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Friday, September 16, 2011

Claiming the Centennial: Descent and Dissent in Boston, 1870-1876

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1874, at Boston’s Parker House, Thomas J. Gargan, the President of the Charitable Irish Society, created a storm of controversy as he boldly declared, “the scepter is to fall from the descendants of the May Flower to unlineal hands, and the Celtic supersede the Saxon elements even on the Rock of Plymouth.” The battle for the memory of American history was well underway—and every historical symbol, analogy, and mythology would be called to the front lines. My paper, entitled “Claiming the Centennial: Descent and Dissent in Boston, 1870-1876,” discusses how both the descendants of the American colonists and numerous immigrant, minority, and feminist groups worked to create inalienable memories about the events of the American Revolution and why this mythology was so important. It analyzes how this memory of the American Revolution influenced socio-cultural and political life in Boston during the late nineteenth century.

During the 1870s Boston is a city on the decline, but one that is still grappling to retain its importance amidst a rapidly expanding nation. This paper uses the Boston commemorations of the centennials of the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Evacuation Day, and Independence Day as a lens through which to view and understand the mentalities of the day. These centennials became a battleground between native Yankee citizens and immigrants over what it means to be “American” and who is “American.” Yankee citizens of direct lineal descent from the Revolutionary generation attempted to claim supremacy over the celebrations, the American Revolution, and the country itself though their blood ties; at the same time, they also tried to exclude immigrants not only from the celebrations themselves, but also from being part of the national collective identity. Immigrants, minorities, and female suffragists all fought against this exclusive mentality, while advancing their own claims to the Revolution based on ideological, spiritual, and ethnic/racial connections to the revolutionaries.

By trying to retain control over the centennial events, while resisting other mindsets, each group attempted to create an established and undeniable narrative about its role in the founding of America and its place in the national doctrine. This paper will show how this perpetration of a mythological identity came to dominate Bostonian political and social life, portending the clear economic and ethnic divides that would continue to plague the city and the country into the next century.

Craig Smith, Brandeis University

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