My great-great grandfather, John Thomas Earp, sold hand-rolled cigars from a shop at 81 Maverick St., East Boston, in 1880. My thoughts turned to him recently as I sat at a high-top table on the Hyatt Regency’s patio, overlooking Boston Harbor and the financial district’s skyline.
The Harbor could not have been a more picture-perfect scene. There was very little boat traffic, only a few scattered sailboats—larger than the usually ubiquitous sail-school Sonar keelboats, no where to be seen—sparkling in the far distance, and no passersby to obstruct the view. It was, I thought, quite the opposite of what John Earp would have seen nearly 130 years ago if he’d walked the 200 yards to what then would have been a very busy Carlton Wharf. The harbor would have been teeming with sail, barge, and steamboat traffic. From the wharf, it would have been a short walk to the disembarkation point for the thousands of European immigrants then first setting foot on American docks. Forty years later, Boston would build an official “immigration station” near the wharf to handle the immense human traffic.
John’s distant cousin Wyatt wouldn’t make his name as a Wild West lawman until the following year, and the frontier still held mystique for many Americans tired of crowding along the East Coast. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, was just barely a teenager in South Dakota, and for many of us today, the images her written words would paint are the closest we’ll ever get of the immensely lonely existence of an American Mid-West pioneer. By contrast, newspaper headlines in 1880 would have trumpeted the incredible economic development transforming the American industrial landscape. It was the middle of the Gilded Age, the age of robber barons and the first skyscrapers, and the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution.
John Thomas might have voted for Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19thPresident, a Republican from Ohio, and a prominent abolitionist lawyer who had defended refugee slaves in court proceedings during the antebellum years. Or he might have voted for Samuel J. Tilden, the Democrat’s candidate in 1876, who promised a return to the gold standard, lower taxes, and the end of civil service corruption rife in cities like New York and Boston. In the end, it didn’t much matter, since the most important issue the election decided was the end of Northern Reconstruction of the South; Hayes lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, and agreed to withdraw Federal troops from Southern States in order to win the Presidency.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I thought looking at the harbor. A hotly contested election going to the winner of the Electoral but not the Popular Vote, robber barons buying politicians, state and local governments’ agents fomenting racial strife and an inflammatory Federal response—these are daily happenings familiar to every American in 2020. But then, I thought, that’s not an honest comparison.
Despite the Gilded Age’s excesses and corruption, John owned his own small business and made a comfortable living. Today, small businesses are an endangered species; corporate behemoths on life support dominate the business landscape. In 1880, despite profound and deep-seated racial injustice all around them, Americans could feel they’d done their part to bend the arc of history toward justice, having so recently fought a war to end slavery. Today, Americans are told they’re hopeless racists whose redemption depends upon their acceptance of that “fact.” Then, opportunity beckoned to every American—and millions of immigrants who would be drawn to it in record numbers at the turn of the century. The outward signs of economic success were everywhere, not seen only in the construction of luxury housing for the few. Significantly and not coincidentally, I thought, Boston Harbor in 1880 did not resemble a Truman show set-piece, sparsely populated by pleasure boaters.
John Thomas Earp wouldn’t recognize the outward manifestations of the wealth built in Boston since he last walked her streets, but he would have known the rhythmic beat of rising prosperity by heart. I sat there contemplating his faded world and the sparkling emptiness before me, and I cannot shake the dreadful feeling that John Thomas Earp had the better view.
John Maden has been opining on regional and national politics since before the Big Dig. John developed an allergy to red tape after returning from the Peace Corps and completing a Masters in Public Policy, and he’s spent the last decade in operations management for Boston start-ups.