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‘The Cambridge idea.’

Rev. David Nelson Beach.
Some four or five years ago, a phrase broke in upon our Cambridge speech with such suddenness, energy, and large significance as are hard even yet to realize. Who first used it I do not know. My impression is that our present Superintendent of Parks, then a leading writer on our Cambridge newspapers, was one of the earliest to apprehend its potency, and that he with his skillful pen somewhat furthered its becoming widely used. But whoever it may have been that first uttered it, and however serviceable the writer alluded to, or any other persons, may have been in bringing it into current use, certain it is that it survived and became a power of its own accord, and in a way that no single individual or group of individuals could either have initiated or prevented. It was like a new star coming into the heavens. It was like a newly discovered force offering itself to the uses of man.

That phrase stands at the head of this article; and the privilege has been accorded me of giving some account of the circumstances which rendered possible this phenomenon of human speech, and which led up to its making itself a felt power among us. I am desired, also, if I shall be able, to suggest its sweep, its puissance, and its vast promise among us for the time to come.

First, however, a word more about the phrase itself. Everybody began using it. It expressed something to their minds which had before been inexpressible. This was the secret of its popularity and of its ever-growing force. Moreover, its use was not confined to any single class or type of persons. The most cultivated men and women in our city, plain daylabor-ers, individuals of very large insight and vision, persons of the most circumscribed intellectual endowment, children, old people, those of all varieties of opinion and shades of ideas,— [88] alike introduced this phrase into their vocabulary. It struck a universal chord in the minds and hearts of men.

Another peculiarity of the phrase was its indefinableness. After it had come into use, and had been conjured by for several years, there appeared not long ago in one of our newspapers a ‘symposium,’ contributed to by many of our foremost citizens. The purpose of this broadside was, if possible, to define ‘The Cambridge Idea.’ I do not know where, in so small space, so much good civics can be found as in that broadside, which ought to be printed and spread widely over the country. The curious thing about the many articles contributed was that they greatly differed. They embraced the largest variety of sentiments. Each writer was sure that what he mentioned was precisely what the phrase meant. The chairman of the Harvard Board of Preachers, in addressing a large audience in a campaign of ours two or three years ago, essayed to define it as ‘The Christian Idea.’ Another speaker, also before a large audience in a later campaign, made bold to affirm that ‘The Cambridge Idea’ was not an idea at all, but an ideal, Cambridge's ideality. It is not improbable that this speaker, like the preceding, was right; but it is beyond question that, had the phrase started under the name of ‘Ideal’ or ‘Ideality,’ it would not have survived a day.

That must be a very large symbol of thought which could become, so soon, so abidingly, amongst such diverse persons, within such a large population, and with such spontaneity, such a standard or measure of civic and ethical values, as this phenomenal state of things indicates. Furthermore, there is something nobly inspiring about it, and that quite independently of neighborhood. I have seen, for example, many audiences beyond Cambridge, and even beyond Massachusetts, gathered to listen to some account of what has been happening among us, who—when this point of the description was reached, and the striking circumstance was held forth of a great and heterogeneous city bowing to the sway of such a phrase as this, and of its profound and transcendental meaning—would give way to the most enthusiastic applause, so that they needed, in some instances, to be restrained, if the speech were to go on; and I have known them to express the heartfelt desire that such a phrase might break forth likewise amongst them, and become equally regnant. [89]

The task assigned me is exceedingly difficult. It would be easier to write a book on the subject than a brief article. I greatly fear, moreover, that I shall be unable to do the subject any justice. For I am to write of a subtle and spirit-like thing, having to do with that place where thoughts are born, and where aspirations acquire for themselves wings. The reader will readily see that nothing could be easier than almost or altogether to miss the point. However, I must try; and, as condensedly and suggestively as I may be able, I shall throw out some imperfect sketch of that which almost defies delineation or explication.

1. It must not be forgotten, then, what a heritage Cambridge has. One of the first places to be founded in our New England; the abode for a time of the Hartford Colony; the home of that unique group of men of whom Thomas Shepard was the leader and inspirer; by reason of the qualities in him, and in them, selected to be the site of the infant college; the gathering-place of the first ecclesiastical synod on the North Amercan continent; the place where the first book in America was printed; the scene of many of the noblest passages in the colonial history of New England; the point where the prows of British boats touched the sand as the march on Lexington was begun; the soil on which occurred some of the hardest fighting of that eventful day; the gathering-place of the colonists; the point of departure for the epoch-marking battle of Bunker Hill; that tree still standing on the Common under which Washington took command of the American army; the centre of the army in the fateful siege of Boston; one of its extant mansions the prison of Burgoyne after the fatal blow, at Saratoga, to British supremacy on this continent; notable, from the days of the Revolution to this hour, for many great events; the sender-forth of the first company to be received into the service of the nation in its struggle for the suppression of the Rebellion; an intellectual centre unequaled, on the whole, by anything on the hither side of the Atlantic; the home especially of three great poets, two of them among the greatest in the annals of literature, one of them endowed in so unique a manner as to be verily amongst the immortals: always plain, simple, democratic, with respect for the poor man as well as for the rich, and for intelligence and manliness above all other things,—it is obvious that our Cambridge, so favored of God [90] beyond any community in this hemisphere, ought to have been expected to be the place where something unique and germinal in its relation to the civic and ethical well-being of this land should break forth.

2. But, passing beyond the historical significance of the city, its large intellectual meaning, and its being favored of God in the bestowal upon it of genius and of poetry, we need to come to the nearer years. I think it would be impossible for those streets which Lowell had trod, and for the slopes where he had chanted to himself the ‘Biglow Papers’ and the deathless ‘Commemoration Ode,’ to be other than almost trembling with passionate desire for fair play, for good government, for the realization of the rights of man, and for the fulfillment of the civic and moral possibilities of all dwelling within its borders. Lowell was a better singer of good politics than a practical worker in its details, though his practical services in several particulars rank high in the annals of such endeavor; but the spirit of Lowell, and of his friends, in this regard, has for now not a few decades been haunting our streets and lanes, entering our homes, and dominating our council-boards. It is now a quarter of a century or more, therefore, since we have tolerated partisanship in our municipal affairs. Other fine traits and realizations of a civic nature have been long among us: the idea, for example, of municipal office as a municipal trust, the notion that the city must be administered as faithfully and sagaciously as any business concern of highest standing; various memorable battles as between the sons of Belial and the children of light in civic directions, which had stirred our city profoundly prior to the last decade; the wonderfully tonic prestige of large victories in these directions, and much more to the same purport. All this constituted our more immediate political heritage down to ten years ago.

3. It was in this condition that the city was, as it turned the milestone of 1885, and faced toward 1886. It had had a glorious past. That past was such as to make it all alive with noblest civic and ethical impulses. That past, for now a good number of years, had been rendering possible the abolition of partisanship in municipal affairs, and certain great and victorious struggles betwixt the baser and the nobler elements in the city's life.

But now there was creeping like a paralysis over the city that [91] chief modern foe to good civics, the power of the rum traffic. A sharp distinction is to be drawn between drink itself, and the questions having to do with it, and that greater abomination, the organized, covetous, unscrupulous traffic, which, making merchandise of human souls for its own aggrandizement, works the most fearful evils in almost all dense populations.

Massachusetts, by her local-option law of 1881, had been giving her cities and towns the opportunity to throw off this paralysis, and many of them had taken advantage of it, including our border city of Somerville, which, for some years, had excluded the saloon. The result was that Cambridge had to do a large part of Somerville's liquor business as well as her own. There being as yet no population limit for the granting of licenses, one hundred and twenty-two of these nefarious places existed within the city; disorder was on the increase in our streets; those elements which always attend the saloon were becoming dominant at the city hall; and our city fathers were so persuaded of the invulnerable position of the rum power, that they considered the city's vote of license as liberty to do the most absurd things at its behest. One of these transactions, the notorious DeWire case near Shady Hill, produced tremendous indignation in the university, in addition to the discontent which was widely diffused throughout the city.

What would most cities have done under such circumstances? They would have had a wild, not to say fanatic, outburst of indignation, hot speeches, a no-license vote for one year, an ill enforcement of the vote, and after twelve months rum back again worse than ever.

Not so did our city. Being deeply religious as it is, the churches joined together, and there was a tremendous religious campaign. But being also intensely practical as the city is, a large, representative, and non-partisan committee was organized, which canvassed our entire voting-lists in the interest of no-license, and printed a paper called ‘Frozen Truth,’ which was distributed to all voters, and in which the cold facts about the saloon, the ‘congealed veracity’ as somebody called it, were laid before our people. Moreover this committee organized a most efficient campaign, personally, at the polling-places by the use of check lists, and so forth.

The result was, in December, 1886, the overthrow of the saloon by a majority of 566. This vote did not take effect [92] under our statutes until the first of the following May. In the mean time a Law Enforcement Association was organized, with the paradoxical purpose of never enforcing the law; but, the rather, of fixing the responsibility upon the proper officers, of supplying them with information, of holding up their hands, of seeing that large praise came to them for all faithful work, and of focusing the intelligence and indignation of the city upon all dereliction of duty in this regard.

4. This was the state of affairs on Sunday, May 1, 1887, a day observed religiously by the churches as the first on which the city had escaped from its great enemy, an escape which has never yet been nullified.

The saloon-keepers, however, were cheerful. They held on to their leases, and threatened to bury us the next year. They reckoned on the precedent of such revulsions in other cities, where the thorough methods employed by us had not been in use.

Our leaders in this effort, as the next election drew near, went around among our principal citizens, asking, in the interest simply of fair play, more than seven months in which to try tile experiment; and so reasonable were our people, even many of those who doubted the wisdom of the permanent exclusion of the saloon, that they acceded to this request.

The same kind of campaign as that of 1886, only much further perfected in its details, was waged that year; and, though the conflict was tremendous, and each side polled nearly 1400 more votes than in 1886, the saloon was beaten the second year by the identical majority, 566, which had first abolished it. Then those very saloon-keepers, who had boastfully held on to their leases, hastened to get rid of them, and quit the city; and in the eight campaigns which have since ensued, the same stirring scenes have been reenacted, although each year has had its own distinctive issues in detail and its own unique and glorious fight.

5. But when the State at large, after two or three years, saw that the exclusion of the saloon had come to Cambridge to stay, straightway our city was thrust into the forefront, as that one community in the world of its size which had been able continuously, and by its own volition, to get the better of this great curse.

Consequently our literature, our speakers, our methods of [93] campaigning, in fact, everything that could throw light on our unique struggle, were in constant demand from widely over the State, and from beyond it. Chelsea, in particular, being in a worse condition than we had been, and in a county involving great difficulties in the enforcement of liquor laws, studied carefully our methods, and very soon following them, threw out the saloon, and thus became, hardly less than Cambridge herself, although under Cambridge's inspiration, an argument in the same direction.

Space does not permit even the most summary account of the influence which Cambridge has thus had not only upon the towns and cities of this Commonwealth, but widely over New England, and beyond New England, and even beyond the United States. This has been the more inevitable because of the startling and convincing array of results of our saloon exclusion, to which, most briefly, I am about to allude. The burden of correspondence which has thereby come upon many of our people, the amount of time and strength which they have spent in traveling to speak on the subject in distant places, and the proud crown of glory which this unique triumph has set upon the brow of our city, cannot here be described, and can hardly be imagined.

6. The climax of all this was reached when, in the election of 1895, the city, realizing that its vote would determine the character of the fiftieth anniversary year of our present municipal organization, gathered itself together, and, in a peculiarly difficult and malignant campaign which was being waged on behalf of rum,—in the room of its previous majority of 599, and of the largest majority which it had ever cast, namely 843,—broke all records, and registered 1503 as its tenth annual verdict against the saloon. That memorable day, the ringing of the bells in the evening, the jubilee meeting that was held, the enthusiasm, for days and weeks thereafter, of our people over this unprecedented victory, this tenth milestone of our success, will never be forgotten by those who in any way participated in the same.

It is impossible in this article to treat this general subject with any fullness, or even in adequate outline. The reader is referred to Mr. Edmund A. Whitman's admirable pamphlet, ‘The Cambridge Idea in Temperance Reform,’ prepared as a part of the Massachusetts exhibit for the Columbian Exposition, [94] and of which a new edition was published in aid of the Ohio Anti-Saloon Congress of January of the present year. Happily this treatise is electrotyped, and by applying to Mr. Whitman, can be reproduced to any extent that may be desired, whether for use in this State or beyond it, for the mere cost of paper and press-work. Besides this classic statement on the subject by one to whom, almost more than to any other person, our great overturn was due, the reader is referred to the files of the ‘Frozen Truth,’ and of our Cambridge weeklies, and to a number of special articles prepared by various persons, and particularly by the longtime chairman of our Citizens' No-License Committee, Mr. Frank Foxcroft.

All that can here be further said in this connection is to refer briefly, first, to the results, and then, to the methods of our excluding the saloon.1

7. As the result of the exclusion of the saloon, though doubtless other causes have had some part in the same, it may be mentioned that our population has increased nearly twice as fast as before the saloon went; that the quality of the increase has much improved; that new houses began to be built twice or [95] thrice as rapidly; that our valuation had increased—some three years ago when such statistics were most exhaustively compiled—over the old rate of increase in the corresponding period under the saloon, $6,000,000, enough, it should be said, to bring into the city treasury, on the average rate of assessment, $90,000 clean money, in the room of perhaps $60,000 which might have been received of filthy money from the saloon; and that, instead of above a thousand tramps who used to be accommodated in our station houses annually, hardly more than a hundred had been entertained annually during the same space of time. Our new savings banks deposits, moreover, in the year referred to stood, in round numbers, $586,000, as against $140,000 the last year of the saloon; while the new depositors of that year were 1992, as against 861 the last year of the saloon. Furthermore, not a small part of these increased deposits was going back to workingmen for the building of their homes; and this says nothing of the upspringing of several prosperous cooperative banks which were doing much the same thing. Our manufacturers, our merchants, and our employers of labor in general, testified year by year, through the columns of the ‘Frozen Truth,’ to the increased sobriety, industry, skill, and efficiency of their work-people, owing to the absence of the saloon. Physicians, clergymen, charity workers, and all persons at all familiar with the actual conditions of the great bulk of our population, bore witness in the same direction. But all this, I must remind the reader, is only a partial summary of the tangible specific results growing out of the exclusion of the saloon. I indicate in addition—hardly more, however, than mentioning them—three supreme results:—

(1) Our city government has been cleansed, steadily improved, and continuously elevated in its ideals and in the quality of its work. The young woman who, with her ‘best young man,’ going down Main Street one moonlight night, paused with him before our new city hall, and, after a friendly dispute about what was the chief glory of that building, ‘scored,’ as the young man admitted, by declaring that the most beautiful thing about that building was that there had never been a liquor license signed within it,—expressed, in a nutshell, the substance of the matter in this direction.

(2) In the second place, previously existing lines of division have been wiped out. Catholics have come to love Protestants, [96] and Protestants to love Catholics. Evangelicals have come to love unevangelicals, and unevangelicals to love evangelicals. Betwixt the so-called ‘religious’ and the so-called ‘nonreli-gious,’ as notably in the Prospect Union, the offensive lines have to a considerable extent disappeared. Betwixt Republicans, too, and Democrats, and Third Party people, and so forth, the same state of things has come to obtain. Those hateful lines, also, of local jealousy or antagonism between the original nuclei of the city, East Cambridge, Cambridgeport, North Cambridge, and Old Cambridge, have been largely obliterated, so that we have become one people. This has been the outcome of that great price of agitation and of united toil whereby we have obtained our newer freedom. Father Scully put it right, in a meeting to open the no-license campaign of 1894, when he stood up and said: ‘The saloon seems to have been among us to keep us by the ears one against another. We Catholics did not like you Protestants, and you Protestants did not like us Catholics. But now that the saloon is gone, we love one another, and are nobly helpful one toward another.’ And when the Catholic bell of St. Mary's leads off, and the Trinitarian bell of Prospect Street, and the Unitarian bell of Austin Street follow after it in that threefold chiming which, each election night, tells to our city and to our neighbor municipalities the tidings of our annual victory over the saloon, here again—as with the young woman and her lover regarding our redeemed civics—is the symbol of that new unity which has come to Cambridge.

(3) There is one other result, the highest of all. It is that the name of which is put in quotation marks at the head of this article. For when, having a polling-list of 12,000 or 13,000, and being unable year by year (until this last) to get a majority greater than 843 (though it never fell lower than 486), it was obvious each year that the city, by but the turn of a few votes in a hundred, might bring back the saloon, it could not but follow that the friends of the saloon, aided by the rum money of Boston and of other places, would make a tremendous fight. Such has been the fact; and consequently, every year, the result has been in exceeding great doubt, and our struggle has been something fearful. It has followed from this fierce annual conflict that the whole city has been aroused; that we have had, annually, a month of what has been virtually a public institute [97] of civics and of practical ethics; and that, to a degree which no one not a resident can realize, all the best forces of our city, irrespective of creed, or politics, or social rank, have been fused together and uplifted with one common moral and spiritual impulse. It was about midway of that struggle that suddenly, as I stated in the opening paragraph of this article, but as naturally as great thoughts are born ever out of the fierce travail of our race, the phrase, ‘The Cambridge Idea’ broke in upon our Cambridge speech. Of this I shall have a word more to say as I close. Let it suffice now to remark that in this idealism, this stirring up of the largest and best civic thought of which every right-meaning person in the city is capable, the supreme result of our ten years of struggle registers itself.

8. Only a few sentences now, as to methods. These have been: (1) No candidates,—that is, as no-license men, we have not, in that capacity, had anything to do with candidates; (2) No politics,—in the same sense; (3) No temperance shibboleths,—that is, a platform broad enough to include all haters of the saloon, even though they might be drinking men; (4) Dividing the question,—that is, the concentrating of attention solely upon this issue, Shall, or shall not the saloon come back? (5) A campaign of facts,—that is, the leaving of abstractions, and a thorough inductive inquiry as to the relative effects of the saloon with us and the saloon gone; (6) An entirely independent, and yet an absolutely harmonious and mutually helpful twofold campaign,—the one religious, in the Catholic and Protestant churches, and the other purely secular and along such lines that all right-minded men could join upon the one issue raised; (7) Hard work,—work as if one vote might decide the question.

9. Leaving now the resume which I have given of the most distinctive movement, in civic directions, which has marked our city from 1886 until this present, a few words require to be added about the relation of all this to the larger life of Cambridge. Let no man, then, suppose that there has been anything fanatical about this movement. It has been eminently rational, sane, and practical. When President Eliot, addressing an immense audience in Union Hall two or three years since, stated how radically in temperance theory he differed probably from most of those present, but proceeded to testify that he [98] had for several years voted No, and was about to do so again, partly because a license policy could not, in the present temper of the city, be enforced, but more because the city had been educated up to the point where it could do without the saloon, he gave to our movement the highest praise, from a large point of view, that it has ever received. The praise was the more noble because it was entirely and absolutely true. Furthermore, the city got upon this thing because it had to; because the forces already at work within itself drove it along this path as by an irresistible impulse. It was a stage of civic evolution which had to come. Still further, let it not be forgotten that, though the exclusion of the saloon and the superb cognate results which have followed therefrom have constituted the most striking outward feature of all these unfoldings, nevertheless, this, as it were, has been but a drop in the bucket beside that larger movement of which it has been a part, whereby a profound civic sense, civic consciousness, civic purpose, and civic consecration have become the normal temper of our great and heterogeneous population. As a New Testament writer urges his readers to ‘lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset’ them, so Cambridge, joining battle with one special besetting sin, has toned up all the forces which make for righteousness within it, has won for itself a living unity, has brought itself under the sway of vast constructive ideals, and has thus been, in very deed, laying aside every weight. And as I believe it is true that, in our university, civics and economics are taught as they are nowhere else taught in America, so I believe that the young men let out from its lecture-rooms have only to repair to our city hall, and to walk through all our borders, to find practical illustrations of good civics and economics which cannot be paralleled in the New World.

10. Thus has it come to pass that, two hundred and sixty-five years from the founding of Cambridge, and fifty years from the organization of its present form of government, the most glorious decade of its entire history is also rounding out. For the sole purpose of great history, of high intellectual privilege, and of the blessings of poetry and other supreme manifestations of genius, is to produce fruit. Noblesse oblige. And all that Thomas Shepard and the bringing hither of the college and the glorious storied days of the municipality, all that the Washington [99] Elm and Craigie House and Elmwood and our cis-Atlantic Westminster at Mount Auburn might presage, have begun to fulfill themselves in that high place, as regards civic and ethical values, out into which Cambridge has been girding her loins to march, and unto the realization of which her plainest and humblest people, and her most intelligent and highly endowed, are alike consecrated. Thus, moreover, was it, that when, four or five years ago, there broke into Cambridge speech—so suddenly, with such energy, and with such large significance, that these can hardly yet be realized—the phrase, ‘The Cambridge Idea,’ that spiritual ideal, that conception of a city of God on earth, that indefinable aspiration through which alone either individuals or communities may come to their highest, found a language and a watchword which held within itself the secret of our city's destiny.

—Should I be quite true to my profession, or to a habit which I have had in Cambridge during the best years of my life, if I failed, as I close, to drop into a few sentences of special exhortation in naming a very particular type of reasons why we should all be dedicated to ‘The Cambridge Idea,’ and should go forward with our whole might into the realization of that measureless and as yet unimaginable future which, through its puissance, lies before our dear city?

For students are coming hither by the ten thousand, from decade to decade. They will not be able to resist that into which it is possible for ‘The Idea’ to make Cambridge. Orators, poets, jurists, statesmen, educators, scientists, artists, reformers of the time that is to be, will be ever among us. As they shall stroll up and down the Charles, as they shall linger in our entrancing places,—like the Cam banks at the elder Cambridge, like the Long Walk at Oxford, like the terraces at Edinburgh,—shall we not, by what we shall make Cambridge, so build the ennobling, the true, and the beautiful into their lives that, through them, we shall bless inestimably the whole world? That, brothers, is our task.

But, one asks, will the greatest genius whom all this shall enrich be a university man? Probably not. Probably he will be the child of some poor operative in one of our Cambridge factories, or of some artisan or small tradesman among us. But the beautiful and noble Cambridge will touch his soul, and the divine mystery of existence will work itself out in him and [100] through him, as it did in and through the boy by the Ayr, and the boy by the Avon. For Nature likes to be original, and to have her own way; and the most that we can do to help her— as was done by the Ayr and by the Avon—is to make everything beautiful and true. This shall we not do in Cambridge? Shall not ‘The Idea ’ have its full scope? Then, as surely as tides rise and moons fill out their slender crescents, the city's age of intelligence, of inspiring history, and of great poetry shall be even more in the future than in the glorious past.

1 Following is a tabular exhibit of the vote of Cambridge on this question since the State Local Option Law went into effect in 1881:—

Tabular exhibit of vote.


Population in 1887 (when vote took effect)somewhat under 70,000
Population in 1896about 84,000
Employees of Cambridge factories, 189014,208

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