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.
Peter Faneuil's Gift
Peter Faneuil was the son of French Huguenot parents who emigrated to the colony of New York at the beginning of the 1700s. When his parents died, Faneuil came to live with his uncle Andrew Faneuil in Boston. Andrew amassed a fortune as a merchant in town, and evidently Peter became the favored nephew. When Andrew Faneuil 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. Faneuil traded in many commodities which only increased his wealth and prosperity. However, a significant portion of this prosperity came directly as well as indirectly from human enslavement. Faneuil himself owned enslaved people of African descent in his household, traded extensively in goods produced by enslaved labor, supplied materials that supported plantation economies, and his capital directly funded several voyages to purchase enslaved Africans off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Beyond this complicated economic and social legacy, Peter Faneuil sought to leave a personal legacy through a public gift. In 1740, Faneuil approached the town's government—the town meeting—with a proposal to establish a permanent central marketplace in the heart of Boston. Faneuil himself promised to personally fund the construction of the building. Yet despite such a generous offer, the proposal proved to be a very contentious issue. Many opponents raised concerns 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. Construction 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 served as 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 the building. 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 1800s, 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 protests, conventions, banquets, and orations in the Great Hall continuously in the 1800s. Despite political resistance and sometime outright street violence, abolitionists began to rebrand the Hall as a vital local and national stage for resisting the institution of slavery. Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and countless other abolitionist orators spoke in the name of freedom. In 1854, perhaps the most dramatic of these events took place in response to the arrest of Anthony Burns under the Fugitive Slave Law. Opposite these events, anti-abolitionists held meetings at Faneuil Hall calling for "Union" and continued support of the Constitution and the status quo. One such speaker was Jefferson Davis, at the invitation of the Democratic party of Boston. Following the Civil War, suffragists led by women such as Lucy Stone protested the centennial of the Boston Tea Party as continued "taxation without representation." Other meetings of a wide variety continued throughout this period. Organized labor unions, immigrant groups, and other political organizations such as the Anti-Imperialist League relied on the Hall to continue the ongoing American Revolution into its second century.
In the 1900s, activism continued, ranging from John F. Kennedy's final 1960 presidential campaign speech on national television to civil rights activism, anti-war protests, and Gay and Lesbian Town Meetings. To this day the Hall remains a continuously used meeting place for political and civic events: a third century of the American Revolution and beyond.
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 calls the hall home. Today, the Ancients mantain an armory and museum on the top floor.
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Last updated: January 14, 2022