J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Cradle of Liberty’s Doorways into the Past

In the early designs of Faneuil Hall, I believe, the bottom level of the building was surrounded by a series of arches open to the air. In the 1800s some of those arches were turned into windows, others into doors.

I once heard Massachusetts Historical Society president Bill Fowler say to members on a tour of the fire-suppression system, “Each of these tanks represents a naming opportunity.” In the same way, I propose, each of those doors is a chance to honor more Bostonians who contributed to the Cradle of Liberty and to tell the public more about its history.

Now here’s where not being able to visit the hall easily these days gets in my way. I’m not sure how many doors there are and which offer public access. Photographs indicate there are three doors on the west side (facing Congress Street) and five on the east side (facing Quincy Market), plus a ramp to a door on the north for people with limited mobility. There are probably other doors on the north and south sides, but perhaps not for the public.

So here’s a proposal on designating those doors in the Hall Formerly Known as Faneuil.

We can name the three central entrances on the east side “The Freeholders’ Entrance,” “The People’s Entrance,” and “The Inhabitants’ Entrance.” That would reflect the three types of meetings that took place in Faneuil Hall when it was the seat of Boston’s government:
  • ordinary town meetings, described in official records as “a Meeting of the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, at Faneuil Hall,…”
  • meetings of inhabitants meeting a higher property requirement (“freeholders”) to elect Boston’s representatives to the Massachusetts General Court.
  • meetings of “the Body of the People” with no legal authority but expressing popular sentiment on non-importation, tea, slavery, and other issues. 
For visitors, the different designations on those doors could spur questions about who had a voice in Boston’s government.

The remaining two doors on the east side could be named to honor the selectmen and the town clerk (and other employees) who kept Boston’s government running. Ideally, those portals would be close to the selectmen’s and clerk’s chambers, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I’m tempted to name the entrances in specific honor of:
  • William Cooper, town clerk from 1761 to 1809, or more than half the time Faneuil Hall was the seat of Boston’s government.
  • Harbottle Dorr as representative of all the selectmen in that period, if only so we could refer to “the Dorr Door.”
Over on the west side, I propose to call the central door, right behind the statue of Samuel Adams, the Adams Entrance. The Boston town meeting was Adams’s main base of support. Of course, his surname prompts thoughts of his relatives from Braintree, but they had much less to do with Faneuil Hall.

Another west door would become the Nell Entrance in honor of William Cooper Nell, Boston historian and civil rights activist. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, Nell organized a commemoration of the Boston Massacre inside the hall in 1858, one of many protests he led in the ante-bellum period. Nell also wrote two books about African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War, arguing that black men had always contributed to the nation and deserved equal rights within it.

The third door on the west side would be the Stone Entrance in honor of Lucy Stone, advocate not only for racial equality but for extending the vote to the half of the population who are women. She organized and spoke at the New England Women’s Tea Party held in Faneuil Hall on 15 Dec 1873, timing the event to the centenary of the most famous Boston Tea Party. Like Nell, Stone used the building’s Revolutionary fame to advance rights for more Americans.

Along the sides, I’d call one door the Peter Faneuil Entrance (or Exit), acknowledging his original gift to Boston. This could be in the portion of the building that he originally funded. That designation would allow signage to discuss both his gift to Boston and the businesses that money came from.

I’d name another side doorway as the Bulfinch Entrance, recognizing Charles Bulfinch, the local architect who expanded the hall to its present dimensions in 1806.

If there are more side doors, there are other historic figures associated with the Cradle of Liberty. James Otis, Jr., was very active at Boston town meetings during the 1760s, and the city may lack monuments that reflect his importance. Wendell Phillips came to prominence with anti-slavery speeches in Faneuil Hall. Boston politics owes a lot to Elisha Cooke, Sr., and Elisha Cooke, Jr., organizers of the town’s first political machine, though neither lived to see Faneuil Hall.

And there may well be other figures I haven’t thought of. There may be convincing arguments besides historical inertia for retaining the building’s original name and set-up. This proposal is just my attempt to communicate through public memorials at a prominent civic site how:

  • Our society no longer overlooks the enslaved people who suffered for Peter Faneuil’s wealth.
  • We maintain the memory of local slavery and the efforts it took to correct it.
  • We recognize historical change and the possibility of change in the future.

1 comment:

G. Lovely said...

The space on the West side of Faneuil Hall is roughly two acres, with little more than Adam's statue. Surely this presents a great opportunity to commemorate those who were instrumental in the development of the city as not only "The Cradle of Liberty" but just as importantly the birthplace of American mechantilism from 1630 on, the that economy independence it fostered, and the on-going struggles for equality. Paris has its pantheon, Cooperstown its Hall of Fame, Hollywood a Walk of Fame. Why not a plaza paved with monuments to all the great Bostonians past, present, and future who have made the city, and our nation, what it is. You can still name the doors.