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, July 10, 2024

A Sestercentennial Town Meeting in Old South

Tomorrow, 11 July, and then again on Thursdays every two weeks, Revolutionary Spaces’ Old South Meeting House will host programs based on the Boston town meeting that started on 13 May 1774.

In fact, two town meetings happened in Faneuil Hall that day. The first convened at 10:00 A.M., a continuation of Boston’s regular May meeting. That’s when men who met the property qualification voted on the town’s representatives to the Massachusetts assembly and then dealt with various other matters.

That May those other matters included “firing small Arms on the Neck,” a proposal for a well and pump in Dock Square, and so on. Most questions, like the schoolteachers’ salaries, were put off. The citizens formally adjourned until the first Monday in July.

But at 11:00 A.M. a new meeting officially started. News of the Boston Port Bill had arrived in town, and it presented an emergency.

The gathering chose Samuel Adams as the moderator; he’d served the same role in the earlier meeting (after being reelected to the legislature).

The first motion was to read the Port Bill, the second to ask the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper (shown above) to lead a prayer. He came to do so, after making sure the meeting understood “he was just returned fatigued from a Journey.”

Then came the inevitable proposal to form a committee, in this case to formulate a response to the new law. “After some Debate” on that, the meeting broke off for midday dinner and resumed at 3:00 P.M.

In the afternoon, everyone (with no dissenting votes) agreed to appoint a committee “to take the several Proposals, that have been made, & others that may be made, relative to our Conduct on the present Exigency, into their Consideration, & report, as soon as may be, their Opinion.” That’s a very vague mandate, probably recognizing a range of proposals and a lot of unknowns.

There were practical problems, like how to employ or support the many people who would lose work without the maritime trade. There were political considerations like assessing and strengthening support elsewhere—one action everyone agreed right away was communicating with other towns, especially the port of Salem and Marblehead. And finally, there was the choice posed by the Boston Port Bill itself: Should the town (or citizens) repay the cost of the tea destroyed in December?

The staff of Boston National Historical Park designed a program to recreate that discussion, 250 years ago in May. That program is usually offered in the big meeting space in Faneuil Hall, but that’s being refurbished. Like Boston’s overflow public meetings, therefore, these sessions have been moved to Old South.

The events will start at 5:30 P.M. on 11 July, 25 July, 8 August, and 22 August. They’re free, but registration is encouraged.

The programs last about half an hour—much less time than Boston’s town meeting that began on 13 May—and I don’t think was ever officially dissolved.

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