United States

On Boston’s Freedom Trail: Charting American revolutionary journey in a city

Throw the tea into the sea! At Griffin’s Wharf in Boston Harbour emotions were running high as angry rebels marched on to the Beaver and launched tea crates into the water. With each valuable chest thrown over the side of the whaler there was a cheer from the crowd.

It was, however, all just a bit of fun. Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum allows visitors to play their part in what has been described as the single most important event in the American Revolution. After assuming the characters of 18th century colonists for a gathering in a mocked-up meeting hall where it was decided to launch the Tea Party, the group headed onto the replica ship.

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

Thanks to a series of actor re-enactments and multimedia displays, the momentous events of December 16th 1773 are recalled. On that day some 60 men, disguised as Indians, emptied the contents of 340 chests of tea – worth around £10,000 – into the Harbour waters in less than three hours (the only known surviving chest is on display in the museum). At the attraction’s Abigail’s Tea Room, you can sample the exact five teas that were thrown over board in 1773.

The Boston Tea Party was triggered by what were deemed unfair taxes, imposed on the colonies by parliament. Historian Tristram Hunt wrote in his book, Ten Cities That Made An Empire, that “here was a city which stoically laboured under the heel of British colonialism until the greed and arrogance of the occupiers finally forced the citizens to turn freedom-fighters.” He added: “Its birth and growth signalled the coming of the British urban footprint across the globe, whilst its unexpected rebellion in 1773 marked the first great rupture in the imperial story.”

Speaking out

Quincy Market in Boston is a popular place for visitors to get a bite to eat at lunchtime. The 40 or so stalls sprawled out along the long covered space offering cuisines from bagels and mac n cheese to curries and seafood. If that sounds a bit hectic, there also around 20 restaurants with tables spilling out onto to the street, which provide a perfect vantage point for watching the world go by.

The star – but often overlooked – attraction here however is Faneuil Hall, which has served as a marketplace and meeting place since it was built in 1742. In the run-up to the Revolution local people gathered in the Great Hall to voice opposition to British policies, not least to rally against what were deemed oppressive taxes introduced by Parliament. Faneuil Hall is just one of 16 stops on a marked 2.5-mile walking trail known as the Freedom Trail which charts Boston’s revolutionary history.

Faneuil Hall

Britain needed to replenish its coffers after seven years of war against France from 1756 to 1763, with the country having doubled its national debt and increased fivefold the cost of running America during that conflict. The British government therefore thought the the colonies should pay their share. “If America looks to Great Britain for protection, she must enable us to protect her,” said one MP. “If she expects our fleets, she must assist our revenue.”

The historian Niall Ferguson added in book, Empire, that membership of the British Empire “was good – very good – for the North American colonial economy.” He added: “The much-maligned Navigation Acts [first passed in the 1650s] may have given British ships a monopoly over trade with the colonies, but they also guaranteed a market for North American exports of agricultural staples, cattle, pig iron and, indeed ships.”

When a new Governor arrived in Boston in 1760 he commented: “There is most perfect harmony in the government of this province.” But in a matter of just a few years relations soon deteriorated over Parliament’s constitutional right to tax its American colonies without their consent. Before that in 1761 British officials issued Writs of Assistance, documents allowing general searches or private property, something that Boston merchants were strongly against.

The 1764 Sugar Act imposed a tax that hit Boston’s distillers hard. But it was extension of the Stamp Act to the colonies in 1765, which introduced a direct tax on essentially all printed material – from newspapers to playing cards – that outraged the chattering classes. Mobs brought violence and property was damaged.

At the heart of the issue was the fact that Massachusetts was being taxed by a legislative assembly (Parliament) in which it was not represented. No taxation without representation became the rallying cry by the rebels.

After representatives from nine of the 13 colonies petitioned the king to repeal the Stamp Act, it was eventually scrapped in May 1766. “This day is the Joyfull Day indeed for all America and all the people are to Rejoice,” wrote one Boston resident in his diary. Firework displays and celebratory dinners were held in the town.

But on the general principal of taxation, Parliament still maintained “it had, hath and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws and statues of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America”. Battle lines had been drawn for further confrontation.

And in July 1767 the Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townsend increased duties on paper, glass and tea imported to the colonies. Such was the violent reaction in Boston that the following year British troops were sent to occupy the town to keep order, with a camp being set up on Boston Common.

The occupation brought about a tense atmosphere in Boston and on March 5th 1770 the situation erupted. Apprentices started to provoke soldiers guarding the Custom House on King Street (now State Street), but after one of the protestors was hit with the butt of a British musket the local mob arrived. As the crowd grew to several hundred strong, soldiers were pelted with everything from stones to snowballs and in response fired on the gathering. Five Bostonians were killed.

Paul Revere, the Patriot and silversmith, produced a best-selling print of the scene which was dubbed ‘the Bloody Massacre’. In reality, it was nothing more than an ‘incident’ and the soldiers were acquitted, but the name ‘Boston Massacre’ has stuck. And thanks to the Patriot spin, the British government backed down and troops were withdrawn. The Townsend Duties were repealed, but tension still remained over one import – tea.

Countdown to independence

While Faneuil Hall was the town’s official meeting place, gatherings also took place in other venues such as Old South Meeting House around five minutes walk away. Built in 1729 as a Puritan house of worship, it was Boston’s largest hall and, from 1770, the steeple hosted an enormous clock that remains in place today. Founding father Benjamin Franklin was baptised here and, in 1740, the itinerant preacher George Whitfield visited Boston and delivered sermons at the venue. It’s now preserved as a museum.

Puritans believed in stripping out extensive ritual and religious symbols from worship and so the architecture of their meeting houses reflected this simplicity. Old South however also brought Anglican influences, resembling on the outside the churches that Christopher Wren built in the City of London. The ground floor and first gallery contained pews which were rented out by wealthy families, while apprentices, servants and slaves sat on the upper gallery.

Old South Meeting House

But as well as acting as a place of worship, the Old South played a vital role in the Revolutionary War. It was here that for three days in December 1773 a gathering called the “Body of the People” was held, which culminated in Samuel Adams telling the 5000 angry colonialists present: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”. And with that the rebels set off to launch the Boston Tea Party.

The Tea Act had been passed in May 1773, handing a monopoly to the East India Company to sell tea in North America. In Boston, the arrival of three tea ships in December had created anger and merchants refused to allow the vessels to be unloaded. It was at the Old South gathering that the Sons of Liberty took matters into their own hands.

“But most people assume in it was a protest against a hike in the tax on tea. In fact the price of the tea in question was exceptionally low, since the British government had just given the East Indies Company a rebate of the much higher duty the tea had incurred on entering Britain. In effect, the tea left Britain duty free and to pay only the much lower American duty on arriving in Boston. Tea had never been cheaper in New England. The ‘Party’ was organised not by irate consumers but by Boston’s wealth smugglers, who stood to lose out.”

Ferguson noted that people at the time were fully aware of the irony of the protests. “Will not the posterity be amazed,” said one contemporary sceptic he quoted, “when they are told that the present distraction took its rise from the parliament’s taking off a shilling duty on a pound of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?”

Inside Old South Meeting House

Countdown to war

When King George III heard, in January 1774, about the Boston Tea Party he expressed “much hurt that the instigation of bad men hath again drawn the people of Boston to take such unjustifiable steps.” The town suffered badly after Parliament closed its port and martial law was imposed. Boston resembled a military fortress after the arrival of thousands of British troops. “New England, the heart of the trouble, must be severed..” Britain declared.

In late 1774 the first Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia where resolutions were reached on withhold all taxes from the British government. “No taxation without representation,” said John Adams.

The following year as the situation intensified, British troops set off for Lexington and Concord. At Old North Church in Boston, the sexton hung two lanterns from the building’s steeple on April 18th 1775 as a sign that the British would advance on the Massachusetts towns by the sea route. Paul Revere set out from his house in North Square in Boston (the town’s oldest surviving house, built in the 1680s) on his famous midnight to deliver the message in person. War broke out the following day, on April 19th, in Lexington and Concord.

Paul Revere’s house in Boston’s North End

At Bunker Hill, the Bostonians inflicted significant damage to British morale on June 17th 1775. The Redcoats won but their losses were greater than expected (while there were only a few colonial casualties). Today, after climbing 295 steps to the top of the 220ft granite Bunker Hill Monument – erected between 1827 and 1843 on what is actually Breed’s Hill – visitors are rewarded with wonderful views across the city.

In March 1776 American soldiers forced the British to evacuate Boston. George Washington, who had by now assumed command of the Continental Army, seized British cannons and trained them on British ships in Boston Harbor. The British fled.

Independence declared

On July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence was adopted by representatives of 13 seccesionist colonies at the Second Continental Congress. Two weeks later it was read to Bostonians from the balcony of Old State House. That night, symbols of Britain’s royal power – the unicorn and lion – were torn from building and burned on a bonfire in the street (the replacement animals were returned to the building in 1882).

Before the Revolution, this red-brick building dating from 1713 – making it the city’s oldest surviving public building – had been the seat of the Massachusetts colonial government. Directly in front of it, the aforementioned Boston Massacre took place. After independence, Old State House was used as the seat of government for the Commonwealth until the magnificent new Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill was opened in 1798.

Old State House

Today a museum, Old State House looks somewhat out of place against a backdrop of modern towering buildings. The Council chamber where colony’s Governor met his 28 member advisory body and functioned as the upper house of the colonial legislature, has been set out as it would have appeared in 1764 with fine furniture. In the neighbouring room, the 125 elected members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives travelled from across county for twice yearly sessions from 1713 to 1774.

In 1780 delegates gathered at Old State House to develop Massachusetts Constitution – the oldest written constitution in the world. And it was from the balcony of Old State House that John Hancock was announced as the first elected, post independence Governor.

Council Chamber at Old State House

New Massachusetts State House, Beacon Hill (opened in 1798)

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