State and local explorations…

Jack Tager, Martin Kaufman, and Michael Konig, eds. Massachusetts Politics: Selected Historical Essays. Westfield, MA: Westfield State College, 1998.

This broad ranging collection of essays evolved out of a conference on Massachusetts politics organized by the John F. Kennedy Library and the Institute for Massachusetts Studies. At the time, political history had slightly fallen from fashion, so this conference and the ensuing publication was an attempt at reminding people of the importance of politics.

Speakers, and the published papers, reflected a breadth of three centuries in addition to multiple topics within politics. Editor Jack Tager provides some needed context for the collection in his introduction, explaining the changing nature of politics in the colonial period and after statehood. The first section of the book generally collects essays focused on the question of challenging authority and creating new power structures. The second part of the book questions the ways in which politics worked to solve some of the problems for Massachusetts. Each section has an introduction that ties together the essays within which is a great aid to the reader.

As the book covers a long period of time and a variety of issues, I am picking two particular essays from each part to discuss and I will begin with Michael Batinski who wrote a piece on Elisha Cooke, Jr., arguably Boston’s first “political boss.” Like other essays in this section, Batinski’s looks at questions of attaining and then maintaining political power. Cooke, as Batinsky portrays him, uses personality and drama to build popularity and power. Part of what makes Batinski’s essay interesting is that it offers a challenge to both researcher and reader. The sources on Cooke are thin, the political era in which he operated does not reflect our understanding of politics in terms of parties or organization, and Cooke’s power was fleeting.

Cooke’s world, power brokering, and fragility are all effectively addressed in the essay. Batinski points out that important issues were dealt with even if in what became Cooke’s tendency toward the dramatic. The author leaves open the possibility of affirmation or refutation, suggesting that Cooke’s methods would be common in early legislative sessions, but almost asking readers to investigate and compare other colonies Massachusetts and Cooke.

The introduction to the second part on government and power use is a bit abrupt, but its author pulls together a good overview of the essays. I am focusing on Michael Konig’s intriguing study about the closing of the Springfield Armory and the use of government power (local and state) to fight the closure mandated by government power from the federal level. This essay requires multiple layers of unpacking as it deals with a variety of primary sources and oral interviews, a warren of overlapping political entities, and in many ways it presages questions about the military and privatization that we continue to face in the present day. As an aside it is interesting to note that the money the federal government hoped to save at Springfield’s expense was ultimately spent in combined “treasure and talent” as the Vietnam conflict wound its way into the America psyche and living rooms.

While focused on a particular state, this collection of essays does, as I suggested earlier, give readers much to consider and food for thought in terms of potential comparative work in their own localities.


1 Comment

Filed under Teaching and Learning History

One response to “State and local explorations…

  1. I would just bet you would choose more books as a reward for your work, but shouldn’t you have used the word bookshelves rather than bookshelf ?
    Now more historical thoughts will be shared with us as you delve into your plethera of texts recently acquired. Something to look forward to.

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