We Are Not Going To Change the Name of Faneuil Hall

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/08/19/its-name-is-faneuil-hall-and-it-should-be/

One of the things that distinguishes somebody from around here from somebody who isn’t is the ability to pronounce “Faneuil.” (If you don’t know how, I’m not going to explain it to you.)

That’s one of the reasons Boston Mayor Marty Walsh responded the way he did when asked on a left-leaning radio show earlier this year if Faneuil Hall should be renamed because the guy it’s named after was a slave trader.

Marty Walsh is the most left wing mayor we’ve ever had, but he’s from Dorchester and he speaks the local language.

“We are not going to change the name of Faneuil Hall,” he said.

It’s a Boston way of answering. Philosophers wouldn’t classify it as an argument, but it deserves its own category:  The question is so absurd it isn’t worth considering.

Now we are considering it, apparently, given the Confederate statues that are falling around the country because they commemorate a war that for most ended 152 years ago.

Faneuil Hall is known as the Cradle of Liberty, because so many meetings and speeches resisting British policies took place there in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Critics see nothing but irony in the nickname, because the honoree bought and transported and sold human beings.

So who was he?

Peter Faneuil helped the town of Boston out in a pinch. In 1740, the town sorely needed a marketplace where food and other items could be sold. The town was getting too big to rely on the hucksters who hocked their wares in the streets. But there was resistance to a market. The wandering hucksters weren’t too happy about it, naturally. And some people worried that forcing all goods into one marketplace would drive prices up. (Imagine someone told you that you had to shop at the Natick Mall and nowhere else.) There was so much opposition that it didn’t look like an appropriation of public funds would pass at Town Meeting.

Faneuil, fabulously wealthy thanks to the seafaring merchant business his late uncle had built (and which he contributed to), stepped up. He offered to donate a new marketplace building, free of charge, and throw in a meeting hall upstairs in the bargain. Town Meeting accepted the astounding and unprecedented gift (barely, by seven votes), after a compromise that allowed wandering hucksters to keep doing their thing. The stately Georgian edifice was built and was a success. Today, in its enlarged form, it’s one of the jewels of Boston.

The gesture wasn’t out of character for Peter Faneuil. He gave lavishly to his church and elsewhere, both publicly and quietly. Like most people who give large amounts, he probably had a mishmash of motives — kindness, gratification, acclaim, ego, social standing, a desire to get right with God. But he gave.

When Faneuil died unexpectedly at age 42, schoolmaster John Lovell gave a eulogy in the new building named for him. Lovell noted that many rich people simply hoard. But not Peter Faneuil.

“It was to him the highest enjoyment of riches, to relieve the wants of the needy, from which he himself was exempted, to see mankind rejoicing in the fruits of his bounty, and to feel that divine satisfaction which results from communicating happiness to others,” Lovell said.

There was more.

“His alms flowed like a fruitful river, that diffuses its streams through a whole country. He fed the hungry, and he cloathed the naked, he comforted the fatherless, and the widows in their affliction, and his bounties visited the prisoner,” Lovell said.

If you heard these good deeds spoken about someone living today, but then you also heard that this person sent ships to Africa that traded goods for slaves, then had the ships go to the West Indies to trade those raw slaves for more experienced slaves and for rum and sugar, then had the experienced slaves and the rum and the sugar brought back to Boston, you would dismiss such a person out of hand. Not only would you not allow a building to be named for him, you’d want to put him in jail.

That’s because today we are more enlightened about slavery than people were in the 1700s. I say that without irony. We are. To us, slavery is awful, and slave trading is worse. We are rightly disgusted by it.

But to judge a person from another era — if we even have such a capacity, which is itself doubtful — we must take into account the times he lived in. Slavery during the 1740s was not only widespread, it was nearly universally accepted. Not just in America and other parts of the New World, but in Africa and Asia, as well. Abolitionism was in its infancy, and the concept of making slavery illegal to most people would have seemed not only wrongheaded but incomprehensible.

This is not a defense of moral relativism. The people who thought slavery was O.K. during the 1700s — meaning, nearly everybody — were wrong. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. But they were blind, and could not see. (Words written by a reformed 18th century slave ship captain whose conversion on the matter took decades.)

Peter Faneuil made a lot of money and did a lot of good with it. He also had a serious moral failing, apparently stemming from moral blindness, which can’t be forgotten but can be learned from. But not by changing the name of the building he gave us.

One of the things we can learn is a respect for the past. The people of Peter Faneuil’s time saw him as a good person who did good things and honored him for it. We can’t obliterate his generosity by condemning him based on our current understanding of moral standards he likely didn’t perceive.

Another thing we can learn is humility. What common activities do we routinely perform nowadays that future generations will rightly look back on with horror? And do we want to be judged by them for it?

Marty Walsh is right. We are not going to change the name of Faneuil Hall.


Matt McDonald is Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of New Boston Post. See other articles by him here.