This legend, displayed on the Walls of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, is not strictly true. Fenway is indeed the oldest sports ground in continuous use in the United States, but its construction in 1912 came some eleven years after the founding of the Boston Americans, later to become known after the colour of their stockings.
The myth of Fenway is analogous in some respects to the regard in which Boston holds itself. It was not the site of the first landing in the New World, and the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, so that neither Boston nor New England can claim to be at the epicentre of the sprawling American empire-to-be.
What New England can lay claim to, however, is the first shot of the War of Independence, the shot heard ’round the world’ being fired at Concord as the British sought to pre-empt a fully fledged insurrection by seizing weapons stores. Boston’s freedom trail (a red-painted line on the pavement that is liable to disappear) takes in many of the churches and meeting halls where the taxes on imports were discussed, not to mention the harbour where the infamous Tea Party took place (a monstrous act which to this day renders a good cup of tea in Boston rare if not impossible).
The French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville considered an even more important place for New England in American history. For Tocqueville, the origin of the Anglo-American people was key to understanding their future political state, and it was on the people of New England that he heaped the most fulsome praise, despite noting many of the religious excesses of its people. In Salem, fifteen miles from Boston, nineteen women were hung and one man tortured to death on 1692 on charges of witchcraft. The rather gaudy tourist attractions do not open until April, but Salem seeks to improve its reputation by a yearly award to those who contribute towards overturning human rights abuses.
The Puritans, who endured the harsh winter when they arrived on the Mayflower, are an indelible part of the American consciousness to this day – the metaphorical ‘City on a Hill’ that John Winthrop alluded to. They came seeking religious liberty for themselves, and if not prepared to offer it to others willingly, were obliged to cooperate across denominations on account of their inability to acquire more than subsistence from the land, combined with the poverty from which they were coming – in great contrast to the slave-holding estates of the South.
A mixture of compulsion and an enthusiasm for organisation led to the creation of the Township government that formed Tocqueville’s ideal democracy. The British Crown, glad not to have to shoulder an extra burden and pleased to be free of dissenters at home, accorded the settlers the right of self-government, in contrast to the colonies of the South.
A mercantile town, the revolution should have presented a moment of great danger to Boston, and it is for this reason that the most significant moments tend to relate to British mis-deeds; the duties, the killing of five subjects during a protest and so on. It also explains much of the idolisation of some of the key characters; Samuel Adams, merchant, brewer, patriot; Benjamin Franklin, polymath, patriot; Paul Revere, bellfounder, patriot, subject of Henry Longfellow’s poem about his midnight ride to warn the Lexington armoury of the approach of the British.
Most of Boston’s red-brick neighbourhoods are more than intact, though the composition is somewhat different. While the the city is still eighty pee cent white, it is now significantly more Catholic than Puritan as a result of waves of immigration, first from Ireland, then Italy. Ten per cent of the population is now Hispanic, less than in much of America but significant nonetheless. A string of Irish pubs and oyster houses melts into as the solidly Italian North End as the freedom trail progresses. The affluent area around Beacon Hill, behind the gold-domed State House, retains much of its character from the black iron lampposts and copper window bays. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, grew up in a house here, a point of reference for New England’s many literary types. A little further down Beacon Street is the Bull and Finch pub, now forever known as Cheers (despite the bar being far from square).
Inhabitants of Boston are proud of perhaps two things in excess of their passions for their revolutionary history. Sport is one of those. While the baseball does not start for another week or so, the TD Garden in North Boston has been packed for the past three nights with the Bruins (NHL) and the Celtics (NBA) in action. The Bruins, coming off an unrewarding road trip, have given their push for the play-offs new impetus with a nervy victory over New Jersey Devils (4-1), and a resounding (7-0) victory over Montreal Canadiens last night.
The second unique feature of Boston is its preponderance of educational institutions. Founded in 1636, the College, now known as Harvard after its first benefactor, is the oldest institution in the country. It is also one of the wealthiest, boasting an alumni network that ‘gives back’ and was once reported to be practically Masonic in its handing down of places. It is also rather brilliantly sent up in The Social Network, but the brilliance of its results is hardly in doubt.