A little after 9:00 p.m. on March 5, 1770, a detachment of British soldiers fired into a crowd of townspeople on King Street in Boston, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The result—the “Boston Massacre”—is perhaps the most densely described incident in early American history, yet, as historian Eric Hinderaker shows in his comprehensive new study, the descriptions are sufficiently contradictory to make the unfolding sequence of events surprisingly hard to pin down. “To say what happened would seem to be a straightforward task,” he writes, “but in many ways the Boston Massacre remains an irreducible mystery.”
For Hinderaker, the Boston Massacre offers an unusual opportunity to observe how flashes of memory and bits of belief gradually take on the shape of competing narratives, and then to trace the evolution of those narratives across a long span of time. To that end, in Boston’s Massacre Hinderaker unravels the accounts of the attack—which was witnessed by more than two hundred people—and describes the political and cultural issues roiling Boston that day. He traces the competing narratives that contributed to contemporary understandings of the event, and, finally, the evolving memories of the attack as it’s been invoked in later years.
That last thread of Hinderaker’s study—various episodes illustrating the usefulness of the Boston Massacre as a touchstone of American identity—really helps to fortify our understanding of the workings of public memory. After detailing the many rhetorical uses of the Massacre throughout the Revolutionary period—for a modern reenactment, think of the tossed off interrogatory “And what about Boston?” during the “Farmer Refuted” number of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton—Hinderaker shows how Boston’s newly-independent leaders sought to downplay the attack, regarding the March 5 rioters as a lawless rabble unworthy of commemoration.
But then Boston’s African American community brought it back, making Crispus Attucks a familiar name at the same time that the moral depravity of slavery was becoming an urgent public issue:
Beginning around 1840, black activists laid claim to Crispus Attucks as an African American patriot who was the first man to die for the cause of American independence. William Cooper Nell was Attucks’s foremost champion. An African American who grew up in Boston, Nell was an abolitionist, a printer who trained under William Lloyd Garrison, and a historian. In a series of newspaper essays and books that appeared in the 1840s and 1850s, Nell introduced Attucks to his readers, which included the community of Boston abolitionists and black activists.
Ironically, Nell learned most of what he knew about Attucks from an Italian historian. Carlo (or, as his American publishers would have it, Charles) Botta’s three-volume history of the American war for independence was first translated into English in 1820; it quickly achieved great popularity, passing through seven editions in fifteen years. Botta relied heavily upon The Trial of William Wemms for his account of the Boston Massacre. But Botta focused on a feature of the trial that Ramsay had passed over: he made Crispus Attucks the central figure in the night’s events. Botta described rioters furiously attacking the Custom House sentinel. When Preston’s men marched to his relief, “they encountered a band of the populace, led by a mulatto named Attucks.” As the violence and confusion escalated, “the mulatto and twelve of his companions, pressing forward,” surrounded the soldiers and urged the townspeople not to be afraid. “The mulatto lifted his arm against captain Preston, and having turned one of the muskets, he seized the bayonet with his left hand.” The musket was discharged, and Attucks was the first man killed. Among the dozens of eyewitnesses who offered a version of these events, only Oliver Wendell’s slave, Andrew, had remembered them this way. But John Adams chose to amplify Andrew’s account in his closing arguments to protect the reputation of Boston, and now Botta, in search of dramatic interest, made Attucks the central figure in his narrative.
William Cooper Nell saw in Crispus Attucks something other than the outlandish figure that Adams had intended to make of him. For Nell and other black activists of the 1840s, Attucks became a patriot forebear. In 1851 Nell and six other African Americans from Boston petitioned the state legislature to appropriate funds for a monument to Crispus Attucks, “the first martyr of the American Revolution.” From that point forward, the question of whether the Boston Massacre would be publicly remembered was bound up with the status of Crispus Attucks as a symbol of African American citizenship.
As Hinderaker details, the movement to memorialize Attucks became locally controversial, but in the following decades Attucks became an increasingly important figure to black communities around the nation.
From nineteenth-century Boston to 1970 Ohio, where the National Guard killed four students and wounded nine more during antiwar protests at Kent State University:
The military force of a great world power shooting into an unarmed crowd of its own civilians: the analogy to the Boston Massacre immediately suggested itself. Eight days later, a company called SBS Creative Designs published a poster featuring Paul Revere’s famous engraving, with large red banners across the top and the bottom. The top banner said “Boston Mar. 5, 1770,” while the bottom read “Kent State May 4, 1970.” Four coffins—very similar to the ones printed in the Boston Gazette two hundred years earlier—punctuated the lower banner. The soldiers’ coats and the victims’ blood were colored red, while the rest of the print was in black and white.
The firepower at Kent State was much greater than it had been two hundred years earlier: the guardsmen discharged more than sixty rounds in about thirteen seconds, and none of the four victims who were killed was within a football field’s length of the soldiers. But in other ways the event was sufficiently similar to the shootings in Boston that some observers who reflected on Kent State made the comparison explicit. Student protests brought hundreds of college campuses to a standstill in the weeks following the shootings. At Brooklyn Polytechnic, a hundred students staged a lie-in, wearing the names of people who had been killed in wars and “other civil disturbances dating back to the pre–Revolutionary War Boston Massacre.” When an interviewer asked about the larger significance of an event that left four students dead, Kent State student Michael Stein remarked, “Only five people were killed in the Boston Massacre.” In a letter to the editor in Time, John J. Guiniven drew out the implications of the comparison. “In March 1770 a military unit took offense at being called names and being pelted with rocks,” he wrote, “and fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians. They called that the Boston Massacre. Then they started a revolution.”
From Kent State to the further militarization of law enforcement and the Movement for Black Lives:
The fear of militarized police forces has intersected with the issue of race in many urban settings. For leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is useful to trace a genealogy from Crispus Attucks to Michael Brown, the eighteen-year-old African American who was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in August 2014. As concern about police brutality against African Americans grows into a nationwide movement, the legacy of Crispus Attucks is relevant once again.
“As a symbol,” writes Hinderaker, “the Boston Massacre refuses to resolve itself. Instead it asks us to define, over and over again, the limits of legitimate authority, and to place them in the balance against the limits of legitimate popular protest. In this respect, the symbolic import of the Boston Massacre is of a piece with the contested meanings of the American Revolution itself.”