How Elizabeth Warren invoked the history of Boston in her New Year’s Eve speech

"We are a nation that fights back."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign event at the Old South Meeting House, Friday, Dec. 31, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a campaign event Tuesday at the Old South Meeting House in Boston. –Elise Amendola / AP

Sen. Elizabeth Warren marked the one-year anniversary of her presidential campaign Tuesday in Boston, using the city’s history as a revolutionary hotbed to press her case for fighting for “big, structural change” in American politics.

“Our best moments as a country have been when we see a challenge clearly and we mobilize to meet it head on,” Warren said in the New Year’s Eve speech at Old South Meeting House.

The Massachusetts senator said that turning over into a new year is “normally a moment for optimism,” but noted that there is currently “a chill of fear in the air,” alluding to the approaching presidential election and impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, as well as more existential issues like climate change and an expected Supreme Court decision this year on LGBTQ rights.

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“The danger they feel is real,” Warren said, adding that “now it comes to us to fight back.”

“We are a nation that fights back,” she said. “Fighting back is an act of patriotism.”

In one of several veiled criticisms Tuesday at the more moderate candidates in the Democratic presidential primary, Warren argued that the country’s best moments have come when its leaders acted boldly, from the American Revolution to the abolition of slavery to the New Deal programs in response to the Great Depression.

“Those moments in American history define us,” she said. “And at each one of them, if our leaders had approached the moment thinking small, we would not have made it through.”

The backdrop of Warren’s speech was no coincidence. Old South Meeting House is just the latest in a series of locations steeped in historic working-class movements where she’s staged “cornerstone speeches” of her White House bid, including the Lawrence mills where she officially launched her campaign to New York City and Atlanta.

But the nearly-300-year-old brick church in downtown Boston stands out in American history. Old South Meeting House, which is now a busy museum and tourist destination, was where thousands of American colonialists met and organized the Boston Tea Party. Demonstrators eventually dumped 340 chests into Boston Harbor in protest of the British monarchy’s efforts to impose its authority on the colonies (and offload the British East India Company’s surplus of tea on the Americans).

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“For half a century leading up to the American Revolution, this place served not only for prayer, but also as a safe haven to test out our early ideas of freedom, justice, and equality,” Warren said Tuesday.

Warren waves during the event Tuesday.

The former Harvard Law School professor also singled out Phillis Wheatley, a former Old South Meeting House congregation member, as a central theme in her remarks.

A West Africa native who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Boston in the mid-18th century, Wheatley studied literature — which, for a slave, was illegal at the time — as a teen and went on to become the first African-American woman to publish poetry. Her work was largely inclusive and celebrated the ideals of what the American colonies could become. One of Wheatley’s first-edition books remains on display at the meeting house.

“As she sat in this church, in these pews, Phillis scoured the holy scripture for the words she needed to give voice to her visions and to spark her imagination,” Warren said. “She imagined a world that did not yet exist, but a world she could see.”

Despite her talents, in 1772, Wheatley was forced to prove her authorship to a court of 17 disbelieving white men, including powerful figures like John Hancock and Thomas Hutchinson, the then-governor of Massachusetts. She did — and went on to receive international recognition and even a White House invitation from George Washington. Wheatley’s story has a tragically early ending: More than a decade after being freed from slavery, she died in poverty at the age of 31.

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Warren is now urging primary voters to “imagine” as Wheatley did; variations of “imagine” and “imagination” appeared 50 times in the Cambridge Democrat’s speech, according to a written copy of her prepared remarks.

The appeal comes amid intensifying criticism from primary rivals like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who Warren has accused of cozying up to wealthy donors, that her ambitious plans — particularly when it comes to health care reform — would cost too much or wouldn’t realistically pass in a Congress split along party lines.

Channeling Wheatley, Warren asked the roughly 680 people packed into Old South Meeting House and the tens of thousands watching via online stream to “imagine” a country where moneyed interests have less influence over government policy, as well as what her plans would personally mean for them.

“If you were no longer tied to your job in order to pay off student loan debt, where would you go? Try a different job? Move back to your hometown? Start your own business?” Warren asked, alluding to her plan to forgive individual student debt up to $50,000 and eliminate tuition at public colleges.

Warren noted that polls have shown high public support for reforming the country’s expensive health care system, reducing money in politics, and the wealth tax she wants to levy on fortunes over $50 million. But she said those numbers comes with a “hard truth.”

“No one who has power in Washington is going to give it up easily,” Warren said.

“The billionaires, the corporate executives, and their favorite presidential candidates have one clear goal: To convince you that everything you imagine is impossible, to convince you that reform is hopeless, to convince you that — because no one can be pure — it’s pointless to try to make anything better,” she added, in a rejoinder to Buttigieg’s recent argument against “purity tests.”

“Those with power — and those who do their bidding — dump an endless avalanche of excuses, misdirections, and distractions on the American people,” she said. “It’s all designed to get us to give up and resign ourselves to the way things are — with them in power and everyone else left behind.”

Returning to Wheatley’s life, Warren acknowledged that the young poet’s own story, like those of “generations” of African Americans, “did not end in victory.” Warren said the fight against oppression, and for the country to live up to its “highest ideals,” continues into 2020.

“In the spirit of one young woman who raised her voice from these pews more than two centuries ago, let us begin tomorrow committed to dream big, fight hard, and win,” she said.

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