Old South Meeting House

Where the Boston Tea Party began

Boston's Old South Meeting House
Boston's Old South Meeting House

A visit to the Old South Meeting House, now a museum filled with interesting exhibits and information on Boston's Freedom Trail, takes you to the very spot where Samuel Adams said the secret code to trigger the Boston Tea Party.

Once a church, built by a group of dissenters from Boston's First Church in 1669 in what had been Governor John Winthrop's garden, Old South Meeting House functioned as

Old South has been one of the most interesting Boston museums since 1878.

As Wendell Phillips, one of Boston's leading citizens of that era, said, the Old South Meeting House represents "the memories of the most successful struggle the race has ever made for the liberties of man. . . The saving of this landmark is the best monument you can erect to the men of the Revolution."

When you visit the Old South Meeting House in Boston, you'll be in the very spot where he triggered the beginning of American Revolution - or, at least, the revolt against England! 

But this is only part of what makes Boston's "Old South," as it is locally called, a top American Revolution history site and one of the most interesting Boston history museums to visit along the Freedom Trail.

 

Who met at Old South Meeting House?

Boston Tea Party Sign outside Old South Meeting House

On the night of December 16, 1773, five thousand Colonists gathered in Boston's Old South Meeting House, tensely waiting to hear if three ships carrying British tea would be permitted to leave Boston Harbor and return to England.

Scattered throughout the men, women, and children packed into Old South were members of the Sons of Liberty, a group of Colonists opposed to English rule and taxation.

After several years of disagreement about England's authority to levy taxes on the Colonists, the tea tax represented a test.  The English government declared that the Colonists would owe tax the moment that they unloaded the tea onto the docks.

The Colonists waiting in the Old South Meeting House knew that by paying the tax, they'd confirm Britain's right to tax them - and to levy additional taxes.  They decided that the tea must not be unloaded.

Tea ships bound for New York and Philadelphia had turned back to England without reloading after those Colonists protested.  

But Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts swore that wouldn't happen in Boston.

During the 3 weeks leading up to December 16, Colonists met almost daily in the Old South Meeting House to try to find or negotiate a legal way to not pay the tea tax.

As a result, the owner of the first ship slated for unloading, a Quaker from Nantucket named Francis Rotch, made one final attempt to get Governor Hutchinson's permission for his ship to leave the harbor. When he finally returned after dark, he reported the Governor's answer to the crowd in the Old South Meeting House. The Governor had refused.

 

Secret code words at the Old South Meeting House

And that's when Patriot Samuel Adams shouted the secret code words to the crowd in the Old South Meeting House, "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!"

Hearing this prearranged secret signal, the Sons of Liberty leapt into action.

Hastily disguising themselves, some as Mohawk Indians, they raced down to Griffin's Wharf (now the site of the splendid InterContinental Hotel Boston) where the ships were anchored. Many other Patriots joined them along the way.

In the darkness, they divided into 3 groups, each boarding a ship and all together heaving 342 chests of tea worth $1 million in today's dollars into Boston Harbor - an event that quickly became known around the Colonies and today in American Revolutionary history as the Boston Tea Party.

And on this evening, the American Revolution against British rule began.

Old South Meeting House seen from the Downtown Crossing pedestrian shopping area along Washington Street
Old South Meeting House seen from the Downtown Crossing pedestrian shopping area along Washington Street

 

Setting the stage for protest

The gathering that preceeded the Boston Tea Party would probably be enough to ensure the Old South Meeting House's place as a stop on the most popular of Boston's many walking tours, the Freedom Trail.

However, as the largest public meeting space in Colonial Boston, the Old South Meeting House provided the stage for numerous pre-Revolutionary gatherings.  Beginning in 1771, Patriots such as John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren delivered an annual oration, or speech, every March 5 on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre to promote revolution and independence, a tradition that continued until 1783.

No Tax on Tea poster  outside Old South Meeting HouseOne of the most dramatic occurred in 1775 as tensions boiled between the Colonists and English.

Dr. Warren arrived to give the annual Boston Massacre oration dressed dramatically in a white toga - the attire of a free-born Roman man.

People in the audience later wrote letters and journals stating that many people came in from the countryside to be at the event. 

Crowds at the Old South Meeting House overflowed into the streets.

British soldiers, sticking out like sore thumbs in their stiff red wool coats, blocked the stairs when Warren arrived.

Although eye-witness accounts from 1775 differ somewhat about how Warren finally reached the pulpit in the Old South Meeting House, the most dramatic accounts have him climbing (in his toga) up a ladder and getting into the building through a back window.

Later, Thomas Hutchinson wrote later in his diary that if Warren said "anything against the King, etc., an officer was prepared, who stood near with an egg, to have thrown in his face; and that it was to have been a signal to draw swords; and that they would have massacred Hancock, Adams, and hundreds more."

A London newspaper account of the episode mentioned that the officer tripped on the way into the Old South Meeting House and broke the egg.  However, the Redcoats took revenge against Dr. Warren 3 months later, targeting and killing him during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

 

Originally a Puritan church

In case you're thinking that the Old South Meeting House looks more like a church than a stage for revolution, you're right.

In 1669, a group of Pilgrim dissenters from Boston's First Church built their own place of worship on this site, once Governor John Winthrop's garden.

The congregation called their simple wooden structure the Cedar Meeting House. Like other Puritan meeting houses, it was designed to be totally unlike an ornate Anglican church.

Sixty years later, the congregation had outgrown the Old South Church, as they had started calling it, so they tore it down and replaced it with the larger Georgian brick building that you see today.

Despite their affluence (which you can see embodied in the size of the building), the grandchildren of the original congregation stayed within Puritan goals of simplicity when they rebuilt their meeting house in 1729-30. The brick is laid in a simple Flemish Bond pattern. Windows are clear glass, not stained. The interior is plain, not ornate.

The tower, topped with a belfry, steeple, and gilded weather vane, soars upward for 183 feet. The 1768 brass, wood, and iron tower clock in the belfry still keeps excellent time.

However, many other things that you see have been restored . . . especially necessary due to some British misdeeds that are part of American Revolutionary War history.

Decline and recovery of the Meeting House

The British placed Boston in a state of siege on April 19, 1775 after the first Revolutionary War battles in Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy (present day Arlington).

British troops expressed their disdain for Old South Meeting House by ripping out the interior furnishings, chopping up the pews and pulpit for firewood.  Even worse, as an in-your-face gesture of contempt, they turned it into an indoor riding rink for General John Burgoyne's horses.

After the Patriots expelled the British from Boston, restorations began.

But as the 19th century wore on, decline began. White paint covered the red brick exterior and Victorian designs decorated inside walls and the ceiling. In 1872, the congregation moved to the New Old South Church in Copley Square in Back Bay, taking the belfry bell and many furnishings. Later that year, the Great Fire of 1872 caused minor exterior damage.

Why you'll enjoy the Old South Meeting House

Old South Meeting House in Boston, MA
Fruit market outside the Old South Meeting House

In addition to the important historical events related to American independence that took place within these wall, leading citizens from other periods in our country's development engaged in activities here.

Look up at the 2-tier gallery, designated during the early days as seating for slaves, servants, the poor, and teenage boys. Poet Phyllis Wheatley, an African slave who became America's first published African writer, worshipped here.

Old South congregation members witnessed the baptism of Benjamin Franklin here, George Washington decried the British desecration of Boston here, and Elizabeth Foster, the second wife of Isaac Goose (also called "Vergoose") and better known as "Mother Goose," sang hymns here.

In the late 1880s, leading Bostonians Julia Ward Howe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Russell Lowell gave public readings of their works. During recent years, Al Gore and Coretta Scott King have spoken here.

The museum itself features a number of informative and fascinating exhibits.

The "Voices of Protest" exhibit uses lifelike figures and interactive exhibits to tell the history of the Old South Meeting House.

"If These Walls Could Speak..." takes you through the American Revolution history events that have occurred here. During this multimedia presentation, you'll experience Boston Tea Party speeches, the British Siege of Boston, and the close call with the wrecking ball.

Other activities focus especially on children - a scavenger hunt, an activity kit that explores 18th century activities through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, and many special programs designed to make history come alive.

 

Insider tips

The Old South Meeting House is part of several Boston walking tours:  the Freedom Trail, the Boston Women's Heritage Trail, and the Literary Trail.  It is also one of Boston's best museums - even though it is more than a museum because the events that it commemorates really happened here.

Along with the USS Constitution, the Old South Meeting House is one of the most popular Freedom Trail sites with both children and adults. It's a great place to linger for awhile - plan on at least an hour.

If you are planning a visit, be sure to check Old South's website (see Details and Directions below) for special events. Because over 100 special programs, interesting presentations, and concerts are held here each year, you are likely to find something of interest to you.

The Old South Museum Shop is a good place to find excellent books on the history of Boston and New England productssuch as bayberry candles.

Best of all for parents of Massachusetts elementary school children who may need "Colonial Days" costumes at some point, the Museum Shop carries reasonably priced, authentic-looking Colonial hats in children's sizes - ladies' mob caps in white cotton and men's tricorne hats in black felt.  If you've ever tried making one of these things at midnight so that your child can wear it in a school program the next day, you may be grateful to know where to buy one instead for a few dollars.

The Old South Meeting House is located at the edge of Downtown Crossing - so if you're hungry, you'll find lots of nearby food choices.

Outside Old South is a popular fruit stand, and on the north side of the building at basement level is Commonwealth Books, one of Boston's best used and antique book sellers.

Commonwealth Books at Old South Meeting House in Boston, MA
Fruit market outside the Old South Meeting House

Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market is also nearby. Go left (if you're facing Old South) on Washington Street, turn right onto State Street, walk 2 very short blocks and turn left onto Congress Street. You'll see the Marketplace, one of Boston's top shopping areas, on your right.

 

Details and Directions

Open: Daily, except for major holidays. Check the Old South website for hours.
Cost: A small fee is charged (2010: Adults - $6, Age 6-18 - $1, Seniors 62+ and students - $5, below Age 6 - free)
Location: 310 Washington Street, near School Street intersection, Downtown Boston
Closest T station: Green Line/Government Center, Blue and Orange Lines/State, Red Line/Downtown Crossing
For more information: 617-482-6439; website

 

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