Boston - To The Old State House
( Originally Published 1916 )
In early days Washington Street, upon which the Old South Church faces, was known in its successive sections as Cornhill, Marlborough Street, Newbury Street and Orange Street; names not thrown away but frugally saved to be used in a new district; and all were merged in the patriotic name of Washington because Washington himself entered the city along this route at the time of his visit in 1789; and perhaps the naming was partly in amends for having kept him waiting for two hours, mounted on his white horse, just outside of the town limits, while the State and town authorities debated on just how he was to be received.
It was fortunate that Washington had drilled him-self to patience and at the same time that he well knew how to hold his dignity, for in the early days of the adoption of our Federal Constitution a burst of anger on his part, or even of impatience, no matter how well justified, might have had a disastrous national effect, as might also any impairment of the President's proper position. Yet, though he looked upon a little waiting as too minor a thing to be taken notice of by a great man, he did not overlook Governor John Hancock's not coming to call upon him. Han-cock stayed at home, as if thinking a Massachusetts governor more important in Massachusetts than a President of the United States, and as if expecting Washington to make the first call; but this, Washing-ton absolutely refused to do; not only his own dignity but the dignity of the nation was at stake; and on the next day Hancock, swathed in explanatory flannel wrappings, belatedly and formally called, offering an alleged attack of the gout as an excuse for not calling the day before. And perhaps the gout was real. Or, if Hancock had but tardily done honor to the first President, it was probably because John Adams, the first Vice-President, had entered Boston in the President's company, and that Hancock and John Adams were far from being friends, Adams having even gone to such a length, in his jealousy, as to term Hancock an "empty barrel"; the resounding sound of which appellation must have reached Hancock's ears. But there ought not to have been any real ill feeling on the part of Hancock toward Washington, whatever may have been the case as to John Adams. Hancock had named his only son after himself and Washington, John George Washington Hancock, and that the little fellow had recently died would assuredly make even closer the personal tie between President and Governor.
Other streets of old Boston have had their names changed, for reasons not so excellent as those which gave the city Washington Street, and on a few of the corners the old names are given as well as the new, but in the main the old ones are forgotten. The greater number of changes seem to have been made because, as the city grew bigger, it became more finical; and one realizes that Frog Lane would not be so excellent a business address as Boylston Street, that Pudding Lane and Black Jack Alley would seem less respect-able than Devonshire Street, that Black Horse Lane is more dignified, if that were all, as Prince Street; but it is not clear why the delightful name of Royal Ex-change Lane should have been altered, except actually during the time of the Revolution, to Exchange Street, and it is hard to reconcile oneself to Broad Alley be-coming Hollis Street, to Turnaway Alley becoming Temple Place, and to Coventry Street becoming the prosaic Walnut; one may quite sympathize with changing Blott's Lane to Winter Street but feel that romance was lost in altering Seven Star Lane to Summer Street; and if it might be objected that Seven Star Lane does not sound citified enough there would really be no objection to calling it the Street of the Seven Stars.
Washington Street, and especially that part which is directly through from the Common, has especial interest in the difference between its general aspect in the evening and its aspects during the day. In the morning the better part of it is crowded with the women of the socially elect doing their shopping, and in the afternoon with women whom the socially elect consider hoi polloi; and the men who thread their way along the narrow-sidewalked shopping sections in daytime are alert business men, not too intensely hurried; the daytime is the time of Boston bags and prosperity; but in the evening, for a few hours—never until really late, for this is an early city—it is differently thronged and brilliantly lighted, and at this time it gives much the aspect of the main street of a busy English mill town, crowded as it is with the people who come for the "movies" and the cheaper theaters, or who are out simply for a stroll.
Boston has not lost capacity for enthusiasms; cities, like men, need that; but Boston shows enthusiasm in a typically quiet way. I have seen Washington Street, in the business center, jammed solid for several blocks with a crowd, estimated by the police as numbering from twenty-five to forty thousand, which absolutely stopped traffic, and all these people had gathered to watch the score-boards of several newspaper offices that are close together there; for the Boston club was playing for the League championship in old Philadelphia. The streets were packed to capacity for a long distance within sight of the boards, and the windows and roofs were crowded with decorous, neat, well-tailored, well-dressed, self-restrained men, every one with his shoes polished and his hat on straight. It was a very proper crowd. Many of the men were ready to yell if an announcement were extremely favorable, but even then they would not yell very loud. The business men and office clerks of the city had given up an entire business afternoon to follow in packed decorousness the record of a baseball game.
A walk of Iess than five minutes on Washington Street, from the Old South Church, takes one to the corner of State Street, where once stood the book-shop which graduated that superb artillery officer, Henry Knox; and here there opens out what is known as State House Square, out in the center of which stands the Old State House.
Once in a while, in Boston, it is necessary to say, in differentiation, the New State House or the Old State House, for when the new one was put up the old one was preserved, and it stands among the new business buildings of the busiest district of the city. Extremely strong efforts have from time to time been made to destroy this old building and use its site in important business development, and great financial temptation has been offered to the city, and the arguments for the needs of business were really;3o cogent that a few years ago it seemed as if the city would yield to them. It had already yielded, so far as giving over the building to rental for offices and other business purposes was concerned, and there was danger that the entire building would be given up. But while the city wavered, hesitant and doubting, the news went out through the country that perhaps the long-treasured building was doomed, whereupon a formal message came from the city of Chicago, offcring to buy the old structure in order to tear it clown and rebuild it, brick by brick, out there on the shore of Lake Michigan. The structure would thus be kept, so Chicago with earnest dignity expressed it, as an American monument for all America to revere.
Of course that settled it. Perhaps the building would have been preserved in any event, but after that message, had 'Boston decided to tear the building down, it would have been quite impossible for her to throw away the bricks when Chicago was ready not only to pay for them but to build them up again and honor them, and it would have been altogether unbearable for Boston to think of people going to Chicago to see this old State House !—and so it still stands here.
It will be remembered that Chicago won another victory for the world by offering to buy and set up within its own precincts the birthplace of Shakespeare, when that building was about to be lost to Stratford, and in that case, as in this, the offer by that broad-mindedly acquisitive city of the West was sufficient to secure the preservation of the old building on its original site. It is interesting to speculate what buildings of the world, whether in America or Europe or Asia, will in time be pleasantly captured by Chicago in this way.
The Old State House is a building of piquant individuality; it would easily attract attention any-where; without knowing anything about it one would be sure that it must be a building of interest, and it is.
It stands at what was long the center of much that was important in old Boston. In the open space be-side it and beside the still earlier building that pre-ceded it was the early public market of the city; in fact, the public market was not only beside but under the earlier building, which, in the old English market-place way, was built upon pillars, leaving the level space beneath the building as an open arcade for the merchants.
Even the present building has a history that goes back to 1713, and when, about forty years afterwards, it suffered a disastrous fire, at least the walls of 1713 were saved, thus preserving the early felicitous shape and proportions of the building.
Hereabouts went on much of the early Boston life. Here in the open square stood a cage, for the display, in restrained publicity, of such as had dared to violate the Sabbath; here were the stocks; here was the pillory—reminders, these, that all was not gentleness and moral suasion in the days of yore !—and he re stood, even into the nineteenth century, the whipping-post. It is not with any spirit of criticism of the past that these things are mentioned; it is proper to speak of them, that we may not forget that the past was not al-together perfect.
Nobler and more tragic than such associations is the association with what has always been known as the Boston Massacre, of 1770; directly in front of this building is where the fatal shooting by the English soldiers took place, that roused a wild storm of indignation that even yet is remembered, and which in itself had much to do with intensifying and crystallizing the sentiment in favor of an actual and final break with England. In the general excitement of that time and the feeling that at any moment, should the demands of the citizens for the removal of the soldiers from Boston not be heeded, there might be actual warfare, most of the men of Boston were under arms, and even John Adams took his turn with others, as a soldier, at this very building, coming, as he has with his own hand recorded, "with my musket and bayonet, my broad sword and cartridge box." It is an interesting remembrance of the trial of the English soldiers, that followed, that two of them who were actually convicted of manslaughter escaped punishment by pleading the very ancient English, plea of "benefit of clergy"!—which had nothing whatever to do with literal clergy, but only with the ability to write, which was anciently supposed to be an accomplishment of the clergy alone, who as a class were immune from punishment.
In outward appearance the Old State House suggests a memory of Holland. It elusively but charmingly indicates a bit of Dutch architecture. It has a long line of dormers on each side of its roof, and in the center rises a quaint tower, in square-sided sections which go up in diminishing sequence to a little belfry. At either side of the gable lines on the high and almost corbel-like corners of the facade, the square-shouldered front that faces out toward the oncewhile market-place, stand the lion and unicorn, effective and highly decorative, breezy copies of the originals which were thrown down and destroyed in the Revolution, gayly gilt like the originals, and looking almost royally rampant as they face each other across the central clock which points out that times have changed.
In the center of this facade is a beautiful second-story balcony of stone, in front of a many-paned central window with curving pediment. From this balcony many a speech has been delivered and many a proclamation has been read, from the time of the early Colonial governors down, but the long succession of royal proclamations came finally to an end when, on a July day in 1776, to an exalted throng of Revolutionary citizens gathered in this open space below, there was read the full text of the Declaration of Independence, which had been relayed to Boston as fast as a galloping messenger could take it. "In the brave days of old ! "—these fine old familiar lines may well be applied to Boston.
From this very balcony, ten years before the reading of the Declaration, was proclaimed the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, and also from this balcony, at the close of the Revolution, the people were told that peace with Great Britain had been made and that full recognition of the rights of the American Republic had been yielded.
This old building was successively the Town House of Boston:, the Court House, the Province Court House and then the State House; and after the State offices were moved into the big building on Beacon Hill it became for a time the City Hall. The building is now restored, but has not suffered the misfortune of being over-restored, and it is given up to the accumulation and display of a collection, of fascinating interest, of a vast number of mementoes relating to early days; and like the Museo Civico of Venice, and others of that admirable class, it sets forth, with its mementoes, the things which represent the daily life of long ago.
Among the individual relics is a beautiful silver tankard, that was made by Paul Revere. It is a masterpiece of silver-smithing, and is so highly prized that it is held in place by a hidden lock and chain, in order to keep it should some thief break the glass case in an effort to snatch it away. Here, too, is preserved one of the original Revere prints of the Boston Massacre, which took place under the windows of this building, and it is so valued that it is put into a fire-proof safe every night. The building also holds, in one of its corners, a little old organ, which rivals the old organ of the Park Street Church with its "America," for this in the Old State House was one at which the stately old tune "Coronation" was composed and on which it was first played; it is an organ with lead pipes and is still playable and of excellent tone.
For a building which outwardly does not appear large, and which is really not large, there is in the interior an astonishing effect of amplitude. In this respect it is a marvel.
There are various meeting rooms in the building, each of old-fashioned dignity, and in particular the fine big room, with its noble spaciousness, that is still known as the Council Room, as it was in the long ago time when the royal governors, richly appareled, sat here in formal state in conference with their councilors. It is a room with twin fireplaces and big recessed windows and fine cornice and charming wainscoting, and it is pleasant to remember that John Han-cock was here inaugurated governor.
It is astonishing what a degree of beauty, what an amount of dignity, the earliest American architects were able to secure in their public buildings, and this in Boston may compare honorably with the best. There is the old Maryland State House in Annapolis; there is the one-time State House, Independence Hall, in Philadelphia; and there is the Old State House here in Boston; all of them pre-Revolutionary buildings of practically the same period, and all of immense dignity and distinction. The three are of very different appearance from each other but they are alike in continuing to be worthy points of pilgrimage for Americans and in having direct connection with important events of the past.