January 07, 2015

Gov. Benjamin Butler: He walked the walk.

Later today Governor Deval Patrick will take the final “lone walk” out of office. When did this uniquely Massachusetts tradition begin? Until recently, it was widely believed to be the invention of a politically lonely Benjamin Butler in 1884.

But in the lead up to Governor-elect Charlie Baker’s inauguration, credit for the lone walk has been given to Governor Increase Sumner in 1799.

The official transition website on mass.gov says Sumner and various news sources have picked up on the claim (it’s repeated here and here)

 But Suffolk University historian Robert Allison gives the credit to Butler.

There are a handful of traditions that mark the end of one Massachusetts political era and the onset of another. Others include the ougoing governor handing over various items: a pewter key to the Governor’s office, the Butler bible, a gavel made out of wood from the USS Constitution, and a two volume set of Massachusetts general statutes with an inscribed note from each Governor.

The lone walk is perhaps the most symbolic as it involves the physical leaving of the building in which the Governor has administered the Commonwealth’s government.

Looking at the historical record makes it clear that Sumner could not have taken a lone walk upon leaving the governorship. He received his last oath of office while in bed and died just five days later.

Sumner was the fifth governor of the Commonwealth, a resident of Roxbury, educated at Harvard, elected to a Congress in which he didn’t serve because of an appointment to the Supreme Judicial Court. He was first elected in 1797 and reelected in 1798 and 1799. The gubernatorial term was extended to two years in 1918 and four years in 1966.

He had a funeral befitting a great leader of revolutionary America, attended by his Massachusetts contemporary, incumbent President John Adams. It included a military procession from Roxbury to the State House to his place of internment.

Interestingly, his lieutenant Governor, Moses Gill, would also die less than a year later leaving the Commonwealth administered for a period by the president of the Governor’s Council, Thomas Dawes.

Not only was Sumner unable to make a solitary “lone walk” at the end of his public life, he wasn’t much of a walker to begin with. His 1936 entry in the Dictionary of American Biography notes that “Having inherited considerable property from his father-in-law, he entertained lavishly and drove a coach and four on all public occasions.”

The confusion this year over the originator of the lone walk may be due to the fact that Sumner did make an important and historic walk during his governorship.

In 1798, Sumner made a symbolic walk from the Old State House to the Bulfinch State House, the new seat of government for the Commonwealth. That “walk” may have become historically confused as the lone walk.

Professor Allison credits Butler with the lone walk noting that the Governor left office with few political supporters and, quite literally, made the walk alone. The Governor leaving the State House through the front doors on his way out has endured, though few choose to do so solemnly or solo.

Governors Ed King, Michael Dukakis, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney all made the walk with their spouses. Dukakis’ lieutentant Governor, Evelyn Murphy, preceded the Governor on her own lone walk. Bill Weld gleefully hopped into his SUV with the “Privatize Weld” bumper sticker. Romney, and now Patrick, opted to leave a day before the new Governor takes office.

Butler’s lone walk is the second of his traditions to have endured. The Bible that each Governor hands over to the successor dates from Butler’s days when he assumed office and could find no bible for the ceremony.

It would be nice for an historically minded polity such as ours to point to the lone walk as a tradition that has endured since 1799 but, alas, it’s simply inaccurate. The walk began with Butler in 1884 under far different circumstances.

It is ironic that a Governor who left without a political supporter in the building would leave the Commonwealth two important inaugural traditions. Of course, Butler’s legacy goes well beyond these traditions (he was far ahead of the nation in his commitment to equality) but they offer two tangible ways of grounding our transitions in our collective history. 

Charlie Baker, Governor Deval Patrick, Benjamin Butler, inauguration, Increase Sumner, lone walk

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