Soapbox Speakers

6. The Boston Common.

English evangelist George Whitefield arrived in America in 1738. Two years later five thousand people arrived to hear Whitefield preach; too many for the church to accommodate. So, he mounted a soapbox on Boston Common and became the first public speaker to address an audience there.

Later, during the American Revolution (1765 to 1783) the ‘Sons of Liberty’ gathered under a large elm tree to protest on Boston Common.

In 1851 Amelia Jenks Bloomer, a temperance reformer and suffragette, stepped onto a soapbox in Boston Common and became one of the first women to publicly speak out on the question of women’s rights.

By the 1850s Boston Common was well established as a place to hold public meetings.

In 1870 Mayor O’brien ordered that all speakers on The Common must have a permit to speak. Rev. William F. Davis objected to this imposition on free speech and was jailed for a year. He took his case to the United States Supreme Court as a test case. Davis vs. Mass, 167 US 43, 1895-1997. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of the Boston City Council to pass ordinances restricting the rights of free speech by use of permits. This judgment set a precedent throughout the U.S.A. and is still current.

Despite the need for permits, free speech continued in Boston Common. Radical groups like the I.W.W. (Industrial Worker of the World) held regular protest meetings on issues like the Lawrence textile mill strike, and the two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti.

“ There were anarchists present, trade unionists, syndicalist and single-taxers, several varieties of socialists and communists, Pentecostals, Townsendites, Coughlinites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Buffalo Bill impersonator and even a defrocked Jesuit priest.”
‘Meeting up with socialism in deepest Maine’ by William David Barry, a historian and freelance writer living in Portland. (MaineToday.com)

Maverick anti-communist Roman Catholic priest, Father Feeney, held forth all through the 1950’s to the chagrin of the Church and to the delight of large audiences, until he was excommunicated in 1953.

In the 1960s, Harry Morrison, last of the old time political soapboxers, put the case for socialism tirelessly and articulately on behalf of the World Socialist Party (formerly the SPOGB, an American branch of the Socialist Party of Great Britain).

New groups continued to gather on Boston Common – the anti-Vietnam war movement, Moonies, the Hari-Krishnas, the Orange people, Be Inns, and Hippies. However, as a venue for free speech, Boston Common waned. Today, Boston Common has no regular Speakers’ Corner, but is still a central place for political rallies.

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

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