In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the celebrated French aristocrat, made his famous trip to America. This is what he penned down in his book, “Democracy in America.” “Almost all the inhabitants of the territory of the Union are the descendants of a common stock….Why (then), in the eastern states of the Union, does the republican government display vigor and regularity, and proceed with mature deliberation? From where does it derive the wisdom and durability which mark its acts, while in the western states, on the contrary, society seems to be ruled by the powers of chance?”

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According to Tocqueville, wise men came from the east. And if wise men came from the east, Boston was the cradle. On this trip, Tocqueville would meet a Bostonian conclave whose conversations were “highly intellectual” and whose manners were “distinguished.” Yet not to be overly glossy, Boston, at this time, was still a cultural backwater compared to European cities like London or Paris. In a few years, however, it would stand shoulder to shoulder with the planet’s best, even at the helm of high culture and intellectualism. How did this happen?

Athens Of America: Origins Of The Phrase

Way before the birth of the republic in 1789, a few men came together in Philadelphia and set up a library. It was the first in the United States. In this group was Benjamin Franklin, then 27. Thomas Penn, the then proprietor of Philadelphia was having some official function to do with the library. In their address, the directors of the subscription-based library, solicited the king for royal countenance and protection, praying that Philadelphia may “be the future Athens of America.”

American founders always looked to ancient Greece and Rome as standard setters in the establishment of the new republic. But all politics is local, and George Bancroft writes in his book History of the United States, how Samuel Adams’s prayer was for Boston to “become a Christian Sparta.” It’s interesting because Sparta’s enduring fame related more to the body than to the mind. But Samuel Adams could have been thinking of loyalty as well, not military discipline. Still, it shows how Greece had significant charm and sway with the founders and early settlers.

Then in 1819, William Tudor, co-founder and first editor of the popular North American Review, the oldest literary magazine in the country, referred to Boston as the ‘Athens of America’—for being “perhaps the most perfect and certainly the best-regulated democracy that ever existed.” During the 1848 revolutions that swept through many countries in Europe, a Hungarian nobleman, Ferenc Pulszky was forced into exile. He went to Britain, and later, the United States. In the US, Boston was one port of call. After looking around, he was impressed. He particularly marveled at Boston’s social institutions like asylums, hospitals, and then thriving intellectualism—through engaging public lectures, almost similar to the ones that used to take place in the Agora in ancient Greece. “Boston is for America what the court of Weimar once was for Germany,” he would later write.

Oliver Wendel Holmes would later write about Boston Brahmins in reference to an exclusive intellectual aristocracy that was blossoming in Beantown. In the first chapter of his book Elsie Venner, Holmes described youth in this intellectual aristocracy as having bright and quick eyes, and lips that play over the thoughts “as a pianist's fingers dance over their music.”

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Influence of Havard On The 19th Century Intellectual Culture of Boston

One time John F. Kennedy organized a lavish dinner for Nobel prize winners in the White House. It was, he would remark, “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Yet at one time the city of Boston boasted a galaxy of distinguished intellectuals in Jefferson’s mold, only a few blocks apart. The effect would be literally explosive. Think of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Emily Dickinson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Robert Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and at one time, David Henry Thoreau. Well, there’s a common thread. Most of these fine minds went through Harvard.

We cannot imagine that many of these Harvard-educated classes would meet, perhaps even regularly, at the Old Corner Bookstore. This is the bookstore that housed Ticknor and Fields publishers where such fine works as Thoreau's Walden, Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Longfellow's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere were produced. Elizabeth Peabody, the celebrated educational thinker, and reformer, also had a bookshop located on West Street that many of these individuals would frequent. And while Harvard may have been the first university in Boston, and in the whole country, the intellectual climate around Boston would eventually draw in many other excellent academic centers including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology— only two kilometers away from Harvard. Today, Boston is an intellectual powerhouse, with over 16 world-class universities and many more colleges.

  • Directions of Old Corner Bookstore: 283 Washington Street Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston is a rare combination of brains and beauty—and ranks among America’s most beautiful. It has stunning architecture that beautifully blends modernity and history. For some absolutely amazing views, the 27-kilometer stretch along the Charles River is a must-see. Here’s the truth. The “Athens of America” still lives up to its moniker.

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