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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Thursday, July 02, 2020

”Altering the Name of ROYAL Exchange Lane”

As I quoted yesterday, in 1796 William Cobbett, a Federalist writer based in Philadelphia, complained about Bostonians changing the name of “Royal Exchange Alley” to “Equality Lane.”

Cobbett said this showed the pernicious effect of the French Revolution on America. He thought that the name “Liberty Stump” showed the same effect even though, as discussed yesterday, that term for the remains of Liberty Tree predated the French Revolution by over a decade.

The name “Equality Lane” doesn’t appear in the records of the Boston selectmen. It’s not mentioned in the town directories of 1789 and 1796, the earliest issued. I haven’t found it on any maps of the town. In 1910 the city published A Record of the Streets, Alleys, Places, etc. in the City of Boston, and that doesn’t include “Equality Lane” as an entry or as an alternative name for Exchange Alley.

Nonetheless, Cobbett was correct. For a very short time, under the influence of news from republican France, at least some Bostonians did rename Royal Exchange Alley as Equality Lane. The new name shows up in newspapers of early 1793—and let me tell you, those newspapers are wild!

The first hint of a change appears in the 21 Jan 1793 issue of Benjamin Edes’s Boston Gazette. That paper was full of news from Europe, including a list of “Places subdued by the victorious French,” a description from London of a procession in “Stratsbourg" in which “Louis the last was personated,” and news of a “Tree of Liberty” planted in Belfast with “NO KING AND LIBERTY” inscribed on it.

A great deal of page 3 was about a Civic Feast that Bostonians were planning later that week to celebrate “the triumph of Liberty in France,” which had become a republic in September 1792. A committee was selling tickets to a banquet inside Faneuil Hall, trying to gather the banners left over from President George Washington’s visit in 1789, and urging people to close their shops at noon. There would be plenty of roast ox, the committee promised.

One of the paragraphs associated with that festival said of a volunteer militia company:
The Boston Independent Fusileers, are to celebrate the CIVIC FEAST at Bryant’s Hall, near the Exchange.—They will make their appearance with a Cockade similar to that worn by the National Guards of France, the form of which was recommended to the Company by Madame PLACIDE.
John Bryant had announced just the previous month that he had “opened a Boarding and Lodging-House, in that large, roomy, and elegant building in Exchange-Lane.”

In the midst of all that festive planning was this small item:
A correspondent submits to the Citizens Selectmen, the propriety of altering the Name of ROYAL Exchange Lane.
As I said, there’s no evidence in the selectmen’s records that they took up that question, but the newspapers of the following weeks show that John Bryant did.

COMING UP: The citizens’ feast of 1793.


Don Carleton said...

John, you should consider sharing your research with the French Cultural Center/Alliance Francaise in Boston.

They might be able to incorporate some of what you've discovered about Boston's moment of (French) Revolutionary zeal into future Bastille Day programming, whenever that returns to normal...

J. L. Bell said...

It looks like the best work on this moment has been done by Simon P. Newman, author of Parades and the Politics of the Street. He even wrote a paper just about this festival in Boston, with a broader scope than my “Equality Lane” investigation.