The largest building in colonial Boston, Old South Meeting House was the site of the most dramatic and stirring mass meetings leading to the American Revolution.
Boston’s anger at British taxes and policies exploded at town meetings. These meetings drew thousands of people who could not fit inside the usual town meeting place at Faneuil Hall, and instead were held at Old South Meeting House, the largest gathering place in Boston.
Old South Meeting House became the center for massive public protest meetings against British actions in colonial Boston from 1768-75. Samuel Adams recorded that :
“The transactions at Liberty Tree were treated with scorn and ridicule; but when they [Parliament] heard of the resolutions in the Old South Meeting-house, the place whence the orders issued for the removal of the troops in 1770, they put on grave countenances.”
Early Revolutionary Meetings
The largest building in colonial Boston, Old South Meeting House held far more people than Faneuil Hall, which was then less than half its current size. Old South Meeting House could hold as many as 6,000 people, while Faneuil Hall held less than 1300. Old South Meeting House was in a convenient and strategic location at the center of town midway between the densely settled North End and the expansive South End.
Meeting against the Impressment of Sailors
On June 14, 1768, a town meeting was called to protest the impressment, or forcible induction, of New England sailors into British Naval service and the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop “Liberty” for violation of customs law, i.e. smuggling. So many people came to protest that the meeting was moved to Old South Meeting House. At this meeting, outraged colonists called for the British Sloop-of-War “Romney,” to stop seizing sailors to work “for the service of the King, in his ships of war.”
The meeting was successful in curtailing impressment in Boston, but as a result the British ministry concluded that their customs officers needed protection from Boston’s riotous mobs. Nearly 4,000 British soldiers arrived in Boston in the fall of 1768. At this time Boston had a population of approximately 15,000 and many colonists considered this “military occupation” to be an infringement of English political law, yet another challenge to their liberty. In response to initial protests, the Governor ordered all but two regiments out of the town. The continued presence of armed British troops quartered in Boston was seen as both dangerous and insulting.
Meeting following the Boston Massacre and Removal of the King’s Regiments
On March 5, 1770, increasing tensions erupted when British soldiers killed 5 men in what became known as “The Boston Massacre.” The next day, an angry assembly gathered to send a committee to tell the Lieutenant-Governor “that the Inhabitants and Soldiery can no longer dwell together in safety.” The assembly agreed to hold a Town Meeting at 3 pm. By the afternoon, widespread frustration had swelled the meeting to include thousands, and the meeting was moved to the Old South Meeting House. There the committee announced to the meeting that one regiment would be removed to Castle William in the harbor. The meeting of thousands at Old South Meeting House did not agree and demanded the removal of “Both regiments or none!”
Adams and his committee again visited Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson to present the demands of the meeting; Samuel Adams said:
If you, or Col. Dalrymple under you, have the power to remove one regiment, you have the power to remove both…The voice of ten thousand freemen demands that both regiments be forthwith removed. Their voice must be respected, their demand obeyed.
The meeting was successful and on the following morning preparations began to remove both regiments to Castle William in Boston Harbor. In a letter to the Earl of Hillsborough, Hutchinson wrote, “I have represented to your lordship, that the authority of Government is gone in all matters wherein the controversy between the Kingdom and the colonies is concerned.” In England, members of Parliament balked at Hutchinson for being bullied by a little colony. This was a decisive victory for the Patriots in resisting British actions.
Marking the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre: The Annual Fifth of March Orations
A town meeting resolved to mark the anniversary of “The Boston Massacre” with a public speech “to commemorate the barbarous murder of five of our Fellow Citizens on that fatal Day, and to impress upon our minds the ruinous tendency of standing Armies in Free Cities.”
Each year from 1772 to 1775, these massive gatherings of men, women and children were held at Old South Meeting House to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, with rousing speeches by patriots John Hancock, Benjamin Church and Dr. Joseph Warren. Each year, the speaker and the people repeated the lines, “to impress upon our minds, the ruinous tendency of standing Armies,” a remembrance that kept outrage over the Boston Massacre alive.
The Boston Tea Party
Yet it was the series of meetings that culminated on December 16, 1773 that sealed Old South’s fate as one of this country’s most significant buildings. On that day, over 5, 000 men crowded into Old South Meeting House and joined in a fiery debate on the controversial tea tax. When the final attempt at compromise failed, Samuel Adams gave the signal that started the Boston Tea Party. The Sons of Liberty led the way dumping 342 chests of tea into the harbor at Griffin’s Wharf. See our Boston Tea Party History page for more information.
A British Riding School and the Siege of Boston
Old South Meeting House's reputation as a patriot meeting place had dire consequences for the building during the American Revolution. When war broke out in April of 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British retreated to Boston and occupied the town. The Continental Army besieged Boston for nearly a year. While patriots fled the city, British troops destroyed and vandalized visible symbols of the patriotic cause. The “Redcoats” gutted the interior of the Old South Meeting House. They tore down the pews, the pulpit, and the galleries and burned them for fuel. Hundreds of loads of dirt and gravel were spread on the floor, and a bar was erected so the men could practice jumping their horses. In the east galleries, the officers enjoyed drinks while they watched the feats of horsemanship below. The British left the Old South congregation with a building unfit for occupancy. It took nearly 8 years for the congregation to raise the funds and restore the interior.