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Prof. Breen finds humanity in history

By Blake Linzer

Section: Features, Top Stories

January 27, 2017

Professor Daniel Breen of the Legal Studies and American Studies departments is well known for his interesting and relevant courses in which he combines his undoubted excitement about the law with an impressive ability to convey the personal and societal significance of legal issues.

Breen’s success in teaching is in part the result of his unique capacity to expose the human experience of those involved in the legal and historical settings discussed. This ability to convey clearly and elegantly the human experience of the past transfers well to his writing, as exemplified in his article “A Day of Hilarity on Copp’s Hill.” The article tells of the lively, somewhat relatable and, above all, human political environment of Boston in the early 19th century, culminating in the Democratic-Republican Fourth of July Festival of 1806 on the revolutionary Copp’s Hill.

After the Revolutionary War ended and the Constitutional system of government was established, two major political parties took control of American government: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans (hereafter Republicans).

The Federalists were the party of Hamilton, Adams, law and custom, as Breen notes in his essay. The Republicans were the party of Jefferson, a party more comfortable with populism and the party Breen characterizes as the party of good and honest labor. Whereas a stuffy professional or a merchant business owner might have been a Federalist, an artisan or any hardworking common man may have been a Republican.

Breen paints a vibrant picture of the Boston political environment of the time in “A Day of Hilarity on Copp’s Hill.” He explains it was far from immune from the Republican-Federalist political battle. Benjamin Austin, a Republican political strategist and journalist, published politically motivated essays under many pseudonyms, most famously “Honestus.” Among Austin’s criticisms of Federalism was that it was in fact a contemporary version of the old British Toryism that the Revolution had painstakingly defeated.

Federalist response to Austin was fierce, with one instance of a Federalist journalist and political strategist publicly spitting on Austin. Not only did the political contention exist between Republicans and Federalists, but also within the Republican party itself.

Breen’s story continues through the state elections of 1806, having already outlined the Boston political scene. By 1806, the Federalist Party nationally had begun to falter and the Republicans began to start winning local electoral battles across the country.

In explaining the political battles in Massachusetts, Breen describes how this national trend permeated Massachusetts as Republicans finally won control of the state legislature, despite Republican candidate James Sullivan losing the gubernatorial race.

The party, just defeated for the governor’s seat, Breen argues, needed rejuvenation, which came on July 4, 1806 on Copp’s Hill.

He describes the historical significance of Copp’s Hill and emphasizes the importance of that for the July 4 festivities. Copp’s Hill was at Boston’s North End and was increasingly populated by working class residents, keen to support radical Republican ideology.

The Hill still held the remnants of the Revolutionary British fortifications, and the Republicans, on July 4, would gather there to celebrate national independence and in doing so would celebrate the liberty and equality that independence furnished. The Republicans, associating these ideals with the ideology of their own party, sought to politically defeat the Federalists who they thought were the contemporary manifestation of the British repression the revolution had recently defeated.

On the literal ground of British defeat, Breen argues, Republican liberals devoted to the true ideals of the revolution were gathering in a political festival with a purpose to rally against the modern British political power base—the Federalists.

The July 4 festivities consisted of good food, supplied by the local Jefferson Tavern, but its real purpose, according to Breen, was politics. A gathering of about 600 accumulated on the Hill. Foreign diplomats were in attendance. The Declaration of Independence, the document most lauded by the Republicans as the true expression of America’s promise, would be read. Seventeen toasts, one for each state of the union at the time, would be delivered—all of which in some way illuminated the sacred message of the Republican party to protect America’s revolutionary promise in face of Federalist British resistance.

The desired effect, Breen argues, was to illuminate the spirit of a party that just suffered a major political defeat, losing the governorship, reinstating in its masses the message that despite the defeat, Republicanism, representing the true ideals of America, was not through with. The British Tories could, after all, be defeated.

Breen’s article is a work in history, illuminating the past for its own value. But in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, he mentioned that he wondered whether a similar type of party gathering couldn’t work in today’s political environment. Could a modern party gather up an effective number of its citizens (not in the context of a formal campaign) to reorganize and excite its followers?

Of course the difference in times could contribute significantly to the difference in feasibility of such a program. Breen is not sure that people would buy tickets, similar to Copp’s Hill, to an event when they can hear equivalently motivating speeches from the comfort of their home on television or online.

He deliberates on questions about whether there is still a fundamental ideological basis to the American party system today like there was for the revolutionary-minded Republicans or if voters are motivated today more by technical issues that affect their everyday lives and finding fundamental solutions to those problems.

Along these lines, could national party agenda be promoted with events like this? How big could such an event be that it would permit a sort of intimacy and companionship like the one at Copp’s Hill? How would parties be persuaded to hold such events when they are seemingly quite fond of fundraising activities for the specific candidates?

The answers to all of these questions, among others, could help shed light on the question of whether a similar type of event could be considered today to help revive and rejuvenate the agenda of struggling political parties. But regardless of whether such a type of meeting could exist today, Daniel Breen’s “A Day of Hilarity on Copp’s Hill” shares an interesting and relevant human history of the political culture of Boston in the 19th century.

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