What happened when British soldiers and their families arrived in Boston in 1768? In Episode 66 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, we talk with Carleton College history professor Serena Zabin about her new book, The Boston Massacre: A Family History. Zabin’s close reading of everyday life in revolutionary Boston will forever shape how we understand this important moment in our shared past.
Many of us use Paul Revere’s image of the Boston Massacre when we teach the American Revolution.
Pelham came from prominent Boston family and was the half-brother of the artist John Singleton Copley, one of the most renowned painters in 18th-century America. (A teenage Pelham is the subject of one of Copley’s famous early works, the 1765 portrait The Boy With the Squirrel.) It’s not known if Pelham witnessed the Massacre. But as a Bostonian and engraver by trade, he certainly understood how earth-shattering it was. He quickly produced a copperplate engraving depicting the events. At some point in the days afterwards, he showed a colleague a version of it, perhaps an early proof. The image, called Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston, on March 5th, 1770, was highly inflammatory—more propaganda than journalism—showing an organized British squad following an order to fire on the colonists, several of whom fall wounded in the street. It leaves no doubt of the patriot point-of-view: This was cold-blooded murder.
Pelham’s intent was to get the engraving printed and disseminated as widely as possible. There was only one problem: He got scooped. The colleague he conferred with was silversmith, fellow engraver, and Son of Liberty Paul Revere, who quickly realized how powerful the image was and set about engraving one of his own that was remarkably similar to Pelham’s. Revere called his version The Bloody Massacre, Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt and rushed it to press, beating Pelham by several days.
Read the entire piece here.
Because so little could be verified about Attucks’s life, both white and black commentators constructed the Crispus Attucks that suited their respective agendas. Between the 1880s and 1950s, most whites tended either to ignore Attucks or vilify him, echoing John Adams’s characterization of Attucks as an unsavory firebrand of disorder. African-Americans continued to commemorate him, fabricating a set of convenient fictions that highlighted his patriotism and burning desire for freedom. At times whites and blacks came together to laud Attucks, as when a monument was erected in Boston in 1888 and when Massachusetts designated March 5 as Crispus Attucks Day, an official state holiday, in 1932. But more often Attucks’s memory was segregated. He virtually disappeared from mainstream History textbooks between the 1880s and 1960s, while a series of black writers constructed an idealized Attucks: he was literate and well versed in political philosophy; a lover of universal freedom; an intimate confidante of Boston’s Sons of Liberty; an inspirational public speaker at anti-British rallies; a daring and selfless patriot who sacrificed his life to build a new nation promising liberty for all. There is no evidence for any of these assertions.
Read the entire piece here.
JF: What led you to write Boston’s Massacre?
EH: The book is about the Boston Massacre, which occurred on March 5, 1770, when a group of British soldiers fired into a crowd of civilians and killed five of them. Initially, I was interested in the eyewitness testimony, which is voluminous but fundamentally irreconcilable. As my research progressed, I became fascinated with the problem faced by commander-in-chief Thomas Gage and his subordinate officers, who had to manage military-civilian relations throughout the colonies of British North America at a time when many thousands of troops were stationed there. In the end, I realized that, above all, the book is about memory: how we interpret what we see and argue about events when they’ve just happened, how we commemorate them to solidify a particular interpretation of their significance, and how they are eventually reshaped through selective remembering and forgetting.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Boston’s Massacre?
EH: As the apostrophe in the title suggests, the book argues that the “massacre” belonged to the town of Boston: the town created the conditions that gave rise to the shootings; it championed the view that the shootings were a massacre rather than an “unhappy disturbance,” as the soldiers’ defenders would have it; and it kept the memory of the massacre alive in print, in commemorative orations, and in local culture throughout the war of independence. Boston was the crucible of the American Revolution—its indispensable community—and the Boston Massacre was the catalyzing event that forged the town’s collective sense of grievance and purpose.
JF: Why do we need to read Boston’s Massacre?
EH: Today, when we inhabit an era of sharp and continuous political disagreement, many people look fondly on the past—and especially the era of the American Revolution—as a time of widespread consensus and rational political behavior. Boston’s Massacre makes clear that the politics of the revolutionary era were no less divisive than our own. Nor were opinions shaped by an impartial press or high-minded statesmen. Fundamental principles were at stake, then as now, and people disagreed about everything, including the bare facts of an event like the Boston Massacre. Were the townspeople innocent and aggrieved victims of excessive force, or were the soldiers being assaulted so fiercely by a mob that they had no choice but to shoot? Boston’s Massacre allows us to observe the process by which confused impressions were deployed in the service of competing narratives, and then to trace the evolution of those narratives across a long span of time, even into our own.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EH: I majored in history in college, but I did not initially intend to become a historian. When I did decide to apply for graduate school, I thought I wanted to study modern European history. But I had the good fortune to arrive at the University of Colorado at the same time that four brilliant early Americanists joined the department: Fred Anderson, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Gloria Main, and Jackson Turner Main. I was introduced to early American history at a moment when the field was undergoing a renaissance, and I discovered that its core issues resonated deeply with my own curiosity and interests.
JF: What is your next project?
EH: I have three main projects in the offing. With Rebecca Horn, my colleague in colonial Latin American history at the University of Utah, I am working on a very broad-gauge account of the colonization of the Americas. François Furstenberg of Johns Hopkins University and I are writing a reinterpretation of Frederick Jackson Turner that casts him as a colonial historian rather than a western historian, and that argues for his extraordinary prescience in anticipating the current shape of the field. And on my own, I am just beginning work on a project that will explore the outpouring of energy and capital in the Restoration era (ca. 1660-1690) that reshaped England’s colonial enterprise in North America. I hope they’ll keep me busy for awhile!
JF: Thanks, Eric!
J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 tries to answer this question. Here is a taste:
Bostonians started to call the killings on King Street on 5 Mar 1770 a “massacre” almost immediately, according to the official record. The minutes of the emergency town meeting that started the next day begin:
At a Meeting of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston at Faneuil Hall on Tuesday the 6th. Day of March 1770 – 11 O’Clock A:M; occasioned by the Massacre made in King Street, by the Soldiery the preceeding Night . . .
Upon a Motion made it was Voted, that if any of the Inhabitants present could give information respecting the Massacre of the last Night, that they be desired to do it in Meeting, that the same might be minuted by the Town Clerk
That clerk was William Cooper, and it appears he was the person who started to apply the term “massacre” as he took notes at that meeting.
By the end of that town meeting that afternoon, Cooper was writing the phrase “horrid Massacre.” On the afternoon of the 12th, that had become “the late horred Massacre.” The latter meeting had chosen a small committee headed by James Bowdoin to write Boston’s official report on the event, which had the title A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.
In choosing that word, Boston Whigs strengthened the links they perceived between them and government reformers in London. The term echoed the Massacre of St. George’s Fields, which had taken place in London in May 1768. A crowd had turned out to show support for the radical politician John Wilkes. Magistrates “read the Riot Act,” ordering the people to disperse. When they didn’t, soldiers fired at the crowd, killing six to eleven people.
Read the rest here.
There is a lot going on in this short piece. Zabin offers an uncommon reading of Revere’s image that focuses on the shield of smoke billowing between the British and the colonists. She situates both the colonists and the British soldiers in the context of 1770s Boston, suggesting that all the people pictured in this image were neighbors.
In the process, she offers a lesson about what Revere’s engraving and the 246th anniversary of the Boston Massacre might mean for us today.
Here is a taste of her piece:
There certainly were tensions in Boston in 1770. A year and a half before the “massacre,” 2,000 soldiers, along with hundreds of women and children, had crammed into a city of 16,000 inhabitants that sat on a peninsula not much more than a single square mile in size. There was little room to spread out, so it was no wonder that resentments flared. But the conflicts were between neighbors, not strangers. Soldiers and Bostonians found that their daily lives were tangled and knotted together. No bright white line divided them.
Political spin as blatant as that of Revere’s engraving seems to pervade our world today, and we often believe that we can see through the manipulation. But sometimes the most obvious sleight of hand is precisely the one we overlook, because it plays to our assumptions about the world. We let our focus on political difference blind us to the strength of our human relationships. Sometimes the lines that we believe divide us from each other really are no more than smoke.
Read the entire essay here.
Heather Cox Richardson reminds us, in a post titled “John Adams and the Rule of Law in Boston,” that Adams defended the British soldiers who fired into a crowd on March 5, 1770, killing five people. Of course we know this event as the Boston Massacre.
Richardson draws some parallels between Adams’s insistence that the British soldiers get a fair trial and the case of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Here is a taste:
With the March 5th anniversary of the Boston Massacre behind us, Amanda Matthews of the John Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, reflects on why John Adams, a Boston attorney, agreed to be the defense lawyer for the British soldiers charged with instigating the riot that led to five civilian deaths.
Matthews rightly reminds us that we should be careful about giving too much historical authority to Adams’s post-election of 1800 recollection of his role in the affair. She writes: “Adams’s own recollection (he kept no diary at the time), is tainted by a long and often torturous public service that left him feeling unappreciated for his many sacrifices to his country….”
So why did he take the case? Here is Matthews’s argument:
As are human motives generally, his reasons were complex. It is important to remember that these cases were just two out of hundreds in his career and when put in that larger context, they appear less extraordinary. He mistrusted mob action as a rule and he defended patriots against the crown, and Tories against patriot wrongs. No doubt the knowledge that these cases would be well recorded encouraged him and his ego as well. Finally, the balance of power between the Crown and the colonies was still in flux. Adams was determined to appear neutral until the winds were evident. In 1768, he had been offered the position of the Crown’s advocate general in Massachusetts. He declined. On the other hand, Adams wanted it known that he was not controlled by the Boston patriot leadership. He would be an independent man at all times. It was a theme and standard he maintained throughout his life and one quite evident throughout the Massacre trials.
J.L. Bell has been on a roll lately. Today’s post at Boston 1775 discusses the disappearance of the cobblestone circle that marks the site of the Boston Massacre (1770). Apparently it has been removed for roadwork. Nor is this the first time the stones have been moved.
This will not be the first time that subway construction has required the stones’ relocation. They were originally placed in the street pavement in 1887 near the corner of State and Exchange Streets, much closer to the present site of 60 State Street. (Exchange Street is now gone, but it roughly corresponded with the southbound lanes of Congress Street.)
In 1904 they were removed to allow construction of the subway to East Boston, and replaced in a new site right in the middle of the intersection, near where James Caldwell had died.
Again in the 1960s, when urban renewal caused reconfiguration of the streets, the circle of stones was moved to its most recent site, apparently chosen simply because that’s where the city wanted to place a traffic island.
All this means that the circle of stones no longer represents the spot “where Crispus Attucks fell.” To stand on that site, you’d have to go back to the 1887 location of the stones, and you’d probably get hit by a truck as soon as the traffic signal changed.
Something to keep in mind for all of you taking a vacation to Boston this summer!
I was teaching about the Boston Massacre today in my American Revolution course. I wanted to show the scene from the John Adams HBO mini-series in which Adams, played by Paul Giamatti, is in court defending the British soldiers who fired into the crowd on the fateful day in March 1770.
For whatever reason, I could not figure out how to get the DVD to project on the screen. Instead, I ended up tapping into the college’s satellite television system. So as I fumbled to get the right track on the DVD, my students got to watch a few minutes of the Rachel Ray show. One student, clearly frustrated with my failed attempts to get the DVD set up correctly, told me to calm down and be patient with the system.
I eventually got the DVD cued up, but I lost 15 valuable minutes of class time in the process.
Needless to say it was a disaster. Can anyone feel my pain?