This blogger is a champion of John Adams, our second president. When I came upon a new title referencing his great grandson, Henry Adams, it piqued my interest. The book is THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT, The BRILLIANT LIFE and IMPROBABLE EDUCATION of
Henry Adams by historian Davis S. Brown. As it turns out, Henry Adams is a “famous” Adams in his own right, in addition to being the grandson of President John Quincy Adams.
Raised in the elite environment of Boston’s Gilded age, the late 19th century, ADAMS was of course thought of as a third Adams in the White House. That was not to be but the book is a wonderful study of the transition of Boston’s political power and national influence from Beacon Hill to Washington D.C.
Henry Adams, ordained not to be among the politically chosen becomes the observer, even the muckraker and attains worldwide recognition as an author and columnist. His memoir TheEducation of Henry ADAMS becomes and remains a literary classic. Henry Adams in his life and writings, “Became a transitional figure, one bridging the chasm between ‘colonial’ and ‘modern’” America. Brown’s book is also a deep dive into Adam’s personal life, the highs and lows and how it was to be the Adams who had to be satisfied by building a home on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, which was as close as this Adams would come to the White House.
A fascinating figure in American history, Henry Adams influenced the dialogue during the country’s transition through industrialization, becoming a world power and witnessing the explosion of scientific invention. Without political portfolio with the exception of the Adams name he socialized with and influenced such legendary figures as Secretary of State John Hay, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt. He was the “outsider” very much on the inside.
The contemporary reference to City Upon A Hill is Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, Shining City Upon A Hill. His comment was sourced all the way back to Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan founder John Winthrop. When Winthrop spoke these memorable words ( minus the word shining) , he was poised to disembark on the American shore on land that is now Boston. The man who eventually became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accurately predicted that the new community would be a City Upon a Hillto be watched by the world. I think Winthrop would have liked Reagan’s addition of shining!
Winthrop’s inspiration came from Matthew 5:14. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners: You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. From this scripture comes the ethos of Michael Rawson’s Eden On The Charles THE MAKING OF BOSTON, a work of non-fiction that was a finalist in the 2010 Pulitzer competition.
Eden on The Charles is very different from a typical historical perspective of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is the story of how over two and one half centuries a community with an enormously varied socio-economic strata came together to build America’s first great city in harmony with the natural environment. It is a study of how within a political structure of fierce independence and private enterprise a community used the forces of government to act in behalf of the well-being of the citizenry and the natural environment. Boston was indeed the very first American city to recognize that the new world’s resources were not unlimited. From the mid-seventeenth century establishment of Boston Common as public land for everyone’s benefit there came a cascade of new ideas and concepts that established development patterns for cities throughout America. These far-sighted yet fiercely independent citizens of varied rank established a pattern over two centuries wherby Boston Common went from cow pasture to the nation’s first public park, Boston Harbor was saved from encroachment and destruction, greenways were established to prevent urban sprawl, huge public parks were created on the outskirts of the city, and perhaps most important of all as early as the 19th century Boston built a public water supply providing free water for the city’s burgeoning population. It also built a public sewer system. There is some irony in the fact that the wealthy industrialists who became the Boston Brahmins were many of the most ardent environmentalists of the time. One of Boston’s early reformers and leaders of the public water supply movement, Walter Channing said, Whatever a society judged to be essential to the health and happiness of its people must never be the responsibility of a profit-driven entity. It must ,instead, be made the responsibility of government. Channing’s 175 year-old concept still rings loudly in contemporary political discourse.
Eden On The Charles falls within a text-book reference and yet it reads so easily that concepts which are now fundamental to the nation’s conversation regarding the preservation of the natural environment are easily understood and eye-opening. My being a New Englander and having spent a considerable amount of time in Boston made the book even more vivid.
In the closing paragraph of Eden On The Charles Rawson issues a wonderful challenge. We should aim our sights high, as nineteenth century Bostonians did, and work to new environmental relationships that are worthy of a City Upon A Hill.