How strong is Massachusetts’ list of politicians? These guys might be 11-15:
Calvin Coolidge (almost certainly the only president not to make the top 10 from his respective state)
Massachusetts has had an unusually important role in American politics throughout its history for a state of its size. This list also gets at the issue of including Supreme Court justices. I do include them because of their central role in shaping American political and social life even if they are not true politicians. Given the number of extremely important justices from Massachusetts, it makes this list even more challenging.
1. John Adams–I don’t buy into the whole rehabilitation of John Adams launched by David McCullough and continued by the people who saw the film. But Adams giving up power to Jefferson voluntarily is arguably one of the most important single action in the nation’s history. Add onto that his role in the Revolution and I’ll almost forget his signing the Alien and Sedition Acts.
2. John F. Kennedy–While Kennedy is vastly overrated as a president, he may have played the single biggest role in defining a generation. Perhaps only Andrew Jackson can also say that among American politicians. Plus, he probably would have pushed for some version of most of what Johnson eventually did sign, including civil rights legislation, environmental legislation, and expanding our role in Vietnam. That he didn’t do that is to his discredit. And I don’t want him this high. But his role in being the defining political figure of his generation is too important to ignore.
3. Daniel Webster–While we think of the 1820s through 40s as the Jacksonian Era, certainly Daniel Webster did nearly as much to shape the period as Jackson. Along with Henry Clay, he’s one of the most powerful pre-Civil War politicians never to reach the presidency.
4. John Quincy Adams–Another Massachusetts president. Like his father, not a particularly effective president, but his career as Secretary of State under James Monroe and his post-presidency leadership against slavery make him a great man. Plus, if you look why his presidency failed, it’s because he supported an activist government involved in education and economic planning, which is pretty hard for me to attack.
5. Henry Cabot Lodge–There are a number of Henry Cabot Lodges, but this is of course the Senate Majority Leader, friend of Theodore Roosevelt, imperialist, and the most important single individual in keeping the U.S. out of the League of Nations.
6. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever. Maybe second only to John Marshall.
7. Louis Brandeis–another massively important Supreme Court justice, crusader for social and economic justice, and the first Jew on the Court. A truly great man.
8. Charles Sumner–really not a great legislator, but probably the single greatest crusader against slavery in the history of the Senate.
9. John Hancock–Revolutionary leader, President of the Continental Congress, and governor of Massachusetts. Provided extremely important leadership early in the nation’s history.
10. Ted Kennedy–One of the greatest senators in history. An amazingly effective legislator and did more than anyone else to stop much of the worst of Reagan’s agenda.
I have no doubt that this list will inspire a lot of you to tell me how wrong I am, so let me have it.