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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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Harold Murdock and the Birth of a Meme

Yesterday I introduced Harold Murdock, a Boston banker and historian who voiced some provocative new ideas about the Revolutionary War’s beginning in his 1916 essay “Historic Doubts on the Battle of Lexington.” The U.S. of A. was then having a national debate about whether to enter the World War on the side of Great Britain. It was an interesting time to argue that perhaps the British troops weren’t the villains of the skirmish at Lexington, as most previous American historians had agreed.

Here’s what Murdock asked his audience at the Massachusetts Historical Society:

And now, as we shift the scene to Lexington, let me ask if it has ever occurred to you to question the wisdom of sixty or seventy men going out and forming on the level ground of the Common, in plain sight of an advancing force of eight hundred of their enemies? . . .

How could he [Capt. John Parker] expect that sixty or seventy armed men, grouped between the meeting house and the Buckman Tavern, should fail of discovery by troops passing along the road but a few steps away, and how could he imagine that these troops would ignore them, standing as they did with shotted arms and in a posture of war? . . .

Captain Parker was a soldier of experience, and he chose a post for observation and consultation where his men would be almost brushed by the scarlet trappings of the passing enemy. . . . high land and thick woods, admirable spots for observation and consultation were close at hand, and yet Parker and his men stood quietly by the wayside inviting insult or molestation.

Has it ever occurred to you that Parker acted under orders, that the post he took was not of his choosing? Samuel Adams, the great agitator, had been a guest at Parson [Jonas] Clark’s for days, and he was the dynamo that kept the revolutionary machinery in motion. The blood shed by [Capt. Thomas] Preston’s men in King Street had been ably used by Adams to solidify the popular cause, and now did he feel that the time had come to draw once more the British fire? It is perhaps a foolish query, but it is engendered by an historic doubt. I cannot satisfy my mind that Parker was the responsible agent in the affair.
Murdock, in a nutshell, suggested a conspiracy to explain the shots at Lexington: Adams had somehow convinced or ordered Capt. Parker to put himself and his men in harm’s way so as to provoke an angry reaction from the British soldiers, and then an angrier, larger response from the provincial militia.

In 1923, Murdock included this “Lexington” essay and others in a book titled The Nineteenth of April 1775, published by Houghton Mifflin. He added a footnote to the passage quoted above:
There is no evidence to support this theory. On the other hand, there are precedents that justify suspicion.
Murdock’s precedents consisted of hints about the fights that led up to the Boston Massacre in the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America and John Adams’s autobiography.

But those are vague hints indeed, hardly firm “precedents.” Gordon wrote of “certain persons among the leaders of the opposition,” and Adams of “designing men” spurring confrontations between citizens and soldiers. Neither writer pointed at Samuel Adams, whom they both admired and were close to. Some contemporary supporters described Adams as a voice for moderate measures—firm, unyielding, but not provocative. Other Whig leaders, such as William Molineux, were known for being close to the working-class crowds and being hot-headed, but by the twentieth century their names were largely forgotten.

Murdock wrote shortly before American historians and popular writers started to describe Adams in a new way: as an unreasonable radical, the sort of restless troublemaker who would indeed lure men to their deaths in order to bring about a war. And his theory about Lexington fit that picture, even though there was no evidence behind it.

TOMORROW: Murdock’s theory rediscovered.

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