Throwback Thursday: The First Mayor of Boston Takes Office

On May 1, 1822, John Phillips became the first Boston mayor.

In the city of Boston, the office of Mayor looms large with the characters who have occupied it. There’s Tom Menino of course, who dominated the office for two decades. There’s James Michael Curley, reelected mayor while still in prison. Less imprinted in our memory is the first mayor, John Phillips, who took on the new office on May 1, 1822.


John Phillips in Boston Monthly Magazine via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike most everything else in Boston, the mayorship isn’t that old. (Okay, it’s almost 200 years old. But what is this, the Midwest?) That’s because Boston had governed itself as a town since its founding, and wasn’t actually incorporated as a city until 1822. As the population grew larger and more unwieldy, the town form of government had become untenable. A pamphlet written on the 100th anniversary in 1922 recalls:

In 1820 the population of Boston was 43,298, and the town meeting had become a farce. It was attended by less than fifty voters, save when questions of great interest came up, and was quite dominated by the public officials who always turned out.

Phillips was instrumental in orchestrating the movement that finally resulted in a new charter reorganizing Boston’s government. In its original form, the leader of the city would be called an Intendant, but thankfully, the French word was put aside in favor of a slightly less pretentious “Mayor” by the time voters approved it.

Phillips was chosen for the job on May 1, 1822, for a term of one year. Perhaps he doesn’t dominate the modern imagination because he served for just that one-year term, much of which he spent setting up the new government. He retired because of his health and died the next year, leaving behind quite the legacy: eight children, including the famous abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and the creation of a position that would come to dominate the politics of our city.