Unpacking ‘Place’ and ‘Place Name’ in the Debate to Rename Faneuil Hall

Comparison of two portraits of Peter Faneuil, one of him in front of a merchant vessel and one holding blueprints to his namesake hall.
Two portraits of Peter Faneuil. The one on the right is a reproduction of the one on the left. The left portrait depicts Faneuil against a backdrop with a ship, presumably a merchant vessel. The right portrait depicts Faneuil with blueprints for his namesake Hall; this version, the reproduction, hangs in the hall today.

In August, the social advocacy group New Democracy Coalition protested at Faneuil Hall in Boston to rename the building. Peter Faneuil, the building’s namesake, was a wealthy merchant whose riches were derived in part from the institution of slavery. Faneuil explicitly ordered his ship captains to apprehend people for enslavement in his own household. It is no wonder the New Democracy Coalition wants to disassociate place from place name.

Those in favor of change say the name is a relic of white supremacy; those against say revising it is like revising the past or worse, erasing history. The issue has become dichotomous in a way that pushes important historical context to the background. 

Unpacking the debate using a place-based approach can show us how Faneuil Hall has served competing, and sometimes antagonistic, interests. This framework can help us excavate the intricacies of the debate and better understand the nuances of the historical narratives already established and those now emerging.

First, a few quick housekeeping items.

A note about places and place names: people form deep attachments to places and their names. Across cultures and landscapes, people form unique attachments to sites and instill meaning in their names.

A note about memorials: All monuments are memorials but not all memorials are monuments; memorials can also be intangible, like days of remembrance, commemorative events, or places and place names.

A note about me: as a park guide for the National Parks of Boston, I cannot comment on the politics of the name change issue. Faneuil Hall has always been a city-owned building, so that is a municipal matter. But as a graduate student and public historian I intend to explore the complexities of place and how they affect our world.

“I was an advocate for preserving and providing for more public understanding and appreciation of the richness of our diverse cultural heritage, but also I was interested in telling the full story by bringing in new areas within the park system.”

Robert Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service

In this time of public reckoning with monuments and memorials, let us consider first that the name of the building, Faneuil Hall, is itself a memorial: we will see that Faneuil Hall was named purposefully to secure forever the memory of its patron, Peter Faneuil. The building itself, however, is not a monument to him. It was a public contribution and he was not involved at all in the naming process. We will also see that if nothing else, Faneuil Hall is a monument to the ongoing struggle for freedom, liberty, and justice for all.

“Hereafter be called and known by that Name”

Before Europeans settled the Shawmut Peninsula, the Massachusett tribe of Algonquin Native Americans inhabited the land we today call Boston. The site where Faneuil Hall sits today was once an inlet cove that archaeological evidence suggests the Massachusett used for fishing and harvesting shellfish.

English puritans colonized the peninsula and renamed it for the Lincolnshire town from which many of them originated. Immediately they recognized the cove’s commercial advantages. They built docks and wharves and facilitated trade in what quickly became the center of town. Commerce and enterprise characterized the cove, and it soon was known as Dock Square.

After a string of attempts to establish accessible marketplaces failed, Peter Faneuil gifted the hall to Boston in 1740. The idea unnerved some who thought a centralized market might tempt powerful merchants like Faneuil to set price rates at their discretion. The gift was accepted in town meeting by a razor thin margin of 367–360. 

When construction was completed in 1742, Faneuil had created “a Noble Structure far exceeding his First Proposal,” which, in addition to the market level, now included floorspace for regular town meetings and offices for elected officials.

The town voted unanimously to express “their Most hearty Thanks” to Faneuil, and considered a motion by Thomas Hutchinson — Boston’s favorite villain — to “perpetuate [Faneuil’s] Memory.” Bostonians, urged Hutchinson, ought then to “pass a Vote that the Hall over the Market place, be named Faneuil Hall, and at all times hereafter be called and known by that Name.”

The voters of Boston — a pool limited to wealthy, white, non-Catholic, landowning, adult males — voted unanimously in the affirmative. Thus, they effectively attached Faneuil’s name and his memory to the hall. When he died six months after construction, Faneuil was remembered fondly by his peers as a generous benefactor, and a rich one at that.

Engraving of Faneuil Hall in 1789.
This 1789 engraving is the only known depiction of the hall in its Revolutionary-era configuration. The Hall was expanded to its present size in 1806. / Library of Congress.

The eulogies and praise reinforced a specific perception of Faneuil in the collective memory of Boston: one of wealth and philanthropy. Bostonians came to associate these ideals with Faneuil himself, and from the on viewed the hall through a filter of puritan benevolence.

Nobody cared at the time that he was French, from New York, obscenely wealthy, and a slaver. Instead, they conjured an image of Faneuil as a Bostonian living up to the name of his flagship, the Jolly Batchelor; though it would be generations before people recognized the true role the Jolly Batchelor and Faneuil himself played in the Atlantic slave trade.

The “Cradle of Liberty”

Peter Faneuil was acutely aware of appearances and took great care to manage his own. Despite his French ancestry, he wanted to be seen as an English gentleman, an elite Bostonian, and an institutional booster. He wore the latest English fashions and decorated his home in the latest English styles. Faneuil even made gifts to the Anglican churches of Boston, spreading around his great wealth.

Faneuil died in 1743, never to see the hall in action. In fact, his funeral marked the occasion of the hall’s inaugural use as a public space. Thus from the very beginning of the hall as a town building, Peter Faneuil’s memory was tethered to the practice of civic engagement and municipal business, buttressed by Puritan charity and morals.

Faneuil Hall was an indispensable place for the Town of Boston. When a fire gutted the interior in 1761, repairs were financed by a public lottery instead of taxpayer dollars, showing the extent to which individuals (who could afford it) felt they had a personal and communal stake in the building.

In the 1760s, it became the “Cradle of Liberty.” John Adams and Sam Adams, James Otis, Joseph Warren and others debated how to secure their rights and liberties as British subjects. It evolved into a place where they adopted sometimes violent means to oppose British taxation, military occupation, and parliamentary prerogatives. Even the British used the hall. During the Siege of Boston when the town was occupied by the British military, it was at different times a barracks, an ammunition storehouse, and a theater where satirical performances were put on that dramatized the British in a most favorable light — It would have felt to Bostonians like adding insult to injury.

Following the Revolution, events ranging from regular town meetings to a dinner honoring George Washington during his tour of New England in 1787 helped crystallize Faneuil Hall as a site of democracy, patriotism, and birthplace of the new nation.

This concept was carried into the 19th century, through periods of volatile social and political change. The Abolitionists saw themselves as inheritors of America’s unfinished revolution(s).

Faneuil Hall fontal view with Sam Adams statue, snow on the ground.
Front view of Faneuil Hall in winter. / Image by the author.

Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner and other champions of emancipation preached abolition at Faneuil Hall at great risk to their own lives. They and allies fought to aid freed and escaped slaves, especially in the wake of the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act. This law empowered slave catchers and US Marshals to pull the formerly enslaved back into bondage with impunity. It was a flashpoint that generated explosive resistance in Boston.

Likewise, suffragists including Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, and Lucy Stone railed for women’s rights at Faneuil Hall. Women often evoked the Founding Fathers to demonstrate the inequities of the moment. Stone helped organize the 1873 Woman’s Tea Party 100-years after the Boston Tea Party, applying the same fundamental argument — taxation without representation is tyranny — to their cause.

Sense of place is potent but complicated. While progressive groups have used the hall to advocate and organize, so too have counter-protesters.

In 1850, Douglass and his colleagues were run off the stage at Faneuil Hall by an anti-abolitionist mob. In 1858, Senator Jefferson Davis from Mississippi spoke at Faneuil Hall in favor of the “sacred right” of property. He espoused the idea that human beings were property, a right protected in his eyes by the US Constitution, just three years before assuming the presidency of the Confederacy.

From the 1970s–1990s, the LGBTQ+ community hosted the annual Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting at Faneuil Hall to strategize how to secure their liberties and give voice to their struggle. Pro-choice supporters, too, organized at Faneuil Hall supporting a constitutional amendment to legalize abortion and continue to do so.

But as one site can be a different place to different people, Faneuil Hall was also a place where anti-segregationists, anti-LGBTQ+, and pro-life adherents also protested to promote their values, norms, and beliefs.

Interpreting Slavery

On June 2, 2002 the Boston Globe published a Q&A with Boston National Historical Park Ranger Matthew Greif. Over the past 15 years, he said, he and his fellow park staffers had been incorporating new historical frameworks into their ranger talks and tours.

“I talk about the issue of slavery, for instance,” he said. ”I’ll talk about Peter Faneuil being involved in the slave trade. I talk about that now and I never would have before.”

For better or for worse, the hall itself was named for Faneuil as a commemorative act. Hutchinson’s own words tell us this. But if we are to remember Faneuil the man forever, we must remember his role as a slave trader.

With the new millennium, the National Parks of Boston made the interpretation of colonial Bostonians’ complicity in the institution of slavery a priority. In 2002, the National Park Service published its Long-Range Interpretive Plan (LRIP) for Boston National Historical Park. It contains ideas to improve interpretive themes, visitor experience, outreach and education, and areas for further research.

Specifically, it calls for more research to uncover “information on the colonial slave trade; information on every day [sic] life in Boston (from a woman’s perspective, a child’s perspective); information on African American and Native American participation in the Revolution.”

Slavery was a significant aspect of port activity in Boston. Records point to hundreds of slave voyages dating from Boston’s founding to the eve of the US Civil War. Even if human beings were not trafficked in the same volume as Southern ports, other materials with direct connections to the slave trade were shipped in and out of Boston, such as salted cod, molasses, rum, and textiles. These goods and others featured prominently in the triangle trade. Many goods and resources people used on a daily basis were linked to the institution of slavery.

Freedpeople and escaped slaves also formed tight-knit communities in Boston. In particular, the North End, by Copps Hill, and the north slope of Beacon Hill, were predominantly Black neighborhoods and even contained safehouses along the Underground Railroad.

This tack towards a more deliberate inclusion of diverse histories, especially silenced histories related to slavery and resistance, in the National Park Service’s interpretations was a strategy implemented from the top down. Park Service Director Robert Stanton once said, “I was an advocate for preserving and providing for more public understanding and appreciation of the richness of our diverse cultural heritage, but also I was interested in telling the full story by bringing in new areas within the park system.”

Back to the Present

Peter Faneuil was an enslaver. He funded expeditions to Africa to retrieve people to be sold into slavery, and when he died his estate listed five people enslaved in his own household. The Faneuil Hall name-change debate is important because it opens the door for historians to explore in detail the nuances of the past, which can be a difficult task in today’s world of enriched media and social media character limits.

This fact complicates our understanding of Faneuil Hall and the legacy of Peter Faneuil. It is not easy to reconcile. It was a fact long dormant to the public and one not revitalized until the 21st century.

Screenshot of different links from National Parks of Boston website that explore Peter Faneuil's role in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Screenshot of the portal created by the National Park Service to help explore the complicated legacy of Peter Faneuil and the central role of slavery in shaping Boston’s 18th century economy.

But by virtue of its complexity, this historical context can easily be obscured in the public dialogue. Local media like the Boston Globe, WBUR, and WCVB, for example, did not include the hall’s long and varied place-based history in their coverage of the demonstration.

For better or for worse, the hall itself was named for Faneuil as a commemorative act. Hutchinson’s own words tell us this. But if we are to remember Faneuil the man forever, we must remember his role as a slave trader. The National Park Service sees to this and does an indefatigable job incorporating slavery into its public programming.

The Faneuil Hall name-change debate is important because it opens the door for historians to explore in detail the nuances of the past, which can be a difficult task in today’s world of enriched media and social media character limits.

It also highlights the importance of interpretation, and the necessity to revisit people, places, and events through the lens of the period we are in and through which we have lived. It is this examination and analysis of history from multiple viewpoints that prevents its erasure. Continuous interpretation and reexamination of the difficult subjects of white supremacy and human enslavement is essential to grasping the past and the present, especially at Faneuil Hall.

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