There is something about western Massachusetts that seems to breed exceptionalism, exceptionally so, and I have struggled to figure out why. Over and again, I have heard from long-term residents how unusual the region is, and they seem to insist that something peculiar radiates from the Berkshires, infecting all of us with some form of socially-engaged eccentricity. They may be right. One ninety-year old resident of Lake Pleasant claimed that it has always been so, that when her staid ancestor settled in the Leyden hills after the Revolution, he turned into a wild-eyed anarchic egalitarian, collecting a host of housemates about him, adding several wives and no visible means of support. She considered it a mark of distinction. Geneticists have suggested that cat populations in Massachusetts display an unusually high incidence of supernumerary toes, but a similar tendency seems to influence its people, spawning supernumerary sets of progressive souls.
Like toes on a foot, these souls seem often to coincide. The myth of our unique past in western Massachusetts insists in particular that there is something exceptional about communitarian experimentation here, something that extends deep into the well of our memory. Many of the colonial English towns, my ninety year old friend insisted, were organized as organic communities, and even when the time came to cleave, community members translated themselves as a unit to the edge of the pale. Salemites, she noted, created New Salem in the western wastes, while Braintree sprouted the inevitability of New Braintree.
Certainly, communitarian experiments are common here from an early date, and they have been exceptionally diverse in their motives, guiding principles, and forms of organization. The celibate Shakers form an interesting counterpoint to the plural marriages of John Humphrey Noyes and his Oneida Community (which began just over the border in Vermont). The Transcendentalist Brook Farm, the egalitarian Northampton Association, and the Arts and Crafts New Clairvaux community in Montague are intellectually respectable alternatives to the shaggy, not-quite-communal Association of Electrizers of John Murray Spear, who in the 1850s constructed a mysterious "God machine" to generate power from the harmonized bodies of male and female, seeking to elevate all humanity in the process. Free love ensued, followed closely by a machine-smashing mob.
This radical admixture of social theory, politics, religion, and economics can be found too in Hopedale, a community founded in Milford in 1842 by the Unitarian minister Adin Ballou. A "Practical Christian socialist," Ballou argued that religious ideals must be seen and not merely heard, and he became increasingly convinced of the need to separate from worldly governments. His break with the corruption of political engagement, however, was not to be a passive withdrawal into backwoods and valleys, it was to be an act of creative non-resistance, or in the later words of Mohandas Gandhi, an "active resistance in a different plane. In Ballou's mind, the withdrawal to Hopedale would take the power of good in cooperative community and turn it against the evil and moral failure of American capitalism.
Nor was Ballou's withdrawal very communistic by modern standards. He founded a joint stock company, instead of a communal hive, in which community members invested and worked together on a carefully planned mix of industrial and agricultural projects. They built a sawmill, workshops for mechanics, blacksmithing, and printing, they planted orchards and fields, founded a school, and eventually swelled to more than 200 residents "dwelling together by families in love and peace," as Ballou wrote, "insuring themselves the comforts of life by agricultural and mechanical industry and directing the entire residue of their intellectual, moral and physical resources to the Christianization and general welfare of the human race.
More industrious than most experiments, and less fully communal than many, Hopedale nevertheless shared a number of features with other communities. It is often remarked, for example, how thoroughly progressive ideas were embedded in Hopedale. On any given week, it seems, one could attend antislavery lecturers or debate with temperance advocates, feminists, dress reformers, vegetarians, or egalitarians of all stripes. Even the masthead of their newspaper, The Non-Resistant and Practical Christian, claimed to represent "Absolute truth, essential righteousness, individual responsibility, social reform, human progress, ultimate perfection.
This conjunction of social experiment and progressive politics harmonizes with the myths we tell about Mass exceptionalism and our progressive past, but I think there is something deeper afoot that makes the myth more compelling, something implicit in another feature of life at Hopedale: Spiritualism. While Ballou was no shaggy Spear, he was a firm believer that the spirits of the dead could commune with the community of the living.
To understand why Spiritualism matters, let me turn briefly to Adam Smith, a better philosopher than he was an economist, and a writer whose ideas formed a backdrop for Spiritualist social theory. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith conjectured that exchange formed the basis for a stable social order, but not exchange in a purely financial sense. Emotion — Sympathy — was the key. Humans, he argued, are innately sympathetic beings who imperfectly, and with great effort, are able to insert ourselves in our metaphorical siblings' shoes. The slender daily gift of emotional exchange, he argued, and the expectation of future reciprocity, comprises the only possibility of overcoming the social distance that divides us. We imagine union. We will it. But Smith was clear that such exchange had limits and that a community therefore had its boundaries. When contact was infrequent or exchange hampered, communities could not persist. Where a person draws the boundary around the community says all we need to know about who we include and exclude from our emotional lives. For Smith, that boundary was the natural limit of the nation, and conservatives ever since have emphasized setting such boundaries (privatization is a calling card, so too xenophobia).
Spiritualists like those at Hopedale, on the other hand, hoped to live out their sympathetic principles, to develop and open the possibility of emotional union on a grand scale. In the decade of the 1850s, they hoped to overcome the barriers of politics and creed, race and gender that divided us into ever finer fractions. Union and justice would be the end result of a healing social process. Spiritualists conceived of a world in which the power of sympathy was so great that it could overcome even the ultimate barrier, the barrier of death: sympathetically propelled, even the dead could return to commune with their living loved ones. In a community like Hopedale, sympathy would take root, flower, and spread to the world. Our Commonwealth, of course, was the original City on a Hill, but Spiritualists revived that vision for a greater world. If there is anything exceptional in western Massachusetts, it is simply that in the face of all logic and the flow of time, we have kept a memory of that vision and a willingness to keep it alive.
For more on Hopedale, visit MassMoments.