Faneuil Hall

Quill pens in an inkwell flanking a document on a table at the head of the Great Hall. In the background the Great Hall of Faneuil Hall is full of seated participants while a man dressed in colonial garb stands up to address the meeting.

The Cradle of Liberty.

For 275 years, Faneuil Hall remains a site of meetings, protests, and debate right up to this very day. Because Revolutionary-era meetings and protests took place so frequently at the hall, successive generations continued to gather at the Hall in their own struggles over the meaning and legacy of American liberty. Abolitionists, women's suffragists, and labor unionists name just the largest of groups who have held protests, meetings, and debates at Faneuil Hall.

Faneuil Hall is a four-story brick building with arched windows. The top of the hall has a while cupola with a gold dome and a grasshopper weathervane. Crowds of people pass in front of the hall.

Peter Faneuil's Gift

Peter Faneuil was the son of French Huguenot parents who emigrated to the colony of New York to escape persecution in Catholic France. When his parents died, Peter came to live with his uncle Andrew Faneuil in Boston. Andrew was a wealthy merchant in town, and evidently Peter became the favored nephew. When Andrew died in 1738, Peter inherited the majority of Andrew's estate and business. Virtually overnight Peter Faneuil became one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, merchants in Boston at that time. Peter Faneuil traded in many commodities which only increased his wealth and prosperity. Indeed, part of his trade included African slaves in addition to sugar, molasses, wines, fish, and timber. Peter, however, did not have a family nor a legacy of his own. Separately, he also found the Boston's lack of a central public marketplace an especially problematic situation for a growing town.

In 1740 Peter Faneuil approached the town's government—the town meeting—with a proposal that a permanent central marketplace should be established in the heart of Boston. Faneuil himself would personally fund the construction of the building. Yet despite such a generous offer, the proposal proved to be a very contentious issue. Many opponents were concerned that by centralizing the market, sellers would raise prices and hurt competition. When it finally came to a vote, Faneuil's proposal ultimately carried. It passed by a slim margin: 367 to 360.

Almost as an afterthought, Peter Faneuil decided to add a meeting hall over the market floor in the building proposal. After two years of construction the building was completed in 1742. Though the original intention was a market, the meeting hall above became the valuable legacy. The town voted to name the hall in Faneuil's honor. It became home to the town government and a public hall for concerts, banquets, and ceremonies.


Boston's Town Meeting Hall

Faneuil Hall quickly became an invaluable part of Boston's civic and social life. Indeed, when a fire gutted the interior of the building in 1761, the town leaders quickly put together a series of lotteries where the proceeds funded a reconstruction and rehabilitation of Peter Faneuil's gift. The Hall reopened in 1763. Its reopening coincided with the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of controversial financial policies from the mother country of Great Britain. The Stamp Act of 1765, for example, directly taxed the British American colonists. Even though Bostonians had a direct voice in town affiars at town meetings and chose their representatives for the Massachusetts legislature in annual votes at Faneuil Hall, they had neither direct nor indirect voice in Britain's Parliament. As such, many members supported political leaders such as James Otis and Samuel Adams who led a campaign against the Stamp Act and "Taxation without Representation."

Yet despite the rhetoric in places such as the Hall, official town meetings and government functions were generally limited to only those legally eligible to vote: Property owning men who were 21 or older. Nonetheless, as the tensions of the Revolutionary Period grew more intense through the events of the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party, the meetings in Faneuil Hall began to trasnform into "meetings of the body" which were more broadly open to men who wanted to participate. Some of the most intense meetings, such as those leading up to the Boston Tea Party, so overwhelmed the capacity of the hall that the meetings had to be moved to the Old South Meeting House.

Following the Revolutionary War Faneuil Hall continued to be the town's government hall. By 1805 the town decided to expand the building. Undertaken by Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, the Hall reopened in 1806 to the dimensions it now is today. As Boston continued to grow in the 1800s, though, the direct voter system of a town meeting grew increasingly unwieldy. In 1822 a final town meeting approved the motion to recharter Boston as a city with a mayor and alderman board. The City eventually established a separate City Hall and moved offices and most functions out of Faneuil Hall. Yet because of its space and history, the City retained ownership of Faneuil Hall as a public event and meeting space.


Boston's Cradle of Liberty

In the 19th century the Hall's memory as the "Cradle of Liberty" of the Revolution drew political and social activists both locally and nationally to continue what the founding generation started. Abolitionists, suffragists, labor unionists—and their respective opposition movements—all held conventions, banquets, and orations in the Great Hall. In the 20th century, the hall was televised for John F. Kennedy's last campaign speech during the 1960 presidential race. To this day the remains a continuously used meeting place for political and civic events.


Marketplace and Armory

While most accounts of history focus on Faneuil Hall as the meeting place of the Revolution, the hall served other vital civic functions as well. Indeed, Peter Faneuil's initial vision for the hall was that of a central public marketplace. Though controversy surrounded the notion of centralized markets during the middle 1700s, by the early 1800s most Bostonians recognized that the innovation was vital for a rapidly growing city. Soon the demand outstripped Faneuil Hall's capacity. In 1824 the City unveiled plans to expand the marketplace by building the new and much larger Quincy Market, flanked by the equally massive North and South Markets. To this day, the entire area comprises a festival marketplace collectively called "Faneuil Hall Marketplace." Roughly 20 million people pass through this marketplace every year.

While the first floor of Faneuil Hall has served as a market and the second floor served as the government hall, the top floor served as an armory for the town's protection. Boston had several militia companies, and many began storing their equipment in the attic of Faneuil Hall in the 1740s. When the hall was expanded in 1806, offices and a large assembly room on the top floor were specifically designed to permit the militia companies to continue to organize, meet, and drill. Of these companies which trained and met in Faneuil Hall for generations, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company is the oldest and the only unit who still call the hall home. Today, the Ancients mantain an armory and museum on the top floor.

Last updated: March 14, 2020

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