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Old South Meeting House and the Old State House Museum March 14, 2010

Posted by flashbuzzer in History.
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I recently visited the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House Museum in Boston. Both of these museums feature exhibits that primarily focus on the critical role that Boston played in the Revolutionary War era.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at both museums.

1. The Old South Meeting House was employed for both religious and secular functions. For example, Puritan services were held there on Sundays. Puritans did not believe in the importance of religious rituals and rites, so their services were relatively spartan and consisted of prayers, the singing of various Psalms and a lengthy sermon. In fact, the sermon was the focal point of each service and many churchgoers took detailed notes.

2. Puritan and Anglican influences can be observed in the architecture and interior layout of the Old South Meeting House. The exterior of the building boasts several Anglican “ruffles and flourishes,” including a lofty spire. As for the interior, the tables are turned and Puritan influences abound; these include a short central aisle to the pulpit and the noticeable lack of an altar. It should be noted that Anglican churches generally featured much longer central aisles.

3. The Old South Meeting House played a prominent role in several Revolutionary War-era events. For example, many enraged colonists gathered there before marching off to Griffin’s Wharf to “celebrate” the Boston Tea Party. Also, for the first five years after the Boston Massacre, it hosted an annual “Boston Massacre Memorial” address. The 1775 version of this “Memorial Address” was relatively exciting, as the speaker, Dr. Joseph Warren, was forced to enter the building through the window behind the pulpit due to the crush of attendees who were blocking the front door; Warren delivered an impassioned speech while enduring the heckling of several British soldiers who were sitting in the pews.

4. During the emotionally charged antebellum period, the two pastors of the Old South Church feuded over the issue of slavery. The senior pastor, George Blagden, believed that slavery should be gradually removed from the United States; he also asserted that the Bible never explicitly called for the abolition of the institution of slavery. The junior pastor, Jacob Manning, though, held that slavery must be immediately abolished; he was so convinced of the righteousness of his stance that he later served as a chaplain for a Union regiment operating in North Carolina.

5. Contentious issues were debated at the Old South Meeting House well into the 20th Century. For example, an annual “memorial address” for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was delivered for several years, starting in 1930. Also, people wrangled over the merits of banning Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Strange Interlude. In addition, the civil rights activist Al Sharpton delivered a rousing speech in 1993.

6. It can be argued that the events leading up to the Revolutionary War were triggered by Parliament’s issuance of the writs of assistance. The fiery and eloquent lawyer, James Otis, made an impassioned speech before the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s council of advisors to the governor, urging them not to enforce these writs. While the council eventually went against Otis’ wishes, colonial anger towards Parliament had been kindled.

7. The government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was (probably unintentionally) designed to create tension. It included a House of Representatives, where each Representative was elected by property-owning white males. It was also overseen by a governor who was directly appointed by the Crown. The governor held veto power over legislation and could dissolve the House on a whim. Francis Bernard exercised this Crown-appointed power by dissolving the House after it vehemently expressed its opposition to the Townshend Acts.

8. Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre consisted of a deliberate distortion of the facts surrounding that tragic event. For example, the British soldiers were depicted as being arrayed in a neat row and firing upon the command of Captain Thomas Preston, though witnesses at their subsequent trial stated that they never heard Preston give an order to open fire. The colonists were also depicted as being unarmed, though they were probably armed with clubs, rocks, and other weapons. In addition, a British soldier is shown firing upon the colonists from a balcony above the main action, leading many to believe that the massacre was actually a well-organized attack by the British.

9. On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in Massachusetts on a balcony of the Old State House overlooking the site of the Boston Massacre. After this momentous occasion, enthusiastic colonists tore down the British royal seal of the lion and the unicorn, which had been installed on the east wall of the Old State House. A similar seal had adorned the entrance to the room for the governor’s council of advisors, but it had already been removed by loyalists by that day; interestingly, that seal happens to be in a church in New Brunswick.

10. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was officially drawn up in 1780 at the Old State House, and happens to be the oldest working constitution in the world. It also provided the inspiration for the U.S. Constitution that would be written up seven years later. John Hancock was elected as the first governor of the Commonwealth and would serve for nine terms before dying in office.

I enjoyed seeing various artifacts from the colonial era at both museums, including steel cups that were purportedly used by Samuel Adams and John Hancock as they hid from the British during the Battles of Lexington and Concord. I was also amused to see the cane that Preston Brooks used to beat Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In addition, the Old South Meeting House had a simple, yet poignant atmosphere.

In terms of drawbacks, some of the exhibits at both of the museums were either non-functional or were in the process of being restored. This seems to be a common theme at the museums that I’ve visited.

Overall I enjoyed my time at both museums, though the Old State House museum did feel a bit cramped. I hope to check out the Paul Revere House at some point.

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