From Boston Brahmin to Boston Common: The Wave of Change in Massachusetts Politics Massachusetts has always been known for its politics. From the days of John Hancock and John Adams to the Kennedy Compound and failed Dukakis presidential campaign, the Bay State is, has been, and always will be a hotbed of political activism. But that does not mean that Massachusetts has a vibrant two party system. If anything can be said about Massachusetts, it is that the state and its voters are certainly lop-sided towards one party. Massachusetts currently has Democrats filling all of their US House and US Senate Seats, as well as a 138 of 160 State House seats, and 33 of 40 State Senate seats. The only state-wide office held not held by the Democrats is the Governor’s seat, which is set to be widely contested next year with 7 candidates lining up to face “incumbent” acting Gov.
Jane Swift. In the old days however, the story wasn’t exactly the same. For practically every year before 1928, Massachusetts overwhelming voted Republican. In fact, the first Republican floor leader in the US Senate was Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. , from Massachusetts. Many of the famous Massachusetts politicians that rose to power before world war two were Republicans, including President Calvin Coolidge, who before moving on to Vice President and President, was the Governor of Massachusetts.
Somewhat like today’s climate in the state, Massachusetts at that time was also dominated by one party. It just happened to be the Republicans rather than the Democrats. Before Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrats were largely the party of the Southern whites farmers who were ideologically different than the Northern white businessmen that dominated politics and voted largely Republican. It is the party switch that is the most interesting and the most available to analyzing. There most certainly was a switch somewhere between the roaring twenties and the great depression, but it not necessarily had everything to do with the money in people’s pockets. The reasons for it are to be further explained.
The Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts In Massachusetts during the 1880’s and 1890’s, as in almost every other part of the country, immigrants were arriving at unprecedented levels. Especially in Boston, but in other communities like Lowell, Brockton, Worcester, and Springfield, the demographic of people was slowly making an abrupt change. While these outsiders continued to poor into the urban centers, they posed no threat to the power that the elite, such as the Boston Brahmins, held over the commoners. The immigrants were forced to work extensive hours, many times could not speak English, had limited experience with voting, and furthermore had little interest in the elite candidates that were running.
Thus, the power of the wealthy continued to reign in the state. Staunch conservatives that held only pro-business ideologies came into office on swells of support. The state representative and senate seats were filled to the brim with Republicans, much in the way they are filled with Democrats today. This is most evident in the rise of Coolidge in the Bay State. Coolidge’s laissez-faire beliefs and elite ideas personified the Massachusetts political scene at the time. Slowly, however, this system began to fade.
As unions grew, working immigrants became acquainted with a new idea: leisure time. As work hours were slashed from 12 to 10 even down to a reasonable 8, the newcomers were slowly becoming allowed to take some time to evaluate what they had been working so hard for. Unions: A rise to power As Unions began to grow amongst the factory workers in the cities, a new sentiment began to grow through the huddled masses. The idea of self-determination began to slowly enter the minds of the workers who were seeing successes on the picket lines.
As the new immigrants (who at this time may even have been second-generation Americans), began to learn more about the freedoms the US offered, political thoughts started to swirl in their heads, albeit minute ones. With a new generation born in America by the nineteen-teen’s, a new sense of participation began to be felt in the urban centers the common people were beginning to dominate. As numbers had risen and risen, new communities of ethnic groups were rising out of neighborhoods in Boston and the other growing cities. Thus, a culmination of a feeling of some type of power from the battles won with the unions, a new sense of home, and the time to figure it all out, these new masses of people began to pay a little more attention. However, life did not become easy, and politics was not inviting.
The wealthy still had a major lock on the power in cities, the groups were not politically organized to create any waves, and most of all, there was no interest to the common man to do any such thing. Al Smith: The Human Wave of Change It may be said that Massachusetts had insider information on the stock market crash, but the truth is that the election of 1928, and the change it caused was because of one man, and the platform he stood on. Although Bay State son had assumed the White House less than 4 years earlier, his state was nothing like he remembered it when he left. Coolidge’s Massachusetts would have never voted for a Catholic Democrat, but instead would have faithfully stood by their former Governor’s handpicked successor, Herbert Hoover. However, that was most certainly not the case. Prior to 1928, Massachusetts had given over 60% to both Harding and Coolidge, and voted Republican against Wilson in 1916.
Furthermore, in 1912, Taft was only 3 points behind Wilson and 3 points above Roosevelt in Massachusetts, when nationally; Taft finished third behind both of them. 1928 was the election that began to slowly inch Massachusetts into the Democratic stronghold it is today. Republicans have only one man to blame for it, although it most likely would have happened anyhow. While it was insignificant to the rest of the country, that election was a major contest in Massachusetts. After decades of dormant immigrant participation in state politics, they arrived awakened and interested to the polls in November of 1928. For the first time in American History, a Roman Catholic candidate got the nomination of a major party.
Al Smith, the Governor of New York, received the Democratic nod on the second ballot, and sparked an insurgence of new voters and new Americans to make their way to the polls to support him. While he won only 8 states, the most important were the two northern states that no one had expected: Rhode Island and Massachusetts, two states that had slowly been growing a silent Catholic majority. Brahmins were stunned. The victory of Smith in Massachusetts made a major mark on state politics that ushered in a 32-year period, and the only period, of two party debate in state history. Between the 1928 election, and the election of Kennedy as President in 1960, there was a constant divide between the wealthy elite strongholds, and the new common muscle. 1928 Aftermath: James Michael Curley and the New Class As with the small union victories years before, the victory of Smith in Massachusetts gave the new voters a new confidence that their previously quiet voices should be, and more importantly, would be heard.
Furthermore, the onset of the Great Depression only helped the new voice resonate through the state. The one Bay State figure that personifies the rise of the new class and generation of Americans is James Michael Curley. Curley was born to immigrants in Boston’s predominantly Irish South End, and slowly rose to power on the gradual wave that became the insurgence that led to Smith’s 1928 Bay State victory. Prior to the Smith victory, Curley organized the force of the masses to elect him Mayor of Boston. After the election of 1928, and the victory of Franklin Roosevelt, Curley was elected Governor in 1935, after which he served in the US House of Representatives.
Curley was largely responsible for the mobilization of the new class into city politics, and later down the road into state politics. His leadership was instrumental in creating the system of leadership that exists in the state today. How the Depression Era and World War 2 Era Politics Determines Today With the creation of a new majority-voting block, Massachusetts remained a hotbed of political activity, but created new players. The most famous, of course, being the Kennedy family.
Long gone are the days of Elite leadership from wealthy Anglo-Saxon heritage. New names grew to power in the state such as Dukakis, Finnegan, Volpe, Menino began to be apparent on ballots as those who held the reigns of power. Moreover, with the election of Roosevelt in 1932, the state went Democrat, and never went back. Since then, the state has voted for only two Republican Presidential Candidates: Eisenhower, a war hero that prior to the election hadn’t declared a party; and Reagan, who won Massachusetts only once in 1984 during a campaign in which he lost only one state.
Especially evident was in 1972, when Massachusetts was the only state in the nation that did not vote for Nixon in his re-election bid. That vote prompted the “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts” bumper sticker that still puts a grin on Bay States faces today. Conclusion: Massachusetts, A need to be unique Since the Great Depression, the entire nation has been much more supportive of Democrats then they previously were. Most of that support can be attributed to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the ineffectiveness of Hoover’s Republican strategies. In Massachusetts, however, there has always been a different reason for doing things. This was no different.
While the economy may have played a major role, Massachusetts’ change was evident before the “true” start of the depression. Similar changes happened in New York, Rhode Island, and other industrial states. However, Massachusetts has always prided themselves on being a leader and an innovator, and as proved by the analysis into the elections of the 20’s and 30’s, it is evident that this major swing in political beliefs was no different.