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Boston Government History

The guide will offer a brief overview of the history of the governance of Boston and offer suggestions for further research.

Introduction

Prior to adopting a Mayor-Council form of government, for nearly two hundred years Boston was governed by a Board of Selectmen. This is only one of the several changes in governance in the history of the city.

A Brief Timeline

  • 1630-1822: Boston is governed by the Board of Selectmen. Town elections are held at various times during the year.
    • May 18, 1631: First election of Selectmen is held.
    • April 19, 1775: Board of Selectmen is disbanded due to Siege of Boston.
    • March 17, 1776: Siege of Boston ends.
    • March 29, 1776: First election of Selectmen held post-siege.
    • May 20, 1776: Board of Selectmen officially reconvenes.
       
  • 1822-1909: Boston is governed by the Mayor, the Board of Aldermen, and the Common Council. City elections are held on the second Monday of December.
    • February 23, 1822: An Act Establishing the City of Boston is passed, making Boston the first town to become a city in Massachusetts. The City Charter establishes the office of Mayor, the Board of Aldermen, and the Common Council. The latter two groups are referred to collectively as the City Council.
    • April 24, 1822: Final meeting of the Board of Selectmen is held.
    • May 1, 1822: First meeting of the Board of Aldermen is held.
       
  • 1909-present: Boston is governed by the Mayor and the City Council. Beginning in 1924, City elections are held at the same time as the State elections in November.

The City Charter

Boston’s City Charter is, in actuality, a collection of numerous laws passed by the State. The charter lays out the form of government of the city and many other details relating to how the city is run.

The current charter is primarily comprised of the below legislation:

Further changes to the charter have been made through numerous other acts over the years. You can read more about them here (link opens pdf file): Boston City Charter, July 2007.

The Governing Bodies


John Hancock, 1765 (John Singleton Copley)

The Selectmen were responsible for calling Town Meetings, at which all those who were eligible to vote would discuss and vote on issues relating to the governance of the town. Initially elected to six-month terms, they would later serve one-year terms.

Records of the first four years of the Selectmen’s meetings are lost. As a result, we do not know who the selectmen were, when the town meetings took place, or what business was taken up when they were held from 1630 until the earliest recorded meeting on September 11, 1634.

During the Siege of Boston from April 19, 1775 to March 17, 1776, the Board of Selectmen was officially disbanded due to British military forces seizing control of the local government (although Boston Town Meetings were held in nearby Watertown.) While there are Town Records covering that time, there are no Selectmen’s Records.

Among the notable men to serve on the Board of Selectmen were:
John Winthrop (1634, 1639)- four time Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony
Thomas Brattle (1671-1683)- prominent local merchant, treasurer of Harvard College, and co-founder of the Brattle Street Church
John Hancock (1765-1774)- Founding Father, two time Governor of Massachusetts
John Rowe (1767-1769) - Merchant and real estate developer, namesake of Rowe's Wharf
Charles Bulfinch (1791-1794, 1799-1817) - Important early American architect, designed many landmark buildings including the current Massachusetts State House and the U.S. Capitol


Lemuel Shattuck

In 1822, the Board of Aldermen consisted of 8 at-large members, and the Common Council was made up of 48 members elected by ward. Members of each group served one-year terms. Administration of the city was vested primarily with the Mayor and the Aldermen, with the Mayor serving as the Chairman of the Board of Aldermen until 1855, when the passage of An Act To Revise The Charter Of The City Of Boston created a separate chairman and vested more authority with the Board of Aldermen.

The make-up of the Board of Aldermen and Common Council was changed many times during the nearly nine decades of their existence. By 1909, the Board of Aldermen consisted of 4 at-large members and the Common Council consisted of 34 members elected by ward.

Among the notable men to serve on the Common Council are:

Jonathan Chapman (1836-1839)- 8th Mayor of Boston
Lemuel Shattuck (1838-1841)- Co-founder of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, advocate for public health improvements, namesake of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain 
Alexander H. Rice (1853-1855)- 15th Mayor of Boston, Congressman, 30th Governor of Massachusetts
George Lewis Ruffin (1876-1877) - first African American to serve on City Council and first African American judge in U.S.
John F. Fitzgerald (1891-1892) - Two time Mayor, Congressman, maternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy

When it was created in 1909, the City Council served three-year terms and consisted of 9 at-large members and retained many of the same powers as the Board of Aldermen with the added authority to create departments and committees to oversee various aspects of city governance. The make-up of the City Council was changed several times to include various numbers of at-large members and members elected by district. The City Council now serves two-year terms and consists of 4 at-large members and 9 elected by council district.

Another holdover from the Board of Aldermen was a chairperson, in this case called the Council President. The Council President calls special meetings, presides over meetings and votes, and can serve as Acting Mayor in cases where the Mayor resigns or is otherwise unable to carry out the duties of the office. The most notable instance of this happening was when Mayor Ray Flynn resigned after being appointed Ambassador to the Holy See in 1993. Council President Thomas Menino served as Acting Mayor before winning his first of five election victories.

Some other notable past Council members are:

James M. Curley (1900)- four time Mayor of Boston, Congressman, 53rd Governor of Massachusetts
Mildred Harris (1937-1939)- first woman elected to City Council (1937)
Katherine Craven (1964-1967)- first woman elected as at-large Councilor (1964)
Louise Day Hicks (1970-1971, 1974-1977, 1979) - first woman Council President (1976), Congresswoman, known for crusade against desegregation of Boston Public Schools
Bruce Bolling (1982-1983, 1986-1993)- first African American Council President (1986-1987)
 

Current City Council

Matt O'Malley, City Council President; City Councilor, District 6 (West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, parts of Roslindale & Roxbury, Back of the Hill)

Annissa Essaibi George, City Councilor, At-Large
Michael Flaherty, City Councilor, At-Large
Julia Mejia, City Councilor, At-Large
Lydia Edwards, City Councilor, District 1 (East Boston, Charlestown, North End/Waterfront)
Ed Flynn, City Councilor, District 2 (Most of South Boston & South End, Chinatown, City Hall/Beacon Hill/Islands)
Frank Baker, City Councilor, District 3 (Most of Dorchester, parts of South Boston & South End)
Andrea Campbell, City Councilor, District 4 (Parts of Mattapan, Dorchester, Roslindale, & Jamaica Plain)
Ricardo Arroyo, City Councilor, District 5 (Hyde Park, parts of Roslindale & Mattapan)
Kim Janey, Former Acting Mayor; City Councilor, District 7 (Roxbury, parts of South End & Fenway)
Kenzie Bok, City Councilor, District 8 (Mission Hill, Longwood, Audubon Circle, Fenway, Kenmore, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, West End)
Liz Breadon, City Councilor, District 9 (Allston & Brighton)

The Mayor


Mayor Curley takes zebra from circus to zoo

After becoming a city in 1822, Boston adopted a mayor-council form of government. Mayors would initially serve terms only one year in length. The current four-year term was adopted in 1909, after a major overhaul of the city charter. Much of the authority of governance was vested either solely with the Aldermen or with the Mayor and the Aldermen. It was not until  1885 that more authority would be vested solely with the Mayor, with some actions still subject to the approval of the Aldermen.

Mayoral elections are non-partisan, like all municipal elections in Boston. The two highest vote-getters in the Mayoral primary, irrespective of political parties, go on to the general election. Every Mayoral election since 1930 has been won by a Democrat.

A few of the notable Mayors of Boston are:
John Phillips (1822-1823)- first Mayor, served one term
Alexander H. Rice (1856-1858)- co-founder of Republican Party
Hugh O'Brien (1885-1889)- first Irish and first Catholic Mayor
John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald (1906-1908, 1910-1914)- first Mayor to serve four-year term, State Senator, Congressman, maternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy
James M. Curley (1914-1918, 1922-1926, 1930-1934, 1946-1950)- Congressman, one-term Governor of Massachusetts, served part of last term while in jail on mail fraud charges
Maurice J. Tobin (1938-1945)- one-term Governor of Massachusetts, U.S. Secretary of Labor, namesake of Tobin Bridge
John B. Hynes (1950-1960)- Acting Mayor during Curley's time in jail, oversaw numerous development projects, namesake of Hynes Convention Center

Kim Janey (March 22, 2021-November 16, 2021)- Acting Mayor, first woman and person of color to serve as Mayor
Michelle Wu (November 16, 2021-present)- First woman and person of color to be elected Mayor

Currently Living Former Mayors: 1 (Raymond Flynn)
Most terms served: Frederic W. Lincoln Jr. was elected to seven terms overall, during the time period when terms were only one year.
Longest tenure: Thomas M. Menino- 20 years, 6 months, 3 weeks, and 6 days
Shortest tenure: Thomas A. Davis- 8 months, 3 weeks, and 5 days
Mayors not born in Boston: 16
Mayors not born in the United States: 2 (Hugh O'Brien and Patrick Collins, both born in Ireland)
Mayors named Josiah Quincy: 3- Josiah Quincy III (1823-1829,) Josiah Quincy, Jr. a.k.a. Josiah Quincy IV (1845-1849) son of Josiah Quincy III, Josiah Quincy a.k.a. Josiah Quincy VI (1896-1899) grandson of Josiah Quincy, Jr.

Mayors who've served non-consecutive terms: 5
Frederic W. Lincoln, Jr. (1858-1861, 1863-1867)
Henry L. Pierce (1873, 1878-1879)
Frederick O. Prince (1877-1878, 1879-1882)
Thomas N. Hart (1889-1890, 1900-1902)
John F. Fitzgerald (1906-1908, 1910-1914)
James M. Curley (1914-1918, 1922-1926, 1930-1934, 1946-1950)

Mayors who died in office: 2
Thomas A. Davis- Mayor from February 27 to November 22, 1845.  Eight elections were held for Mayor due to the lack of a clear winner before Davis finally won. He attempted to resign in October due to poor health, but his resignation was not accepted. He was 47 years old.
Patrick Collins- Mayor from January 7, 1902 to September 13, 1905. Died suddenly at age 61. A memorial was erected in his honor on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in 1908.

Mayors who resigned: 4
Henry L. Pierce, resigned during first term after being elected to Congress
Maurice J. Tobin, resigned during second term after being elected Governor of Massachusetts
Raymond Flynn, resigned during third term after being appointed Ambassador to the Holy See
Martin J. Walsh, resigned during second term after being appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor

Mayors By Political Party:
Democratic Party- 21
Republican Party- 10
Whig Party- 8
Federalist Party- 3
Native American/Know-Nothing Party- 2
Unaffiliated With Any Party- 1 (Samuel C. Cobb)