Created by Caroline Klibanoff and Savita Maharaj



Faneuil Hall, located between the waterfront and Government Center in downtown Boston, is one of the city’s best-known tourist destinations that attracts visitors from around the world who come to see the site where famed revolutionaries and abolitionists in both the 18th and 19th centuries gave speeches that stirred the hearts of Americans yearning to be free. The hall serves as a gateway to other Massachusetts historical parks and the Freedom Trail, and faces a historic marketplace where visitors can buy food and souvenirs. The National Park Service, which operates the site and the visitor center, and the City of Boston, which owns the site, have smartly capitalized on its history. Tourists come to downtown Boston to be informed and inspired by tales of American ideals and revolutionary acts, and Faneuil Hall delivers just that. Even today, the 'cradle of liberty,' as it is commonly called, is used as a popular site for political debates, campaigning, citizenship swearing-in ceremonies and state funerals.

View of Faneuil-Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, 1789, Library of Congress,


Yet the historical record of the building is at odds with this narrative of liberty and justice, and the hall’s symbolism in popular culture. Namely, the hall’s very existence was financed in part through the slave trade; it sits near the historic site of Long Wharf where the slave trade thrived in Boston; and it still bears the name of Peter Faneuil, a known slave trader. Ultimately, Faneuil Hall’s ties to the slave trade complicate the uplifting narrative of “liberty” that the site currently projects.

Peter Faneuil, Slave Trader

Peter Faneuil’s family lineage can be traced back to wealthy French Huguenots who arrived in Boston by 1691. His uncle, Andrew Faneuil, made his wealth in real estate and imports, including consignment of European fabrics and gunpowder, and Peter along with his brother Benjamin joined their uncle in business.1 When Andrew died in 1738, he left his substantial estate to 38-year-old Peter, making him “the merchant prince of his time".2

Smibet, John, Peter Faneui, 1742, Painting,National Portrait Gallery,

Faneuil’s priority was building capital, with less concern for ethically- or morally- sound work. His ships were part of the Triangle Trade, which lined his own coffers as well as New England’s through slave labor, and there is evidence of at least one voyage planned by Faneuil to transport 20 Africans across the Atlantic Ocean.

Hancock family, Hancock family papers, 1664-1854, 1725-1729. Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School. 1725-1729.$6i

Yet his involvement in the slave trade was more extensive. A letter from 1738 directed Captain Peter Buckley to sell a shipment of fish and Alewives, worth 75 British pounds, in Antigua for the purchase of “a strait negro lad...about the age from twelve to fifteen years.”3 Faneuil indicated that this cargo should be of utmost importance,. The year before, he had written to Thomas Kilby asking him to sell two young black men “if you can get a good price".4 At one point, he made 1,644 British pounds from selling twenty slaves.5 Peter Faneuil definitely owned at least one slave and made money from ships and shipments that were connected with the slave trade, but the extent of his involvement was also typical of his time and socioeconomic class. Since he was among the wealthiest merchants in Boston, he had the means to own and trade slaves, and since he was exacting and eagle-eyed in his business affairs we can assume he was aware of what he was doing in trading human chattel. Yet there is no record of his thoughts on slavery, either for or against, and in assessing his life and work as a whole the slave trade seems to be a rather small part of his story.

The Meaning of the Hall

In an eagerness to paint the hall as the symbol of liberty – a symbol which served the purpose of reinforcing national identity and unity – the facts of Faneuil’s wealth acquired through slavery were pushed aside entirely, and an aggressive narrative of the hall as a site of freedom emerged.

Faneuilfelt his business would benefit from a local marketplace where trade could be centrally located. He gathered support via a petition and offered to erect the hall at his own cost. The conception of the hall as a “gift” of Faneuil’s ignores the fact that his wealth, which financed the hall, was built in part on the backs of unpaid slave labor.

Fourth of July festivities at Faneuil Hall, Boston” 1853.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Faneuil was consistently spoken of as a man of great charity, and when he died, six months after construction of the hall was completed in 1742, his death was mourned throughout Boston. D The market that occupied the bottom of the hall boosted the city’s economy, and the upstairs became a common site for memorial services, speeches and General Court meetings. The early days of the American Revolution saw prominent Patriot leaders give public speeches in Faneuil Hall, including James Otis, Rev. Samuel Mather, and Sam Adams, and upon the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, a party took place there featuring no less than twenty-five toasts to the “Sons of Liberty”.6 Thesedays of revolution and republicanism gave Boston, and Faneuil Hall, the moniker “Cradle of Liberty.”This “Cradle of Liberty” symbolism became crucial for boosting patriotism, the success of the Revolution, and America’s ongoing belief in its commitment to freedom. This was reinforced through the use of Faneuil Hall for town business, the state lottery, banquets for French allies, a ceremony for George Washington’s birthday, and a dinner party for Lafayette on his 1784 American tour, where the Frenchman proclaimed, “May Faneuil Hall ever stand, a monument to teach the world that resistance to oppression is a duty.”7 A Quaker man penned a “Faneuil Hall Oratory” in 1844; the closing verse is “Have they chained our free-born men? Let us unchain theirs! / Up your banner leads the van / Blazoned ‘Liberty for all!” / Finish what your sires began / Up to Faneuil Hall!”8

Abolitionists in Faneuil Hall

In the late nineteenth century, the Hall held anti-slavery meetings featuring abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass. Speakers and writers frequently drew the comparison between abolitionism and the Revolutionary spirit; Edmund Quincy spoke to a crowd of 5,000 in the hall in 1842, “to welcome Liberty back to her cradle” and William Lloyd Garrison described a scene in “the Old Cradle where Liberty was rocked by the men of Seventy-Five.”9 10

“Who would have thought when Harrison Gray Otis and Peleg Sprague were making the roof resound with their cries of Peace! Peace! to wicked slavery,” wrote Garrison, “that in about twenty years it would look down on a cheerful company of Abolitionists?”

The nineteenth century cemented Faneuil Hall’s reputation as the “Cradle of Liberty,” and the use of the space for activities supporting abolitionism furthered this cultural idea. Abolitionists capitalized on the irony in order to make clear the incompatibility between a country that promised freedom while allowing enslavement. Though abolitionists did not mention that slavery allowed Faneuil Hall to come into existence through Peter Faneuil’s wealth, this can be seen as a starting point for a more inclusive, complex interpretation—and it demonstrates that a more complicated narrative has been used before, with great effect. But where did this more complicated narrative go?

Missing History

Faneuil Hall and the small visitor center that is part of the site today do not exactly omit the story of Faneuil’s ties to the slave trade, though they certainly do not foreground it.A brief plaque in the indoor exhibit (right) says that he was of French Huguenot descent and was a wealthy merchant in Boston – that’s it.11 The site hardly focuses on Faneuil’s biography at all.

“Dedication Plaque, Faneuil Hall, Boston MA,” Photograph, Historical New England,


 The interpretation of Faneuil Hall needs to be broadened to paint a more complicated and accurate picture of this “Cradle of Liberty.” The framing around freedom and liberty is not incorrect, but such a narrow frame pushes out other important stories.

The Hall’s interpretation highlights only a small portion of its history – the speeches by Otis et al – and leaves out the part when the Hall was not the “cradle of liberty.”

“Contemporary Faneuil Hall,” National Parks Services, Boston MA, Photograph,

Explaining the complex history of Faneuil Hall Marketplace can include the sobering reality of Boston as a slave port, and illuminate how New England’s wealth was derived significantly from slavery. It could also touch on the urban-rural divide – important even in the eighteenth century – and incorporate stories of farmers, laborers, and the poor. A broader narrative allows visitors to find their own place in the story, once the story is no longer just “revolutionaries” and “the British.” It allows visitors to consider the conundrum of the Hall as a “Cradle of Liberty,” and to wrestle with that paradox well after their visit to the Hall, as issues of freedom and equality come up in their own lives. Above all, a broader narrative reflects a more accurate history of Faneuil Hall’s role in shaping American society, and that is the ultimate responsibility of public history interpretation at this National Historic Site.


1 Brown, Abram English. Peter Faneuil and His Gift. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1900. 13.

2 Ibid, 14

3 Ibid, 32

4 Quigley, Shawn. “Peter Faneuil and Slavery.” Boston National Historic Park, National Park Service. (Accessed 30 Mar 2017).

5 Brown, Peter Faneuil and His Gift, 126

6 Ibid, 126

7 Ibid, 123

8 Ibid

9 "Anti-Slavery Festival in Faneuil Hall.” Liberator (1831-1865) Jun 13 1856: 96. ProQuest. Web. 5 Apr. 2017 .

10 Garrison, William Lloyd. “Anti Slavery in Faneuil Hall.” Liberator, Jan. 16, 1857. American Periodicals. p. 10.


"Anti-Slavery Festival in Faneuil Hall.” Liberator (1831-1865) Jun 13 1856: 96. ProQuest. Web. 5 Apr. 2017 .

Brown, Abram English. Peter Faneuil and His Gift. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1900. 13. “Contemporary Faneuil Hall.” Photograph. National Parks Services. Boston MA

“Contemporary Faneuil Hall.” Photograph. National Parks Services. Boston MA.

“Dedication Plaque, Faneuil Hall, Boston MA.” Historical New England. Photograph.

Detroit Publishing Company. Faneuil Hall, Boston. Library of Congress. [between 1890 and 1899]. Photograph

"Fourth of July festivities at Faneuil Hall, Boston" The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853.

Garrison, William Lloyd. “Anti Slavery in Faneuil Hall.” Liberator, Jan. 16, 1857. American Periodicals. p. 10.

Hancock family. “Hancock family papers, Peter Faneuil papers, Invoice book, 1725-1729.” 1725-1729. Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.$6i

Quigley, Shawn. “Peter Faneuil and Slavery.” Boston National Historic Park, National Park Service.

Smibet, John. Peter Faneui. National Portrait Gallery. 1742. Painting

View of Faneuil-Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. Library of Congress. 1789.