A story is told of the late Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first lecture, in Cincinnati, forty years ago. A worthy pork-packer, who was observed to listen with close attention to the enigmatic utterances of the sage, was asked by one of his friends what he thought of the performance.
„I liked it very well,” said he, „and I’m glad I went, because I learned from it how the Boston people pronounce Faneuil Hall.”
He was perhaps mistaken, for it is hardly probable that Mr. Emerson gave the name in the old-fashioned Boston style, which was a good deal like the word funnel. The story, however, may serve to show what a widespread and intense reputation the building has. Of all the objects in Boston it is probably the one best known to the people of the United States, and the one surest to be visited by the stranger. The Hall is a curious, quaint little interior, with its high galleries, and its collection of busts and pictures of Revolutionary heroes. Peter Faneuil little thought what he was doing when he built it, though he appears to have been a man of liberal and enlightened mind.
The Faneuils were prosperous merchants in the French city of Rochelle in 1685, when Louis XIV. revoked the Edict of Nantes. The great-grandfather of John Jay was also in large business there at that time, and so were the ancestors of our Delanceys, Badeaus, Pells, Secors, Allaires, and other families familiar to the ears of New Yorkers, many of them having distinguished living representatives among us. They were of the religion „called Reformed,” as the king of France contemptuously styled it. Reformed or not, they were among the most intelligent, enterprising, and wealthy of the merchants of Rochelle.
How little we can conceive the effect upon their minds of the order which came from Paris in October, 1685, which was intended to put an end forever to the Protestant religion in France. The king meant to make thorough work of it. He ordered all the Huguenot churches in the kingdom to be instantly demolished. He forbade the dissenters to assemble either in a building or out of doors, on pain of death and confiscation of all their goods. Their clergymen were required to leave the kingdom within fifteen days. Their schools were interdicted, and all children hereafter born of Protestant parents were to be baptized by the Catholic clergymen, and reared as Catholics.
These orders were enforced with reckless ferocity, particularly in the remoter provinces and cities of the kingdom. The Faneuils, the Jays, and the Delanceys of that renowned city saw their house of worship leveled with the ground. Dragoons were quartered in their houses, whom they were obliged to maintain, and to whose insolence they were obliged to submit, for the troops were given to understand that they were the king’s enemies and had no rights which royal soldiers were bound to respect. At the same time, the edict forbade them to depart from the kingdom, and particular precautions were taken to prevent men of capital from doing so.
John Jay records that the ancestor of his family made his escape by artifice, and succeeded in taking with him a portion of his property. Such was also the good fortune of the brothers Faneuil, who were part of the numerous company from old Rochelle who emigrated to New York about 1690, and formed a settlement upon Long Island Sound, twelve miles from New York, which they named, and which is still called, New Rochelle. The old names can still be read in that region, both in the churchyards and upon the door plates, and the village of Pelham recalls the name of the Pell family who fled from Rochelle about the same time, and obtained a grant of six thousand acres of land near by. The newcomers were warmly welcomed, as their friends and relations were in England.
The Faneuil brothers did not remain long in New Rochelle, but removed to Boston in 1691. Benjamin and Andrew were their names. There are many traces of them in the early records, indicating that they were merchants of large capital and extensive business for that day. There are evidences also that they were men of intelligence and public spirit. They appear to have been members of the Church of England in Boston, which of itself placed them somewhat apart from the majority of their fellow-citizens.
Peter Faneuil, the builder of the famous Hall, who was born in Boston about 1701, the oldest of eleven children, succeeded to the business founded by his uncle Andrew, and while still a young man had greatly increased it, and was reckoned one of the leading citizens.
A curious controversy had agitated the people of Boston for many years. The town had existed for nearly a century without having a public market of any kind, the country people bringing in their produce and selling it from door to door. In February, 1717, occurred the Great Snow, which destroyed great numbers of domestic and wild animals, and caused provisions for some weeks to be scarce and dear. The inhabitants laid the blame of the dearness to the rapacity of the hucksters, and the subject being brought up in town meeting, a committee reported that the true remedy was to build a market, to appoint market days, and establish rules. The farmers opposed the scheme, as did also many of the citizens. The project being defeated, it was revived year after year, but the country people always contrived to defeat it. An old chronicler has a quaint passage on the subject.
„The country people,” he says, „always opposed the market, so that the question could not be settled. The reason they give for it is, that if market days were appointed, all the country people coming in at the same time would glut it, and the towns-people would buy their provisions for what they pleased; so rather choose to send them as they think fit. And sometimes a tall fellow brings in a turkey or goose to sell, and will travel through the whole town to see who will give most for it, and it is at last sold for three and six pence or four shillings; and if he had stayed at home, he could have earned a crown by his labor, which is the customary price for a day’s work. So any one may judge of the stupidity of the country people.”
In Boston libraries, pamphlets are still preserved on this burning question of a market, which required seventeen years of discussion before a town meeting was brought to vote for the erection of market houses. In 1734, seven hundred pounds were appropriated for the purpose. The market hours were fixed from sunrise to 1 P. M., and a bell was ordered to be rung to announce the time of opening. The country people, however, had their way, notwithstanding. They so resolutely refrained from attending the markets that in less than four years the houses fell into complete disuse. One of the buildings was taken down, and the timber used in constructing a workhouse; one was turned into stores, and the third was torn to pieces by a mob, who carried off the material for their own use.
Nevertheless, the market question could not be allayed, for the respectable inhabitants of the town were still convinced of the need of a market as a defense against exorbitant charges. For some years the subject was brought up in town meetings; but as often as it came to the point of appropriating money the motion was lost. At length Mr. Peter Faneuil came forward to end the dissension in a truly magnificent manner. He offered to build a market house at his own expense, and make a present of it to the town.
Even this liberal offer did not silence opposition. A petition was presented to the town meeting, signed by three hundred and forty inhabitants, asking the acceptance of Peter Faneuil’s proposal. The opposition to it, however, was strong. At length it was agreed that, if a market house were built, the country people should be at liberty to sell their produce from door to door if they pleased. Even with this concession, only 367 citizens voted for the market and 360 voted against it. Thus, by a majority of seven, the people of Boston voted to accept the most munificent gift the town had received since it was founded.
Peter Faneuil went beyond his promise. Besides building an ample market place, he added a second story for a town hall, and other offices for public use. The building originally measured one hundred feet by forty, and was finished in so elegant a style as to be reckoned the chief ornament of the town. It was completed in 1742, after two years had been spent in building it. It had scarcely been opened for public use when Peter Faneuil died, aged a little less than forty-three years. The grateful citizens gave him a public funeral, and the Selectmen appointed Mr. John Lovell, schoolmaster, to deliver his funeral oration in the Hall bearing his name. The oration was entered at length upon the records of the town, and has been frequently published.
In 1761 the Hall was destroyed by fire. It was immediately rebuilt, and this second structure was the Faneuil Hall in which were held the meetings preceding and during the war for Independence, which have given it such universal celebrity. Here Samuel Adams spoke. Here the feeling was created which made Massachusetts the centre and source of the revolutionary movement.
Let me not omit to state that those obstinate country people, who knew what they wanted, were proof against the attractions of Faneuil Hall market. They availed themselves of their privilege of selling their produce from door to door, as they had done from the beginning of the colony. Fewer and fewer hucksters kept stalls in the market, and in a few years the lower room was closed altogether. The building served, however, as Town Hall until it was superseded by structures more in harmony with modern needs and tastes.
What thrilling scenes the Hall has witnessed! That is a pleasing touch in one of the letters of John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, where he alludes to what was probably his last visit to the scene of his youthful glory, Faneuil Hall. Mr. Adams was eighty-three years old at the time, and it was the artist Trumbull, also an old man, who prevailed upon him to go to the Hall.
„Trumbull,” he wrote, „with a band of associates, drew me by the cords of old friendship to see his picture, on Saturday, where I got a great cold. The air of Faneuil is changed. I have not been used to catch cold there.„
No, indeed. If the process of storing electricity had been applied to the interior of this electric edifice, enough of the fluid could have been saved to illuminate Boston every Fourth of July. It is hard to conceive of a tranquil or commonplace meeting there, so associated is it in our minds with outbursts of passionate feeling.
Speaking of John Adams calls to mind an anecdote related recently by a venerable clergyman of New York, Rev. William Hague. Mr. Hague officiated as chaplain at the celebration of the Fourth of July in Boston, in 1843, when Charles Francis Adams delivered the oration in Faneuil Hall, which was his first appearance on a public platform. While the procession was forming to march to the Hall, ex-President John Quincy Adams entered into conversation with the chaplain, during which he spoke as follows: –
„This is one of the happiest days of my whole life. Fifty years expire to-day since I performed in Boston my first public service, which was the delivery of an oration to celebrate our national independence. After half a century of active life, I am spared by a benign Providence to witness my son’s performance of his first public service, to deliver an oration in honor of the same great event.”
The chaplain replied to Mr. Adams: –
„President, I am well aware of the notable connection of events to which you refer; and having committed and declaimed a part of your own great oration when a schoolboy in New York, I could without effort repeat it to you now.”
The aged statesman was surprised and gratified at this statement. The procession was formed and the oration successfully delivered. Since that time, I believe, an Adams of the fourth generation has spoken in the same place, and probably some readers will live to hear one of the fifth and sixth.
The venerable John Adams might well say that he had not been used to catch cold in the air of Faneuil Hall, for as far as I know there has never been held there a meeting which has not something of extraordinary warmth in its character. I have mentioned above that the first public meeting ever held in it after its completion in 1742 was to commemorate the premature death of the donor of the edifice; on which occasion Mr. John Lovell delivered a glowing eulogium.
„Let this stately edifice which bears his name,” cried the orator, „witness for him what sums he expended in public munificence. This building, erected by him, at his own immense charge, for the convenience and ornament of the town, is incomparably the greatest benefaction ever yet known to our western shore.”
Towards the close of his speech, the eloquent schoolmaster gave utterance to a sentiment which has often since been repeated within those walls.
„May this hall be ever sacred to the interests of truth, of justice, of loyalty, of honor, of liberty. May no private views nor party broils ever enter these walls.”
Whether this wish has been fulfilled or not is a matter of opinion. General Gage doubtless thought that it had not been.
Scenes of peculiar interest took place in the Hall about the beginning of the year 1761, when the news was received in Boston that King George II. had fallen dead in his palace at Kensington, and that George III., his grandson, had been proclaimed king. It required just two months for this intelligence to cross the ocean. The first thing in order, it seems, was to celebrate the accession of the young king. He was proclaimed from the balcony of the town house; guns were fired from all the forts in the harbor; and in the afternoon a grand dinner was given in Faneuil Hall. These events occurred on the last day but one of the year 1760.
The first day of the new year, 1761, was ushered in by the solemn tolling of the church bells in the town, and the firing of minute guns on Castle Island. These mournful sounds were heard all day, even to the setting of the sun. However doleful the day may have seemed, there was more appropriateness in these signs of mourning than any man of that generation could have known; for with George II. died the indolent but salutary let-them-alone policy under which the colonies enjoyed prosperity and peace. With the accession of the new king the troubles began which ended in the disruption of the empire. George III. was the last king whose accession received official recognition in the thirteen colonies.
I have hunted in vain through my books to find some record of the dinner given in Faneuil Hall to celebrate the beginning of the new reign. It would be interesting to know how the sedate people of Boston comported themselves on a festive occasion of that character. John Adams was a young barrister then. If the after-dinner speeches were as outspoken as the political comments he entered in his Diary, the proceedings could not have been very acceptable to the royal governor. Mr. Adams was far from thinking that England had issued victorious from the late campaigns, and he thought that France was then by far the most brilliant and powerful nation in Europe.
A few days after these loyal ceremonies, Boston experienced what is now known there as a „cold snap,” and it was so severe as almost to close the harbor with ice. One evening, in the midst of it, a fire broke out opposite Faneuil Hall. Such was the extremity of cold that the water forced from the engines fell upon the ground in particles of ice. The fire swept across the street and caught Faneuil Hall, the interior of which was entirely consumed, nothing remaining but the solid brick walls. It was rebuilt in just two years, and reopened in the midst of another remarkably cold time, which was signalized by another bad fire. There was so much distress among the poor that winter that a meeting was held in Faneuil Hall for their relief, Rev. Samuel Mather preaching a sermon on the occasion, and this was the first discourse delivered in it after it was rebuilt.
Seven years later the Hall was put to a very different use. A powerful fleet of twelve men-of-war, filled with troops, was coming across the ocean to apply military pressure to the friends of liberty. A convention was held in Faneuil Hall, attended by delegates from the surrounding towns, as well as by the citizens of Boston. The people were in consternation, for they feared that any attempt to land the troops would lead to violent resistance. The convention indeed requested the inhabitants to „provide themselves with firearms, that they may be prepared in case of sudden danger.”
The atmosphere was extremely electric in Boston just then. The governor sent word to the convention assembled in Faneuil Hall that their meeting was „a very high offense” which only their ignorance of the law could excuse; but the plea of ignorance could no longer avail them, and he commanded them to disperse. The convention sent a reply to the governor, which he refused to receive, and they continued in session until the fleet entered the harbor.
October 2, 1768, the twelve British men-of-war were anchored in a semicircle opposite the town, with cannon loaded, and cleared for action, as though Boston were a hostile stronghold, instead of a defenseless country town of loyal and innocent fellow-citizens. Two regiments landed; one of which encamped on the Common, and the other marched to Faneuil Hall, where they were quartered for four or five weeks. With one accord the merchants and property-owners refused to let any building for the use of the troops.
Boston people to this day chuckle over the mishap of the sheriff who tried to get possession of a large warehouse through a secret aperture in the cellar wall. He did succeed in effecting an entrance, with several of his deputies. But as soon as they were inside the building, the patriots outside closed the hole; and thus, instead of getting possession of the building, the loyal officers found themselves prisoners in a dark cellar.
They were there for several hours before they could get word to the commanding officer, who released them.
The joke was consolatory to the inhabitants. It was on this occasion that Rev. Mather Byles heightened the general merriment by his celebrated jest on the British soldiers:
„The people,” said he, „sent over to England to obtain a redress of grievances. The grievances have returned red-dressed.”
The Hall is still used for public meetings, and the region roundabout is still an important public market.