Granite Cities, Yankee Heroes, American Dreams

A National History of Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument

Some three million tourists each year tackle Boston’s 2.5-mile Freedom Trail, which starts from a visitors’ center on Boston Common, follows a red line on the sidewalk from one historic site to the next, and finishes at the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, a 220-foot granite obelisk that commemorates the first pitched battle between rebels and redcoats, on 17 June 1775, at the outset of the American War of Independence.  Those with the stamina to climb 294 steps to the Monument’s pinnacle catch their breath by marveling at the panoramic outgrowth of what began—a dozen generations ago—as a tiny colony of English Puritans.  While crossing the Atlantic in 1630 prior to founding this colony, John Winthrop impressed upon his fellow “professors for God’s sake” that because “The eies of all people are uppon us” they must “be as a citty upon a hill.”  Their survival and prosperity in New England, he cautioned them, depended solely on “obeyeing His voice and cleaveing to Him.”  Vivid imagery was as vital for colonists then, as it was for the Monument’s nineteenth-century founders and chroniclers.  In his seminal 1877 history, George Washington Warren concluded that the Monument symbolized “a fit type of the national unity.”  By its “use of many separate blocks” of granite, through “the beautiful adaptation and harmony of its several parts,” and in its “grandeur as a single object,” the Monument aptly illustrated the “national motto, ‘E pluribus unum.’”  For Warren, a state legislator, first mayor of Charlestown, and relative of a famous rebel killed in the battle, the Monument signified that “out of many States there has sprung up, by a sort of natural growth, our glorious Union.”  There was a strange yet compelling synergy here, between an obdurate volcanic extrusion, the mystery of a dead language, the encouraging benevolence of a supreme being, and the empowering social identity of republicanism.

 

Orators like Edward Everett and Daniel Webster, who similarly extolled the Monument’s republican spirit, believed that the Monument had special powers.  When they planted their feet on the battleground, the moral character of their Puritan ancestors flowed into them.  When they delivered addresses on the spot where their heroes fell, it was as if the Monument spoke through them.  Visitors still marvel at this cold, silent granite obelisk, always recognizing its shape but often passing over its most singular characteristic.  Unlike the Pharaonic obelisk of Paris’s Place de la Concorde or Trajan’s Column in Rome, it is not a billboard for hieroglyphic inscriptions or bas-reliefs extolling a conqueror’s rule.  Unlike Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, it is not a plinth for an eighteen-foot statue of an imperial hero.  Other than four small viewing windows set nine courses down from its conical capstone, it is utterly plain.  It is natural to look at the Bunker Hill Monument, as well as its later twin, the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital, and presume that American monuments commemorating the Revolutionary War are supposed to be plain obelisks, yet nothing could be further from the case.  When a group of elite Bostonians formed the Monument Association in 1823 and began raising funds, they planned to erect a triumphal column, just like Trajan’s.  Why did they change their minds?  What was it about a plain obelisk that the descendants of Puritan colonists could find so inspirational?  Might there be a link between the physical form of the Monument and American exceptionalism, the notion that a Providential hand has always guided Yankee prosperity, progress, and territorial expansion?

Successive chapters that present a revision of the battle, a history of the Monument, and a discussion of Boston’s granite building boom inspired by construction manager Solomon Willard suggest that the Monument’s unblemished surfaces and its frugal, minimalist lines stood as an uplifting testament to Puritan virtue, as well as an unpretentious yet virile statement of Yankee power and mercantile profit.  Willard’s Monument came to symbolize the granite-like moral qualities of the shining city upon a hill, and the hopes as well as fears of immigrants who search for—and may fail to find—the American Dream.  Some of those failed dreams, along with a vibrant youth counterculture centered on Quincy’s abandoned granite quarries during the last decades of the twentieth century, produced a range of stories that have challenged and attempted to modify the dominant national narrative.  In seeking to establish relationships between founding myths, national values, and a nineteenth-century granite obelisk, this book ponders the extent to which a single pillar of republicanism still defines American society.

Granite Cities’ overarching premise is that historicized myths, the monuments celebrating them, and the official discourse they engender play a crucial role in the construction, affirmation, and subsequent modification of national identity, a process that is no less important for Americans today than it was for the Warrens, Websters, and Everetts of the Early Republic.  Despite historians’ best efforts to study global phenomena, or ethnic groups, or non-state actors, citizens’ understanding of their history is ultimately national.  Given the seductive power and fixedness of the prevailing nation­-state system, this is inevitable, even necessary, because it is only through history that we know who we are and, hence, can feel comfortable within ourselves and play a productive role in society.  We like to feel good about our country and take pride in its accomplishments.  And yet, if our history is not so much fact as fancy, an interleaved web of exaggerations, half-truths, and omissions, then we are in danger of making flawed judgments with negative consequences.  Were Americans’ actions to belie their national ideology, particularly when that ideology is so moralistic, then, not being true to themselves, others would judge them as hypocrites.  Each chapter of Granite Cities challenges a central premise of Americans’ received wisdom, not from any unpatriotic intent but rather in the belief that introspection is the bedrock of civil society, and in the hope that from civil society a more compassionate, enriching, and sincere global village will grow.

© Michael E. Chapman, 2012