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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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Murdock Remembered in 1959

Yesterday I quoted Harold Murdock’s provocative suggestion that the skirmish on Lexington Green on 19 Apr 1775 came about because Samuel Adams had somehow manipulated Capt. John Parker into lining up the militia there as British soldiers marched in. Murdock originally proposed this idea in a paper to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which published it in 1916. He reprinted that paper in his 1923 book The Nineteenth of April 1775, which Houghton Mifflin issued in two editions: 575 numbered copies for insiders and libraries and, in 1925, a cheaper edition for the public.

In 1959, Murdock’s “Historic Doubts on the Battle of Lexington” essay suddenly received much wider circulation. The August issue of American Heritage excerpted most of it with additional commentary by Time-Life writer Arthur Bernon Tourtellot (1913-1977). And Tourtellot was very complimentary to the older historian:

Few episodes in American history lend themselves more easily to romanticizing than the stand of the embattled patriots on Lexington Common. . . . But forty years ago a voice was raised against the chorus of national sell-exaltation. It belonged to a Boston banker named Harold Murdock, a descendant of the original settlers, a man of wit, of insight, of scholarly persistence in tracking down details, and of a judicious temperament. . . .

Murdock was the first fully to explore and then explode the traditional version of what had happened on that memorable day, but in the three decades since he wrote, new evidence has come to light which reinforces his skeptical, though tentative, conclusions. The significance of Murdock’s achievement as a triumph of American historiography has been confirmed.
Indeed, a lot of new information had surfaced in the 1920s about the British officers involved in the march to Concord. Allen French had examined and written about Gen. Thomas Gage’s papers at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor. Reports from Lt. Frederick Mackenzie and Ens. Jeremy Lister had been published. Murdock himself had edited the accounts of Lt. William Sutherland and a man named Richard Pope, probably a civilian volunteer.

Some of that new attention was probably spurred by the 150th anniversary of American independence in 1926. I suspect there was an economic factor as well: aristocratic families in Britain deciding to sell some old ancestral papers to rich Americans so they could fix the roofs of their manors.

The result was a much clearer picture of what the British commander and officers were trying to do and how they saw the situation. Murdock was right about them not being out for colonial blood. Tourtellot went on:
“Historic Doubts on Lexington” marked the end of the romantic, insipid view of the origin of hostilities in the war of the American Revolution. To most historians and to other commentators, it was a welcome relief, coming as it did during the almost irresponsible nationalism of the 1920’s. In The Saturday Review of Literature, the Murdock essay was “prayerfully recommended to over-zealous patriotic societies and the begetters of ‘pure history’ laws.” Charles A. Beard, then at the height of his own powers as a revisionist historian, writing in The New Republic, proclaimed that the essay marked, after a century and a half, the end of Anglo-American hostilities.
Tourtellot concluded this article by saying that Murdock had “written probably the most forceful single revision of a major episode in American history.”

Tourtellot was particularly hot on “Historic Doubts about the Battle of Lexington” because he’d echoed Murdock’s theory in his own book, William Diamond’s Drum, which was to be published a month after the American Heritage article.

(William Diamond, incidentally, was a teenager from Boston who drummed for Capt. Parker’s militia company in Lexington. He’s remembered in the name of a local school and a youth fife and drum corps. However, his name apparently wasn’t famous enough to keep Tourtellot’s book selling, so it was retitled Lexington and Concord and is still in print.)

TOMORROW: Tourtellot’s version of the Mr. Murdock’s meme.

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