The most civilized city: Boston as the Athens of America

Today’s blog is an excerpt from PlayNotes, our educational resource guide. The following was written by Julia Fitzgerald, one of our Education interns. Stay tuned for our 43rd season’s 1st issue releasing Friday, September 23rd.


 “We choose to celebrate a Greek marathon because we are the Athens of America.”
– Austin, Later Life

Longfellow, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson . . . these are just a few of the illustrious names associated with the intellectual life of Boston in the 19th century. The same period also saw the founding of universities, hospitals, and other institutions, as well as programs for urban renewal. The combination of cultural and intellectual prominence and social reform movements led to Boston’s becoming known as the “Athens of America,” a New World city that would carry on the legacy of the ancient Greek democracy.

William Tudor is credited with coining the phrase “Athens of America” in 1803, but the term evokes the sense of purpose or destiny that can be traced back to Boston’s founding. John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously wrote, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” urging his followers to create a model community based on Puritan values. This 1630 sermon established the lofty mission and sense of moral responsibility that would continue to guide the city’s leaders down the centuries.

Historian Thomas O’Connor, in his book The Athens of America: Boston 1825-1845, argues that the flowering of literature, enterprise, and reform movements in the 19th century was due to the efforts of a close-knit group of elite families. These were the leaders in business and local politics and the patrons of the city’s artists and intellectuals. The members of this elite married each other, attended the same schools, and lived in the same neighborhoods. They shared a sense of civic pride and social responsibility that they channeled into programs to improve urban life — such as sanitation and prison reform — which benefitted the lower classes while also helping the wealthy maintain their grasp on political power. They also organized lectures by the intellectual luminaries of the day, which were often free and open to the public.

While the phrase, “Athens of America,” is most often associated with 19th century Boston, the city’s history includes other periods of similar cooperation between business, politics, and the academy. John Hynes, the 1950s mayor who is credited with ushering in the “New Boston” era, followed the 19th century example by collaborating with businesspeople and with the city’s universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Boston College.

The Boston of today is a culturally and intellectually vibrant city, home to a wealth of universities, museums, historical sites, and, of course, the Boston Marathon. This race takes place each year on Patriot’s day, a holiday that commemorates the first battles of the American Revolution and celebrates Boston’s role in the fight for American independence. Therefore, the marathon symbolizes the connection between Boston and ancient Athens as two cradles of democracy. Boston also boasts numerous cultural institutions, such as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In this way, Boston upholds the legacy of the leaders and thinkers that made it the “Athens of America.”

In other ways, however, Boston has changed dramatically since the days when a few wealthy families wielded their influence over the city’s political, commercial, and cultural life. Boston’s traditional elite was composed of people like Austin in Later Life, whom O’Connor describes as “men of family background, liberal education, and managerial experience in a variety of enterprises.” Today, however, the city’s “leadership elite” may be harder to identify, and the world to which men like Austin belonged no longer seems permanent. By the early 1990s, in which Later Life is set, there was already a sense among Bostonians that change was underway, that the social hierarchy was no longer as fixed as it once seemed: “I’ve been brought up all my life to think of myself as one of the elect,” Austin says, paraphrasing his psychiatrist. “But it’s hard to feel elect in a diverse and open-ended democracy.” This statement reflects an awareness of Boston’s shifting demographics: the city’s racial and ethnic diversity has increased significantly over the past four decades, with the population of people of color growing from around 30% in 1970 to over 50% in the 2010 census. O’Connor argues for the importance of welcoming newcomers to the city and valuing their contributions. If Boston is to remain the “Athens of America,” it must embrace a changing society and draw on the talents of its people to meet challenges in areas such as housing, schools, and cost of living.

Today, the “Athens of America” is a different city than its founders could have imagined. Like the ancient Greek city, it is a center of learning and culture, and it retains a symbolic link with Athens through traditions like the Boston Marathon. However, the engine of Boston’s cultural vibrancy is no longer a small and wealthy elite with a common vision. 21st century Boston is a dynamic and diverse society, which faces different challenges than in the past. Like the characters in Gurney’s play, the city itself is undergoing a change in its later life, and transforming in new and exciting ways.

-By Julia Fitzgerald, Education Intern

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