The Boston Massacre has loomed large in America’s historical memory. Taking place five years before the battles at Lexington and Concord, the episode featured British soldiers firing into a gathering of unarmed colonists. Four died on the scene, and another succumbed to mortal wounds a few days later. The moment and its martyrs were immortalized in a famous Paul Revere illustration that same year:
But the story has complex legacies. Was this a significant step on the way to rebellion and independence, or was it the result of an unruly mob? Those who watched the HBO series John Adams might have been surprised that Adams defended the British soldiers. He argued that they were being cornered, bullied, and pelted with snow and ice by the cities miscreants. They were hooligans, in other words. Those actually protesting British rule, Adams claimed, were much more orderly. His argument was successful, as they were all acquitted.
But that does not mean the “massacre”—a term that is itself a politicized description, just like Adams’s use of “mob”—does not reveal a lot about the coming of the American Revolution. Eric Hinderaker’s new book, Boston’s Massacre (Harvard UP) uses the episode to tell a much larger story. Besides giving an exhaustive overview of the events that transpired on March 5, 1770, including extensive details concerning the city and its governing structure, Hinderaker explores the world that led to it as well as the multiple worlds it created. This story is both explicitly intimate—when learning about all the various people who played leading roles in the story, I was reminded of how small and parochial Boston really was—as well as exceptionally broad, as it situated Boston within an immense and evolving British empire.
The first half of the book is a series of thematic chapters focused on different lenses through which to see the massacre’s origins. For example, one chapter discusses changing beliefs concerning a standing militia within Britain and her colonies, and another details how resistance efforts operated in the half-decade following the Stamp Tax ordeal. The Massachusetts colony was a proud participant in the effort to build Boston as an imperial space, and only came to regret it when that very power was turned against against their residents. The story of Britain in the mid-eighteenth century is the birth of a militant power. When the empire won broad new swaths of land from France, it inherited dozens of forts and thousands of miles that had to be guarded. This required a radical expansion of the standing army. Those in the colonies were not used to these new circumstances and often fought back. Hinderaker’s analysis usefully interweaves comparative examples to help understand the Boston experience, including those inside Britain (Ireland) as well as outside (Spanish New Orleans). I learned quite a bit concerning how imperial militias were governed, moved, and housed in the early-modern period.
And then there’s the massacre itself. The most striking detail about Hinderaker’s account is how up-front he is concerning how little we know about it. He digs through particular interviews, trial notes, prosecution and defense arguments, as well as propaganda, and concludes that nearly all of it is clouded by agendas. Did the captain instruct the soldiers to fire? Were there more shooters on the second floor of the customs house? While Hinderaker explores these questions and provides exquisite detail, he concludes that much of the event will remain a mystery. What is clear, though, is the surrounding circumstances: Boston had become a crowded city with unwanted soldiers housed in makeshift barracks and gunning for the locals’ jobs. At the very least, they were an affront to the city’s character. The massacre was the culmination of imperial conflict. But some in the town also saw the mob violence that led to the shooting as equally contemptible. In defending the soldiers, John Adams and his fellow lawyers sought to save their city’s reputation by blaming it on the neighborhood’s miscreants; most notably, he played up the role of Crispus Attucks, a slave of Native and African American descent, who Adams differentiated from the calm, reasonable, and collected patriots of Boston.
The book takes a different approach once the trials are concluded. The final chapters focus on how the meanings of the massacre evolved over time. Hinderaker persuasively demonstrates that the event drew little attention outside of New England—or even Boston, for that matter—for quite some time. But it certainly became part of the city’s consciousness during the Revolution. Annual lectures commemorated March 5 for a decade, and speakers highlighted British tyranny and colonial innocence. But the event’s importance subsided after the conflict’s conclusion in 1783. From that point on it was a point of ambivalence. Highlighting it did indeed cement Boston’s role in the revolutionary struggle, but it also opened them up to accusations of lawlessness. This anxiety has persisted ever since, and has been present at every moment of resurgent memory.
But that did not keep different groups from appropriating the event as their own. Some were unexpected, like when abolitionists in the 1850s played up the role of Crispus Attucks as a martyr for America’s origins. (Remember: John Adams used Attucks as an unruly scapegoat to preserve Boston’s responsible character; that his words were later use to make Attucks a hero demonstrates the malleability of memory.) Then, in the twentieth century, when Americans worried about the rise of a military state, the massacre was once again dusted off and displayed. Memories of 1770 Boston resurfaced with debates ranging from the Kent State shootings in 1970 to Michael Brown in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter. I’m sure the story will still be used in similarly innovative and significant ways in the future.
As you can tell, Boston’s Massacre is a sprawling narrative. As a result, there are times when it didn’t seem to hold together, as the individual parts were more coherent than the whole. Since the chapters were thematic and danced around the event, rather than taking a strict chronological development toward and away from it, there were portions that seemed redundant. Particular chapters jumped forward and backward in ways that could appear confusing. The text sometimes reads better as a collection of essays. In a way, that kaleidascope structure reflects the massacre itself, as the angle through which one chooses to look largely determines the picture that you see. This is an excellent historical meditation on a crucial story—not to mention the historical craft. I look forward to assigning portions of it in class.