Old South Meeting House: How Public Participation Formed Our Nation

If these walls could talk…

The walls of Boston’s Old South Meeting House have witnessed some of the most historic conversations in our nation’s history, from the first whisperings of the American Revolution to the boisterous protests that led patriot Samuel Adams to kick off the Boston Tea Party by crying out “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” This building has proven that the location is every bit as important as the discussions and actions that take place at it.

The simple brick, slate, lead, and copper that provide the foundation of “Old South,” as it is lovingly known, in many ways is also the symbolic foundation for public participation in our country. Beginning as a Puritan meeting house its congregation has welcomed some of our nation’s most influential minds, including Benjamin Franklin, and Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book.

Part and parcel of public involvement is the ability of citizens to speak their mind. In 1929 Old South fully embraced the role of protector of free speech by establishing its free-speech policy. This policy provides a haven for controversial speakers and subjects that may be denied a forum elsewhere, and serves as a reminder to Americans that we cannot turn our backs on the First Amendment.

A portion of Boston's Freedom Trail(Credit: International Communication Association)

A portion of Boston’s Freedom Trail
(Credit: International Communication Association)

Today this National Historic Landmark located along Boston’s Freedom Trail is used primarily as a museum that commemorates these historic conversations and events through exhibits like Voices of Protest, which opened in 2000. Old South also offers a variety of educational and interactive programs for school groups and adults.

Today we hear from Emily Curran, Executive Director of the Old South Meeting House. She shares with us the building’s legacy and her thoughts on the ways public participation has changed or remained the same since Old South first opened its doors in 1729.

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Old South Meeting House was a gathering place that spurred many of our nation’s most influential historic events such as the Boston Tea Party and the protest meetings held before the start of the America Revolution. How did this location come to be such a significant meeting place?

Ever since it was constructed in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house, Old South Meeting House has been a gathering place for debate, discussion, revolution and celebration. Standing in the very heart of Boston, this was the largest gathering place in all of colonial Boston and was used for large public gatherings as well as for religious services.

An 1801 bell made by Patriot Paul Revere was connected to the 1766 tower clock in October of 2011. Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams, www.juliesterlingphoto.com

An 1801 bell made by Patriot Paul Revere was connected to the 1766 tower clock in October of 2011.
Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams, http://www.juliesterlingphoto.com

Ideal for mass meetings, by the mid 1700’s Old South Meeting House had became a favorite stage in Boston’s drama of revolution. As colonists became increasingly outraged at the way they were treated by the British government, they gathered at Old South Meeting House to challenge British actions. On March 6, 1770, the morning after the Boston Massacre, more than 3,000 men gathered at Old South Meeting House in an angry protest meeting, demanding the withdrawal of British troops from the town of Boston. Their protest was successful and every year afterwards a huge annual commemoration of the victims of the Massacre at Old South Meeting House drew thousands of women and men keeping outrage alive.  The largest protest meetings ever held at Old South Meeting House took place in 1773 when more than 5,000 men from all walks of life debated what to do about a controversial tax on tea. At their final meeting on the night of December 16, after all attempts to reach a compromise failed, Samuel Adams adjourned the meeting and 340 chests of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor in the famed protest that became known as “The Boston Tea Party.”  These gatherings at Old South Meeting House began a revolution “in the hearts and minds of the people,” as John Adams  put it, before a shot was ever fired in the American Revolution.

Because of its significance in the days leading to the American Revolution, citizens came together in 1876  to save the historic building from demolition in one of the nation’s first successful preservation efforts, and Old South Meeting House opened to the public as a museum and active meeting place. During a time of censorship and suppression in the 1920’s the Meeting House opened its doors to those not allowed to speak elsewhere.  Since then, Old South Meeting House has been a haven for free speech, committed to presenting topics and speakers regardless of their popularity or unpopularity.

Exterior of Old South Meeting House. Image courtesy of Fayfoto, www.fayfoto.com

Exterior of Old South Meeting House.
Image courtesy of Fayfoto, http://www.fayfoto.com

How important is location when is comes to public participation?

A welcoming and accessible location is very important in ensuring participation by a broad range of people. Old South Meeting House has always been in the heart of Boston’s city center and is still a central location today. Although the city has grown and changed around it, downtown Boston is still an astonishingly vibrant urban area.  The busy corner of Milk and Washington streets where the Old South Meeting House stands is passed by an estimated 100,000 pedestrians daily. Old South Meeting House is accessible to all public transit, allowing it to be frequented by people of all ages, races and nationalities, and by residents, workers and tourists from around the world.

A vial of tea collected at the 1773 Boston Tea Party is on exhibit at Old South Meeting House. Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams, www.juliesterlingphoto.com

A vial of tea collected at the 1773 Boston Tea Party is on exhibit at Old South Meeting House.
Image courtesy of Julie Sterling Williams, http://www.juliesterlingphoto.com

The Old South Meeting House has become a symbol for free speech. What are some of the most controversial topics discussed and debated here?
The topics that are considered controversial change rapidly over time, and span the full spectrum of political viewpoints. As a place that is committed to presenting speakers and topics regardless of their current popularity, perhaps the most controversial speakers in modern times have been those individuals associated with reviled extremists such as the Ku Klux Klan. But usually controversial topics are those that attract a range of viewpoints: the use of torture, the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, climate change, modern-day slavery, legalization of drugs, and the death penalty. The conversations about contemporary issues that take place here reflect the broader questions that are confronted by our society. Often topics that were very controversial a few years ago, such as same-sex marriage as an equal right, are now considered much more mainstream – at least here in Massachusetts!

Iraq War Protesters
Credit: Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

Many famous men and women have graced Old South Meeting House throughout history. What is it like to work at a place with such a famous history?
It’s fantastic – and a true honor.  After many years of working here, it is still an awe-inspiring experience each time I stand in this beautiful building where so much of America’s best-known history has happened. The stories of the men and women who are part of the vital heritage of dissent and free expression that are so important to our country include both ordinary people and famous individuals. I am especially inspired by the ways that ordinary people came together here to make a difference and made their voices heard.


Interior of the Old South Meeting House
Credit: Julie Sterling Williams, http://www.juliesterlingphoto.com

In every century since the first colonists settled in Boston, significant public participation events have been held at Old South Meeting House. Why do you think that the public and community leaders continue to be drawn here?

This is an extraordinarily beautiful historic landmark filled with history and meaning, and that proud history continues to be compelling for people today.  It is a completely different experience to hold a meeting in this historic hall than it is to meet in a modern auditorium or hotel ballroom. To be gathering in the very place where the Boston Tea Party began gives a perspective on current events. Our mission is to preserve this remarkable building and ensure that it is actively used as a museum and vital gathering place in the city of Boston. The board and staff feel strongly that preserving the building as an active place for community discussion, public discourse, artistic presentation and the freedom of expression is critical.  We work to ensure that the Old South Meeting House continues to serve the community through our own programming and collaborations with many other organizations.

Boston Tea Party
Credit: BostonHarbourTea.com

Old South Meeting House was the first public building in the United States to be saved from demolition because of its historic significance. How important was its salvation and what would the generations since have missed out on if the building had been demolished?
The saving of this building from demolition back in 1876 was a pivotal point in the recognition and understanding that the history of the United States was important. At that time the United States was only 100 years old as a nation, and had recently emerged from a bloody Civil War. The building was saved and opened to the public as a museum and meeting place so that instead of being preserved as an “idle monument” it would become a living reminder of the revolutionary ideals that built this country.  Education programs here were among the very first that promoted the study of American history – in schools at that time, European history was studied instead.  So the beautiful building from 1729 was saved, but just as important, its history and its active use as a meeting place were also saved – and today people who participate in programs here or visit can understand its significance on all these levels.

How do you think public participation has changed or remained the same in the years since the first Puritan community gatherings held at Old South Meeting House?
Now in the 21st century we are exploring new ways of bringing people together in this 18th century building.  Most recently, the BBC program “World Have Your Say” held a global town meeting about the November Presidential Election at Old South Meeting House that was broadcast live and included a full audience of people inside the meeting house, as well as people participating from throughout the world via Twitter, Facebook, Skype and other ways of connecting. It was special because it brought together the energy of a live discussion within Old South Meeting House with a truly global audience from places like India, Nepal, Nigeria, Thailand and Israel.

BBC’s “World Have Your Say” at the Old South Meeting House

What is the most important act a host can do to foster constructive public dialogue?
I have come to believe that the commitment to allowing divergent points of view to be expressed is a critically important part of fostering constructive public dialogue.  By upholding the right to free expression of ideas – even those ideas that are unpopular or offensive – Old South Meeting House helps to provide a place where discussion can take place.

Old South Meeting House is primarily a museum today. What other functions does it serve and what exhibits, events, and meetings are held there today?
Today the Old South Meeting House is a busy museum, a treasured National Historic Landmark, and an active center for civic dialogue and free expression. Open to the public daily, visitors to Old South Meeting House experience exhibits, interactive educational programs for students and teachers, and a vibrant year-round schedule of public programs and performances for all ages.

This spring alone, we will present a variety of programs for all ages including a lecture series on traditional New England food-ways and one on cultural clashes; a discussion with local teenagers about their performance art project Freedom Trail on Trial; a Mother Goose puppet show for the little ones; a nautical-inspired, history-themed trivia game show; and an engaging public poetry reading. Perhaps we are most famously known for our Boston Tea Party Reenactment, annually held in December. Imagine sitting in one of our wooden pews next to Samuel Adams or John Hancock, as you become part of the event that sparked the American Revolution!  Information about all of these programs can be found on our website or on our Facebook page.

Annual Reenactment of the Boston Tea Party
Credit: TeachHistory.com

What is your favorite fact about Old South Meeting House?

That’s a hard question! Perhaps my personal favorite is the extraordinary life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley, who attended Old South Meeting House services and became a full member of the congregation here in 1770.  She had been kidnapped from West Africa as a child, survived a brutal voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in a slave ship and was sold as a slave when she arrived in Boston. As a young girl she learned English and Latin and began to write poetry, eventually becoming a world-famous poet with the publication of her book of poems in 1773. I think of her sitting in Old South Meeting House, the only surviving site in Boston that was central in her remarkable life.


Phillis Wheatley, 1753–1784
Credit: PoetryFoundation.org

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Thank you Ms. Curran for sharing your insights. We are excited that the history of public participation in our country is still alive and will be celebrated at Old South Meeting House for generations to come.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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One thought on “Old South Meeting House: How Public Participation Formed Our Nation

  1. Dan Beamer says:

    This is great. It is a great way to encourage public participation in the community

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