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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Saturday, May 17, 2008

“For the price of a few dead farmers”

I’ve traced how in 1916 Harold Murdock proposed that Samuel Adams had urged the Lexington militia to stand before the advancing British troops on 19 Apr 1775 because he expected their presence would provoke those soldiers into an aggressive act that would trigger the war for independence. Arthur Bernon Tourtellot adopted that theory and made it a basis for his William Diamond’s Drum in 1959.

Though I’m not convinced by their arguments on this question, both Murdock and Tourtellot wrote solid, significant books about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. They offered new thinking and marshaled lots of sources. Most important, they were clear about where their sources left off and their hypotheses and suppositions began. But not every author is so wise or so careful.

Which brings me to William H. Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began, published in 2000. This is a terrible book. It’s riddled with so many factual errors that, after I started to list them for this posting, I realized they’d fill an article on their own (maybe next week). Hallahan’s bias against Samuel Adams is blatant and unhampered by logic (I’ll post about that, too), so it was only natural for him to seize on the Murdock/Tourtellot theory.

But Hallahan egregiously makes no distinction for his readers between statements backed up by documents and those backed up by nothing more than supposition or bile. Instead of providing evidence or arguing a case, he just declares that people had particular motivations and that events happened a certain way, and then he repeats those statements over and over. Here’s Hallahan’s version of the Murdock/Tourtellot hypothesis:

in October 1774—at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall, Sam Adams pried and squeezed, wheedled and cajoled a promise from the other delegates to the Congress that if British troops attacked the people of Massachusetts the other colonies would come to their aid. But because of their deep distrust for Adams’s mobbish ways, many of the delegates warned him that the British had to be the first to shoot. If Adams’s followers provoked an incident—which they had already done a number of times—or if they fired first on the British, Massachusetts would find itself facing the might of England all alone.

So Adams returned home with a passionate mission: to goad General [Thomas] Gage into an attack. [page 15] . . .

For Samuel Adams, standing in the doorway of the parsonage [in Lexington in the early hours of 19 Apr 1775], it was a moment of near triumph. The answer was in—yes. Gage had finally taken the bait. Tonight, just one shot from a Brown Bess musket, one bloody shirt and Adams would have his revolution. [25] . . .

An exultant, expectant Sam Adams, now fully dressed, and always tending to business, walked the few hundred yards down Bedford Road with [John] Hancock and Reverend [Jonas] Clarke to Buckman’s Tavern, on the Commons, to chat with the armed militiamen. [26]
(Hallahan thus takes Tourtellot’s argument that Adams went to Lexington Green, though no witness recalled that he did, and makes it into a factual statement without a hint of doubt.)
Sam Adams was not the type of man who would leave anything to chance. With those British troops on the road—and American militiamen waiting for them, with orders not to fire first—Adams had found himself in a classic situation. All he would have to do was light the fuse. With the two antagonists facing each other, he could arrange to have someone—not himself; he would be far away—fire a single shot from behind a wall or a window that would provoke the British troops into a violent response against the militia. Afterward the British regulars would be accused of having fired first.

For the price of a few dead farmers, Adams could buy his war. [33]
Hallahan thus ends up going well beyond Murdock and Tourtellot’s hypothesis. He actually tells readers that Samuel Adams arranged for an agent provocateur to fire the first gun at Lexington. Who was that person? What connects that person to Adams? Hallahan never offers any answers—or any evidence.

TOMORROW: The big holes in the “Sam Adams provoked it” theory.

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