Early American Urban Protests — A Review of Boston’s Massacre

Hinderaker, Eric. Boston’s Massacre. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.

Review by Bob Carey

In this engaging study, Eric Hinderaker offers a masterclass in how to peel back the layers of data, scholarship, and propaganda to understand what we call the Boston Massacre. Such an approach, inviting views of a fraught event from different angles, calls to mind Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon (1950) where credible but conflicting stories are recounted as responses to the ever vexing question—“what happened?”

Boston’s Massacre not only asks “what happened?” but also “who said so?” and “what stories stand up?” Sorting this out is not so simple, considering that even presumably detached historians can hold conflicting views when it comes to a highly charged situation, which might be headlined “Troops Slay Innocent Protesters” or, alternatively, “The Mob Subdued!” Sound familiar? Thanks to Hinderaker we learn how over the past 250 years the Boston Massacre has been refought, rethought, or quietly restated. All this in a very readable 284 pages.

The Massacre appears almost inevitable, Hinderaker argues, when we appreciate the extraordinary changes that took place in the size, shape, and management of the British Empire. Between 1689 and 1763 the British, joined by significant numbers of loyal American colonialists, fought five major wars, including the French and Indian War. As a result of those conflicts and the growth of the British Empire, Great Britain became an imperial administrative state that needed a standing army that earlier generations would not have tolerated. Each year beginning in 1689 Parliament renewed the Mutiny Act signifying in Hinderaker’s words that “a peacetime standing army became a fact of life in Britain.”

In the colonies a standing army was anathema. Here then was the root of the problem. Britain had to bring those little cities—Hinderaker calls them “maritime commercialized undertakings with very little centralized direction or control”—into functioning administrative units of the Empire. The colonies would have to be taxed to support the military and naval operations, which had successfully driven the French from Canada. Redcoats would be lodged in private homes. 

Britain had changed dramatically. The colonies and Boston? Not so much. For the British, quartering troops in Boston was simply a requirement for running an Empire. For Bostonians at every level, from the elite down to the mob, the burden of taxation and quartering troops inspired resistance.

Hinderaker is very good at walking the reader through the performative aspects of the Massacre, providing a sort of Playbill listing the cast, featured players, and that unknown character who will appear in the dazzling climax (spoiler alert: Crispus Attucks). 

First onto the stage comes General Gage, commander of British forces, charged with the defense of newly acquired territory in North America. Next, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, a native Bostonian but a loyalist, expected to assert imperial control over those he knew all too well. Then—crucially—the tax commissioners and their agents. When Parliament relents and prohibits the billeting of troops in private homes, then it will be up to the tax collectors to generate sufficient revenue to defray the costs of lodging the troops in barracks. If you are running an Empire these are logical and necessary moves.

Meanwhile in Boston, a vigorous political culture has begun to emerge. First, the local elite, the “leading figures in the town meeting,” who according to Hinderaker will “[resist] the expansion of imperial oversight.” Then, local merchants troubled by Parliament’s revenue acts and efforts to curtail the smuggling which is an important element of their business and the colony’s economy. Finally, the “mob,” often used by the merchants and the elite to cow royal governors. But as Hinderaker observes, with a mind of its own, the “character and purpose” of the mob could be feared by the “better sort.” He notes, “large numbers of people, acting out of doors, could take on the character of a separate, independent estate in politics.” In the end, the mob will be the first to push back. 

A pot on the fire may take a while to boil. During the seventeen months of the British occupation, Gage will struggle with deserters (aided and abetted by the locals) and the sometimes violent street confrontations between the troops and “the lads.” As the nasty interactions grind on, the aggrieved parties petition Parliament for redress. Hinderaker walks the reader through a calendar of encounters, which come to their muddled and deadly conclusion on March 5, 1770. 

During the bicentennial and nearly a century after the erection of the statue to Crispus Attucks on Boston Common, Bostonians commemorate the Massacre. “Individuals, including Melnea Cass, at Crispus Attucks Memorial” (1976), Mayor’s Office of Public Service, City of Boston, City of Boston Archives, Flickr.

The conflict apparently begins on March 2 at a ropeworks, where the workers begin taunting the troops. Both sides are now spoiling for a fight. On March 5, the “lads” over on King Street begin mixing it up with troops who are returning to their quarters. The soldiers fire into the crowd. Three civilians die immediately, a fourth succumbs the following day, and another two weeks later. Among these “lads, from the lower rungs of Boston society,” Crispus Attucks is one of the first to die. The other is a sailor and, possibly, an escaped slave. What happened?

Hinderaker’s analysis is given over to a close reading of documents and a good deal of contemporary propaganda including the Horrid Massacre, the Town Meeting’s effort to uphold Boston’s innocence. He offers a careful analysis of the trials of the troops and Captain Preston held from October to December 1770. John Adams, a member of the defense team, argues that the troops were assaulted by a mob. He argues that what happened was an unfortunate incident. The billeting of troops that caused the conflict was not the fault of Prescott or his men. Crispus Attucks, later memorialized as a freedom fighter, appears in Adams’s telling as one of the mob that triggered the event. In the end, Prescott and six of his men are acquitted. Two others, found to have fired on the crowd, are found guilty. Manslaughter can carry the death penalty, but the two soldiers, after having their thumbs branded, are released.

The Massacre quickly becomes the centerpiece of Boston’s “corporate identity.” The Oration delivered at the Town Meeting every March 5 marks the city’s most important and consistently remembered public holiday. The oration delivered in 1775 marks the climax as the colonies and the British lurch toward war. But by 1783 Massacre Day is over, superseded by the Fourth of July. The Massacre? Mostly remembered as the work of the mob. 

But thanks to the African American community, Crispus Attucks and the other victims will not be forgotten. Relying on Carlo Bottos’s fanciful history of the American Revolution, Black abolitionist William Cooper Nell and other African Americans in Boston champion Attucks as the first man to fall in the name of freedom. Thus begins the long, reverential process culminating in the November 14, 1888 dedication of the Crispus Attucks Monument on Boston Common. In the 1960s, civil rights activists will keep the flame alive.

Hinderaker ends his account by comparing the Boston Massacre to the college shootings at Kent State (four dead in 1970) and the less publicized shootings at historically black colleges, South Carolina State in Orangeburg (three dead in 1968) and Jackson State (two dead in 1970). Now, Black Lives Matter casts a long shadow.

Hinderaker concludes: “The Massacre…refuses to resolve itself. Instead, it asks us to define, over and over again, the limits of legitimate authority, and to place it in the balance against the limits of legitimate popular protest.” That work would never seem to be done. Stay tuned.

Bob Carey did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (’61); read for degrees in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (’66, ’68), and did his doctoral work in American history at Columbia University in New York City (’84). He served as an Assistant Pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the 1960s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interest in historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease, and critical reading.

Featured image (at top): Paul Revere’s famous, sensationalized portrayal of the skirmish, later to become known as the “Boston Massacre.” Paul Revere, “The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt” (1770), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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