Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,155

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,155


This is the grave of Joseph Tuckerman.

Born in 1778 in Boston, Tuckerman grew up in the Massachusetts elite and knew all the right people. HIs father was a big landowner. In fact, Tuckerman’s roommate at Harvard was Joseph Story, the influential Supreme Court justice. Tuckerman went into the ministry, as a Unitarian. Well, if you can call Unitarianism a religion. Anyway, I digress. He worked in Chelsea for about 25 years, from 1801 to 1826. There wasn’t too much exciting about his work for this period of life except for one thing. In 1812, he founded the Boston Society for the Religious and Moral Improvement of Seamen. This was a reform attempt for this group of people who were seen, with some accuracy, as some really derelict people who could use some assistance, moral and financial.

In 1826, Tuckerman moved to Boston. There he became involved in mission work, mostly working with the city’s growing poor population. He became one the nation’s first leaders in the field of philanthropy. Tuckerman believed strongly in the uplifting ideals of Unitarianism. He thought they had important precedents to set in how the city should adapt to what it was rapidly becoming, particularly with the influx of impoverished Irish beginning. Tuckerman really had no method here. He just started walking the streets of Boston, introducing himself to the poor, asking what they needed and about their lives. What makes this important is that the general position of the city’s religious elite, and let’s face it, most Unitarians were and in fact are today pretty elite people, is that poverty was a result of sin and a person’s moral failings. Tuckerman did not believe this. He didn’t totally reject this of course, but he didn’t believe people were doomed to poverty because of their failings. He believed they could and should be saved and that philanthropy connected to his version of liberal Christianity was the key to doing so. He would try to build trust with people by giving them some charity, returning to visit them, and trying to get them to attend his services. By the end of 1827, he had 120 families under his care, which is a ridiculously large number for any one person to work with, as any case officer in the social work world could tell you.

This soon impressed the larger Unitarian elite in the city. They started raising money to build Tuckerman a church in the poorest neighborhood of Boston and soon had $2,000 to do it. Soon he opened a second church and started a Sunday School. This latter was important to him. Many children were working in hard jobs from a young age. Many pretty young girls were working as prostitutes. He wanted to save these people, both in terms of their future and their souls. The church began assigning other ministers to help him and other non-ministers joined in too. While it would be incorrect to say that Tuckerman invented the field of social work on the fly–there are many people who contributed to this, including people such as Jane Addams fifty years later–he certainly deserves his share of the credit for it.

His charitable work became not only a standard in the U.S., but also in Europe. They were adopted in France. In England, there was even a Tuckerman Institute of Liverpool. In 1833, Tuckerman, perhaps somewhat surprised by his fame, visited England and became friends with Lady Byron among famous people. But part of the reason that he had to go to England is that he was ordered out of Boston by his doctors, worried that he would die soon. A sea voyage was the cure, though ending up in England does not exactly seem like the most healthful possible destination, especially the England of the 1830s.

We can perhaps look back at an early 19th century reformer type with some eyerolling. But Tuckerman really did have some modern positions. He was a staunch prohibitionist, yes. But he also refused to see alcoholism as a moral failing, which was the common vision of how people dealt with alcoholics for a long time, an attitude that combined with anti-Irish or broader anti-immigrant sentiment, just blamed people’s poverty on themselves. But Tuckerman refused to go down this road. Like we should do today, he saw alcoholism as a disease that needed curing. He also thought a lot of child delinquency and argued that rather than putting them through the court system and punishing them, they should be moved to farms to work and learn values. Of course that could lead to all sorts of horrible abuses too, but the principle of not placing kids into the court system is a solid one.

Tuckerman also a major supporter of mandatory public schooling as well, which always has been a gigantic social engineering project. It’s worth stepping back real quick here. There was a reason that Catholics opposed public schooling in the 19th century and right-wing evangelicals do today. Schooling is, frankly, a propaganda campaign. The choices made on how to teach are always about the values we want Americans to have today. In the 19th century, people like Tuckerman wanted public schools for reasons both good (keep kids off the streets) and bad (undermine Catholicism and push Protestant value systems). It’s not really different today, thus the battles over “critical race theory” or whatever the outrage de jure is.

Now, certainly Tuckerman had his limitations too. He could not imagine a state or otherwise centralized vision to dealing with poverty. For him, Christian charity was the only acceptable answer and obviously that’s an extremely limited vision. But it really wasn’t for the 1830s. But he also rightfully noted that employers raising wages would solve a lot of these problems while he opposed charity to able-bodied men. So, again, it’s complicated.

Tuckerman also wanted efficiency within charity operations. He rightfully realized that a bunch of little operations repeating themselves would not be effective. So he pushed for a broader organization of Boston charities in order to maximize efficiency in services. Later, Tuckerman took government positions in order to push his programs, including as Overseer of the Poor in Boston in 1830. In 1833, the state of Massachusetts hired him to write a report on the Massachusetts Pauper System. Here, again, he opposed significant poverty relief programs in exchange for his ideas of charity. Basically, like so many Protestants of the 19th century and in one of the cancers on our body politic that continues to the present, he believed that long-term relief would create pauperism and laziness among the poor.

In 1840, while on a trip another sea voyage to help his questionable health, Tuckerman came down sick and died soon after in Havana. He was 62 years old. His principles still held sway for a long time. In fact, in 1874, his writings were collected in a book titled On the Elevation of the Poor.

Even today, Unitarians see Tuckerman as a positive example.

Joseph Tuckerman is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other social workers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jane Addams is in Cedarville, Illinois and Grace Coyle is in Mayfield, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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