J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Reading More about the Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre anniversary is over—whew! As you might have noticed, I’d worked up to that event with a series of postings about some of the people involved.

My summary of the Massacre itself left out a lot of detail, and may not connect all the dots exactly right. (For example, when did Dr. Thomas Young tell people to go home? Did Pvt. Montgomery shoot first or yell “Fire!” first?) We have more testimony about this event than any other in Revolutionary America, I suspect, so describing and reconciling everyone’s point of view would fill several books. A person could write a long blog entry simply from the point of view of Ann Green, one of the (probably) teenage girls that Bartholomew Broaders escorted home from the apothecary—and maybe next year I’ll do that.

For folks who want to read a full history of the fatal event, the best book is Hiller B. Zobel’s The Boston Massacre, published by W. W. Norton to coincide with the 200th anniversary. While the shootings on King Street on 5 March 1770 are the center of this history, it also covers the years of violent conflict in Boston before then and the immediate aftermath. Zobel prepared for this study by co-editing The Legal Papers of John Adams. Volume 2 of that series includes the records of the trial of Ebenezer Richardson; volume 3 is devoted to the trials of Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight soldiers.

There are, inevitably, some flaws and holes in Zobel’s study. Prof. Pauline Maier of M.I.T. pointed out the Tory slant of the book’s rhetoric in reviewing it for the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. [Her method inspired my posting about another author’s treatment of Samuel Adams here on Boston 1775.] Prof. John Philip Reid argued against Zobel’s analysis of John Adams’s courtroom behavior in an American Journal of Legal History article a few years later.

I think that The Boston Massacre is a masterful recreation of events from a variety of sources, but agree that in its analysis and rhetoric it leans to the right. So for determined researchers I also recommend seeking out a copy of Dirk Hoerder’s Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765-1780, which leans to the left. Unfortunately, that book’s not nearly so engaging or well written as Zobel’s. (I shouldn’t complain: Hoerder writes so much better in English than I could write in German.)

There have also been thirty-seven more years of research since Zobel was at work, with personal computers, digital databases, and the internet making it so much easier to collect information. So now we have even more information about the Massacre. In fact, my postings about it have focused on stuff that you won’t find in The Boston Massacre:

I understand at least one Harvard professor is working on a new book about the Boston Massacre now, so there will no doubt be more new information and new interpretations in time for the 240th anniversary.

1 comment:

LJ said...

Thanks you for this insight into American history.