought was of education. An early report states: “One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to have an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in dust.” In 1636, in order that “the Commonwealth be furnished with knowing and understanding men, and the churches with an able ministry,” the general court voted that it “agrees to give four hundred pounds toward a school or college, whereof two hundred pounds shall be paid the next year and two hundred pounds when the work is finished.” Quincy claims that this assembly was “the first body in which the people, by their representatives, ever gave their own money to found a place of education.” Two years later the legacy of a library and seven hundred pounds from John Harvard determined the name of the college.

Conscious of their own purpose, viewing their own accomplishments, believing they were instruments of a divine destiny, it may well be that they felt they were correctly described by Captain Edward Johnson, one of their early chroniclers, when he prophesied: “The Lord Christ intends to achieve greater matters by this little handful than the world is aware of.” A more sober and judicial statement, less in prophecy but greater in history, was made by William Stoughton when he asserted, in his 1668 election sermon: “God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain over into this wilderness.” The character of the people, their government, their church, their school, all contributed to a great intellectual awakening which was to result in a greater advance and more progress than the human race had ever before accomplished in the same length of time. A government in which the people chose all of their own magistrates, a church in which each congregation determined its own course, a school dedicated to the service of the political and religious life of the commonwealth, all of these partook of a new experience, a new relationship in the affairs of mankind.

Political and theological discussion went on, liberality grew, the franchise was broadened. Under the Halfway Covenant the right to vote was to be extended to those who had been baptized and conducted themselves with propriety, even though they were not communicants. The Old South Church was created as a monument to this liberal principle. Within its walls many a patriot meeting has been held and many a patriot voice has been raised in defense of the rights of the people. It was in this meeting-house that the inhabitants unanimously refused to surrender their charter in the days of Andros. Here in later times gathered those heroes who were to make the American Revolution. From the earliest settlement, every court, council, and town meeting was open to every inhabitant, whether he held the franchise or not. He had the right to appear in person, present his cause, and secure a decision. Local self-government was administered through the town meeting, where the freemen met on terms of equality, a great practical example of democracy.

It was out of all this discussion that there was continued the determination to be free. This determination was strong enough to engage in active preparation for open resistance against the tyranny of Andros when it became apparent that what Charles II had done in England he proposed to do in America. The charter was revoked, self-government ceased, people were imprisoned, congregations were dispossessed, property confiscated, and arbitrary political and ecclesiastical rule was established. At last a signal-fire shone from Beacon Hill, the drums beat, the people rose, Andros was arrested, and a successful revolution was accomplished which only the accession of William and Mary brought to an end.

But this lesson the people never forgot, and the same discussion went on. John Wise, pastor at Ipswich, who had suffered imprisonment under Andros, published a book very early in the eighteenth century, in which he said: “The end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all, and the good of every man in all his rights, his life, liberty, estate, honor, and so forth, without injury or abuse to any.” By 1765 James Otis declared, “Kings were made for the good of the people and not the people for them,” harking back to the day of the high court of justice, which executed Charles I, when its president, John Bradshaw, had said: “There is something that is superior to the law, and that is the people of England.” It was no wonder that the regicide judges found comfort and security among the people of Massachusetts.

Such was the preparation for the Revolutionary War, inevitable after the power of France in America had been broken by Wolfe upon the plains of Abraham, a revolution which had its significance not so much in the establishment of independence as in the yet firmer establishment of the principle of governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” What Cambridge and Watertown and Dorchester had insisted upon at the very outset of their settlement, when the board of assistants undertook to levy taxes, choose the governor, and hold office indefinitely, the men of the Revolution were equally alert to preserve when they rose again to insist on representative government. They had heard from their grandsires of the Court of High Commission, and from their fathers they had heard of Jeffreys and of Andros. More, too, they knew that this kind of a government had always put forth an ecclesiastical hierarchy. When all these spectres began to rise again under George III, Massachusetts had no idea of submission, but sought refuge in rebellion. They believed in principles, but they were a practical people, they always translated theory into action. This time it was not the watch-fire on Beacon Hill, but the lantern in the belfry of the Old North Church that was the signal which brought the men of Massachusetts with arms in their hands to the defense of their liberties.

How far the people of the Commonwealth had advanced between 1620 and the days of the Revolution is indicated by the difference between the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Rights and the Frame of Government, which is the title of the Constitution adopted in 1780. The Declaration sets out with great precision the fundamental principles of liberty established by law. Article I declares that all men are born free and equal. Article II guarantees religious freedom. Article X asserts the right of protection of life, liberty, and property by the government, and as a corollary the necessity of serving and supporting the government. Article XVIII enjoins “a constant adherence to piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality” as necessary to preserve liberty and maintain a free government. Article XXIX proclaims “the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial, and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.” Article XXX decrees a complete separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial departments, “to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.” In between is asserted the sovereignty of the people, the liberty of speech and of the press, the right to trial by jury, and the duty of providing education, together with the other guarantees of freedom. We have come to think of all these principles as natural and self-evident. It is well to remember that we are in the enjoyment of them by reason of age-old effort and the constant sacrifice of treasure and of blood finally wrought into standing law. There is no other process by which they can be maintained.

All of this has been the inevitable outcome of the belief of the Puritans in the rights of the individual. This required education, and the first public school was opened in Boston in 1635. In 1647 the general court enjoined each town of fifty householders to have a primary school, and each of one hundred families a grammar-school. In 1839 a State Normal School was opened, and Massachusetts was the first to have a State Board of Education.

The same ideal that educated the mind protected the health and regulated industrial conditions. In 1836 the first Child Labor Law was passed. In 1842 combinations of workmen made for the purpose of improving their conditions were declared lawful. In 1867 factory inspection was begun. The year 1869 saw the first Railroad Commission and the beginnings of a State Board of Arbitration. It was here that there was established the first State Board of Health, the first State Board of Charities, the first State Department of Insurance, the first Minimum Wage Law for women and children, and the first State sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis.

Massachusetts has been the location of an enormous industrial development. It is claimed that the first agricultural show was held there. Certainly it was the home of the Baldwin apple and the Concord grape. There the first railroad was built. Four inventions, most important in modern life, are represented by the telephone, which Bell invented there, the telegraph, the sewing-machine, and the cotton-gin of Morse, Howe, and Whitney, three of her native sons, while inoculation was first used there by Boylston, and the first practical demonstration of the discovery of ether was made in one of her hospitals. There are the greatest fish market, leather market, wool market, and the principal centre for the production of textile machinery, boots and shoes, cotton, woollen and worsted goods, paper, and all government bank-note paper, and the greatest worsted, cordage, and shoe-machinery mills in the world.

Massachusetts has contributed men of great eminence to all the learned professions. Jonathan Edwards preached there, Benjamin Franklin was born there. It has had such scientists as Agassiz and Gray, such preachers as Channing, Parker, Brooks, and Moody. In literature it carries such names as Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Everett, Phillips, and Julia Ward Howe; in art Sargent, Whistler, Stuart, Bullfinch, Copley, and Hunt; among its lawyers are Story, Cushing, Shaw, Choate, Webster, and Parsons. Among its statesmen have been the Adamses, Webster, Sumner, Wilson, and Hoar. It has been the abiding-place of strong common sense, illustrated by Samuel Adams, master of the town meeting, and Jonathan Smith, the farmer from Lanesboro, who with Adams swung a hostile convention to the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Another clergyman, from Ipswich, was Manasseh Cutler, who drafted the Ordinance of 1787 which Representative Dane of Beverly presented to Congress, thus dedicating a sufficient area to freedom to insure the ultimate extinction of human slavery.

The Commonwealth has furnished pioneers who have gone everywhere. They are represented by such men as General Rufus Putnam, who planned the settlement of southern Ohio; Marshall Field, the great merchant of Chicago; the five students of Williams College who laid the foundation of American foreign missions at the memorable haystack prayer-meeting; Peter Parker, who established the first hospital in China: while in another field of pioneering were Garrison, the abolitionist; Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross; Mary Lyon, who led the way at Mount Holyoke to higher education of women; Horace Mann, who was foremost in the training of teachers for the public schools. For more than three hundred years there has gone out an influence from Massachusetts that has touched all shores, influenced all modes of thought, and modified all governments. How broad it has been is disclosed when it is remembered that Garfield and Lincoln came of Massachusetts stock.

From the earliest days the people have exhibited a high capacity both for civil and religious government. In 1630 the first general court ever held on this side of the Atlantic Ocean assembled at Boston. In 1637 the first General Council of Churches was held in Cambridge. In 1641 a code of laws for the colony, known as the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, was adopted, forbidding bond slavery. In 1643 the New England Confederacy was formed. This was a league and not a federacy, but it distinctly shows the national tendency. In 1646 there was convened a church synod which adopted the Cambridge Platform. In accordance with its terms the Congregational churches of New England were governed for a long time. All of these were expressions of the fundamental principles of government, not yet in the form of finished product but sufficiently explicit to rank with the great charters of history.

What an important influence the churches and clergymen were in this early life is apparent wherever we turn. To Robinson, who remained at home, were joined others equally prominent who led their flocks to these shores. As Hooker, the early clergyman of Cambridge who, passing on with his congregation to Hartford, set the inextinguishable mark of freedom and local independence under the representative system upon government, so Shepard, who succeeded to his pulpit and was one of the committee of six magistrates and six clergymen chosen to establish the college, set the same inextinguishable mark upon education. It was in their town that the first book ever printed in America came from the press. Wherever a town meeting is held, wherever a legislature convenes, wherever a schoolhouse is opened, the moral power of these two men is felt. The Puritan was ever intent upon supporting democracy by learning, and the authority of the State by righteousness.

It was on the soil of Massachusetts that there first met in unmistakable armed conflict the forces of King George and the forces of the colonies at the opening of the Revolutionary War. That day marks Concord and Lexington, soon to be followed by Bunker Hill. It was under the elm at Cambridge, a few days following, that General Washington formally took command of the first patriot army. The first company to be enrolled, the first men to shed their blood, and the first to reach Washington in response to the call of Lincoln for an armed force came from Massachusetts. One of her regiments went with the first troops to Cuba. Her military organization went in its entirety with the first National Guard division sent to France, and the first National Guard regiment to be decorated for distinguished service in the field was one of these Massachusetts regiments.

In the works of humanity there has been a like promptness. When flood, fire, earthquake, or other calamity has fallen upon a community, relief and charity have been quick to flow from Massachusetts. When Halifax was shaken by explosion, before any other relief could respond, the Public Safety Committee of Massachusetts was on the spot with medical skill, hospital supplies, and trained business ability which met the emergency.

The contribution which Massachusetts has made has been on the side of practical affairs. It has been a demonstration of the method through which the power of intelligence and wealth is to be dedicated to the public service. Always the end in view has been the welfare of the people. In this there has been no class distinction. Properly and truly her designation has been “The Commonwealth.” This principle has been applied educationally, industrially, and humanely. It has given not only cultural training, but professional, technical, agricultural, and trade schools; it has used the wealth created in industry not merely to heap up treasure for the few but to provide safe and healthful conditions of employment and reasonable wages through a board of conciliation and arbitration for the many. It has set up a public tribunal guaranteeing to the people the uttermost service that public utilities can render under the compensation which they are to receive. It has adopted preventive measures and ministered to those suffering from disease of the body or of the mind, restoring the deficient, reforming the criminal. It has reached out beyond all of these calls at home to minister in the missionary field of all the world. Faith, hope, and charity have been translated into good works.

While there has come to the sons of the Puritans that progress which results from science and great material resources, their supreme choice is still made in favor of a greater power. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which enjoys a reputation for sound opinions and which makes its decisions more often cited than those of any other court, save the Supreme Court of the United States, recently announced the faith that is dominant still. “Mere intellectual power,” the decision runs, “and scientific achievement without uprightness of character may be more harmful than ignorance. Highly trained intelligence, combined with disregard of fundamental virtues, is a menace.” Above all else, the people still put their faith in character.

They do not suppose that all virtue landed at Plymouth Rock, that all patriotism defended Bunker Hill. From every people and from every faith there have come Puritans. Every town and countryside has bred devoted patriots. The word of Massachusetts has never been used to utter a narrow and provincial view. Her ideal was correctly voiced by one of her greatest sons, Benjamin Franklin, when he exclaimed: “Above all, Washington has a sense of the oneness of America. Massachusetts and Georgia are as dear to him as Virginia!” It is because Plymouth Rock, Bunker Hill, John Adams, and Daniel Webster represent the nation that they glorify their State. In that faith Massachusetts still lives.


Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Matthew Denhart who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “Massachusetts and the Nation”

  1. Matthew Denhart

    In this speech Coolidge details the many contributions of Massachusetts and her citizens to the foundations, growth, and success of America and American institutions. Coolidge’s pride in Massachusetts is inspiring, as is his vast knowledge of history. This speech demonstrates to me how an understanding history can give a leader the grounding to know what’s important and the strength to maintain convictions. After all, when Americans devote themselves to service of our republic, they are working to advance an experiment begun centuries ago.

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