Exhibit written and curated by Caroline Klibanoff


Faneuil Hall, located between the waterfront and Government Center in downtown Boston, is one of the city’s best-known tourist destinations. It 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.

Yet the historical record sits at odds with this narrative of liberty and justice, with the hall’s symbolism in popular culture and with its modern-day use. 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, known slave trader. Whether this history is accurately and sufficiently represented, or whether it has been pushed aside in favor of a more flattering narrative, is the subject of my examination. Faneuil Hall is not merely a site of the events of the past. It is a tool of tourism and of public history, which inevitably contains a point of view, a chosen “frame,” and political considerations. Ultimately, Faneuil Hall’s ties to the slave trade complicate the uplifting narrative of “liberty” that the site currently projects. This is a complexity that Americans are not only capable of wrestling with, but should be presented with in order for the site to feature truly responsible historic representation.

Faneuil Hall, 1903
“Faneuil Hall, 1903” Public Domain
Feneuil Hall Visitor Center Modern
“Faneuil Hall Visitor Center” (National Park Service)



Peter Faneuil (National Park Service).
Peter Faneuil (National Park Service)
“Faneuil Hall Boston MA Outside Plaque,”
“Faneuil Hall Boston MA Plaque,” (Waymark)


Peter Faneuil, Slave Trader

What was the extent of Peter Faneuil’s ties to slavery? This question will help determine what an accurate interpretation of his Hall should include. 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.[i]

They were among Boston’s elite powerful families, owning pews in King’s Chapel and living a luxurious life aided by imported goods from abroad. When Andrew died in 1738, he left his substantial estate to 38-year-old Peter, making him “the merchant prince of his time".[ii]

Faneuil was a savvy trader. Abram Brown’s 1900 history of the Faneuils, and of the hall, recounts Faneuil’s work ethic: “He receives goods from correspondents in England, Portugal and France, sells them, and makes return in new ships, fish or other merchandise. He at times ventures vessel and cargo...he charges five per cent on fish, oil, or gold, and is careful that he gets it".[iii] Faneuil’s priority was building capital, with less concern for ethically- or morally- sound work. He engaged in smuggling, which was common at the time, and employed at least one indentured servant. 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.

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.”[iv] Faneuil indicated that this cargo should be of utmost importance, and if there was not enough money from the goods to purchase him, then to advance the sale at any cost, on credit. The year before, he had written to Thomas Kilby asking him to sell two young black men “if you can get a good price".[v] At one point, he made 1,644 British pounds from selling twenty slaves.[vi]

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. Faneuil’s ties to the slave trade should be mentioned in the course of his biography, especially as part of the narrative in which slavery enriched New England wealth, but to focus the Hall’s interpretation primarily on his ties to slavery would be an overcorrection.

The principle dilemma in regards to slavery and Peter Faneuil lies in the image of Faneuil Hall (see plaque on left) that has been constructed in American memory after Faneuil’s death, and after the American Revolution.[vii]

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. It is this juxtaposition that deserves to be revealed so that Americans can wrestle with the complexity of a nation fighting for freedom from tyranny while trading humans as a commodity, a nation that built its wealth through unpaid slave labor. A closer look at the Hall’s origin and use will illuminate the ways in which the Hall developed such a strong cultural meaning while only reflecting part of the actual story of the place.

Faneuil, in the peak of his career, felt 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. Such a gift was remarkable and without precedent; writes Brown, “munificence at that time was almost unknown,”.[viii] Of course, 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. A gift not freely given is hardly a gift, yet in the historical record there is no recognition of this contradiction.

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. During the hall’s construction, Faneuil never requested his initials on a cornerstone as was the custom of the time, but a group of grateful townspeople voted to call the building Faneuil Hall and to have his portrait painted and hung in the hall, at the expense of the city. 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”.[ix]

These heady days of revolution and republicanism gave Boston, and Faneuil Hall, the moniker “Cradle of Liberty.” In the decades following the Revolutionary War, 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.”[x] 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!”[xi]


“Faneuil Hall Interior.” Curator's Personal Photo, 17 Feb 2017.
“Faneuil Architectural Development Exhibit Panel” Curator's Personal Photo, 17 Feb 2017.
“The Week in Review.” Congregationalist (1891-1901) Nov 21 1895: 775. ProQuest.

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.”[xii] [xiii]

“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?”

These speeches and events, dutifully transcribed by Garrison, provide a moving record of the struggles of abolitionism. 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. In fact, the abolitionists capitalized on the irony in order to make clear the incompatibility between a country that promised freedom while allowing enslavement. This is the earliest example of a conception of Faneuil Hall that celebrated its revolutionary roots while acknowledging the paradox of that history. 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 more-than-tenuous ties to the slave trade, though they certainly do not foreground it: there is hardly any mention of Faneuil’s life story at all. 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.[xiv] The site hardly focuses on Faneuil’s biography at all, so adding details about his involvement in the slave trade is not quite the right solution. There’s nothing to add his nuanced history to. Given that Faneuil was merely the motivator and financier behind the Hall’s construction, and died soon after it opened, I agree with the National Park Service’s choice here to focus interpretation on the Hall’s construction, its role in the Revolution and its later use as a public forum. Visitors come to learn about a site of importance, a cultural value, and an architecturally notable building, not a person. A biography of Faneuil himself would be more suited to a historic house museum.[xv]

However, the interpretation of the Hall itself is still problematic. The history of anti-slavery meetings in Faneuil Hall is mentioned at the hall’s site in the course of discussing other famous speeches that took place there, mostly during the American Revolution. Fourteen times a day, every day, a twenty-minute talk titled “The Cradle of Liberty” is given in Faneuil Hall to tourists.[xvi] Although the abolitionist speeches are more relevant to modern day issues and would be more likely to resonate with a contemporary audience, in the site's current interpretation these speeches are secondary to the eighteenth century Revolutionaries. This is notable because our 'missing history' would be an easy history to promote; it is a celebratory story, a point of national pride, and fits in with the existing “freedom” narrative. So why is it so muted?

A helpful parallel can be found in the case of Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which includes the nation’s first presidential home. Like Faneuil Hall and the park it is part of, Independence National Historical Park, INHP, has a reputation as the birthplace of liberty and democracy, and like Faneuil Hall, part of the story of INHP is how slave labor was used to enrich the fledgling country. Roger Aden explains that “the symbolic and literal exclusion of African Americans from the ‘cradle of liberty’” narrative has been happening for some time: after the Revolutionary War, white Americans began to claim the ideals of liberty and justice for themselves exclusively, using memorials, museums and national parks to do so.[xvii]

To include an in-depth history of abolitionism today at Faneuil Hall would seemingly require an acknowledgement of Boston’s role in slavery, which could call into question the legitimacy of Faneuil Hall’s name, visibility, and its very existence as an icon of freedom. “To give African Americans a presence within the commemorative landscape would have suggested that they also played a role in the nation’s birth and growth,” writes Aden. “While such a role is factually undeniable...it was symbolically untenable to recognize this role.”[xviii] There is an exclusion of black stories because of the dissonance that it can create. Slowly, this is beginning to change in small ways. In 2015, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Museum of African American History held a “Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition,” in Faneuil Hall to acknowledge Boston’s history in the slave trade. The program was delivered beneath the Hall’s inscription “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever,” and state Rep. Byron Rushing (right) called the event an “opportunity to cure some of our national amnesia.”[xix] This event still capitalized on the “liberty” narrative and one wonders if there is any aspect of the history of the hall that could veer from this interpretation.

The NPS website for the Hall contains blog posts about Peter Faneuil’s involvement with slavery and the irony present in the moniker “the cradle of liberty.”[xx] This complexity is already represented on the web. How can we leverage this good work into messaging or exhibit components at the physical site of Faneuil Hall other than the briefest of mentions that is easily missed? After all, it is a site and a history almost always experienced in person, not digitally.





“Faneuil Hall Indoor Plaque.” Curator’s Personal Photo, 17 Feb 2017.
"Day of Remembrance" The Boston Banner, August 27th 2015


My recommendation is to broaden the interpretation at Faneuil Hall to paint a more complicated and more 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.

As in the case of Faneuil Hall, INHP staff made only uneven attempts to incorporate the stories of African-Americans, let alone a slavery narrative. “The park’s focus on celebrating the new nation’s embrace of liberty was so single minded,” writes Aden, “that recognition of its incomplete enactment could not be shoehorned into the story”.[xxi] Both sites rely on a narrow lens of “inspiring freedom” to lay claim to historic significance, and this is to their detriment. The INHP’s 1995 Draft General Management Plan claims that the park’s purpose is to be “a source of inspiration for visitors to learn more about the ideas and ideals that led to the American Revolution.”[xxii] Faneuil Hall’s website prominently claims that the Hall’s role in Revolutionary- era meetings led successive generations of pro-liberty groups – abolitionists, suffragettes and labor unionists – to gather there.[xxiii] (Below: the website’s language).


Yet a closer look at the Hall’s use throughout history reveals there is more to the story, even beyond the presence of slavery. For example, British troops used the Hall as a barracks when they occupied Boston starting in 1768. In 1774, a concert was held in the Hall for the King’s birthday, “in honor of royalty.”[xxiv] Old South Meeting House, a few blocks away, held more people and so was often used instead of Faneuil Hall for meetings in the Revolutionary era (so Faneuil Hall was not singular in its importance). It was following a meeting at Old South, not Faneuil Hall, that the patriots famously went to throw tea into the harbor. There is hardly any mention of the hall’s use by the black Boston community as a place of worship once a week beginning in 1789, permitted under strict regulations. These details tend to be left out of the framing of Faneuil Hall. 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,” but the place where, for example, British forces laid their heads at night.

Faneuil himself is often construed as a patriot and philanthropist, whose wealth and generosity gave the Revolution a meeting place. But Faneuil, who died 33 years before the American Revolution, was in fact close with several royalists including John Jekyll, the king’s collector at the Boston port. In 1775, when it was discovered that Peter Faneuil’s nephews had left the country with the British army, a group of patriots went to the Hall and destroyed the painting of Faneuil.[xxv] It is not hard to imagine a group of modern patriots doing the same upon learning of Faneuil’s engagement with the slave trade.

The entire narrative of the Hall hinges upon its role as the “cradle of liberty,” so in order to not completely reject this part of the history and start anew with interpretation, the National Park Service will have to consider allowing more dissonance in the presentation of this narrative. Aden mentions the NPS tendency to tell celebratory stories, and Jill Ongine points to the difficulty of making interpretive changes at NPS sites when so much is determined at the local level with input from community members and visitors. [xxvi] [xxvii] These are roadblocks that can be overcome: plenty of sites attract visitors without telling exclusively celebratory stories, and visitor input is a necessary, if protracted, part of developing a good interpretation. The real issue lies in whether or not the NPS is willing to tell a broad history of Faneuil Hall that includes its financing through slavery; its founder’s ties to slavery and the royalists; and the more varied uses of the Hall throughout history, including and outside of liberty-seeking causes. A narrative that leans less heavily on “inspiring freedom” and instead positions Faneuil Hall as an early community hub for both commerce and conversation will be more relatable to modern audiences, and will naturally segue into stories about the Hall’s other roles. Before it was significant for speeches, it was known for being one of the first center-city markets of its kind.

Explaining the importance of Faneuil Hall Marketplace for commerce 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 look at the role of Faneuil Hall in convening speakers and committees could showcase revolutionaries as well as abolitionists, suffragists, and labor unions. It might even mention the British army in an attempt to explain that the changing use of a building over time is what makes up so much of our history and our important sites. It is change itself that makes a historic place valuable and interesting. 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.

Works Cited

[i] Brown, Abram English. Peter Faneuil and His Gift. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1900. 13.
[ii] Ibid, 14
[iii] Ibid, 18
[iv] Ibid, 32
[v] Ibid, 45
[vi] Quigley, Shawn. “Peter Faneuil and Slavery.” Boston National Historic Park, National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/bost/learn/historyculture/peter-faneuil.htm (Accessed 30 Mar 2017).
[vii] “Faneuil Hall Boston MA Plaque.” Digital Image. Available From: Waymarking, http://www.waymarking.com/gallery/image.aspx?f=1&guid=0d88412e-8718-46c5-a4ce-c22319cb5ed0 Accessed 15 April 2017. Retouched by EBBDA.
[vii] Brown, Peter Faneuil and His Gift, 103
[ix] Ibid, 126
[x] Ibid, 123
[xi] Ibid
[xii] "Anti-Slavery Festival in Faneuil Hall.” Liberator (1831-1865) Jun 13 1856: 96. ProQuest. Web. 5 Apr. 2017 .
[xiii] Garrison, William Lloyd. “Anti Slavery in Faneuil Hall.” Liberator, Jan. 16, 1857. American Periodicals. p. 10.
[xiv] “Faneuil Hall Indoor Plaque.” Digital Image. Personal photo, 17 Feb 2017.
[xv] “Faneuil Architectural Development Exhibit Panel.” Digital Image. Personal photo, 17 Feb 2017.
[xvi] “Guided Tours.” Boston National Historic Park National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/bost/planyourvisit/index.htm (Accessed 15 Apr 2017.)
[xvii] Aden, Roger. Upon The Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Park, and Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015. 44.
[xviii] Ibid 53.
[xix] Pattison-Gordon, Jule. "Bostonians Mark City's History with Slavery." The Boston Banner: 1. Aug 27 2015. ProQuest. Web. 5 Apr. 2017 .
[xx] Quigley, Shawn. “Peter Faneuil and Slavery.”
[xxi] Aden, Roger. Upon The Ruins of Liberty. 40.
[xxii] Ibid 35
[xxiii] IMAGE: “Faneuil Hall Visitor Center.” Boston National Historic Park, National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/bost/faneuil-hall-vc.htm (Accessed 18 Mar 2017).
[xxiv] Brown, Peter Faneuil and His Gift, 129
[xxv] Ibid, 121
[xxvi] Aden, Roger. Upon The Ruins of Liberty. 45.
[xxvii] Ogline, Jill. "Creating Dissonance for the Visitor": The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy Review. The Public Historian, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer 2004), 55.