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, May 13, 2008

“The Tory and the Redcoat will be given a fair hearing”

In May 1916, Harold Murdock (1862-1934) presented a paper to the Massachusetts Historical Society with the title “Historic Doubts on the Battle of Lexington.” A few months later it appeared in volume 49 of the society’s Proceedings, and Google Books makes it available here.

Murdock wasn’t an academic or a professional writer. He was much better off: he was vice president of the National Shawmut Bank. Murdock collected and read Revolutionary books and manuscripts, was active in the M.H.S., and became a director of the Harvard University Press. As an author, he made important contributions to the study of the outbreak of the Revolution in Boston.

In particular, Murdock broke from a tendency of American historians, both popular and scholarly, to accept American sources less critically than British sources, and thus to blame Crown policies or actions for all the Revolution’s violent episodes. His paper on Lexington stated his principles:

Let me say at the outset that I am in possession of no evidence regarding my subject that has not been accessible to historians for years. It is not my purpose to laud villains or to depreciate heroes, but as all the actors who played their part at Lexington were Englishmen and professed loyalty to the British King, I shall discuss the episode as belonging as much to English as to American history. The Tory and the Redcoat will be given a fair hearing on the stand.
Despite his professed neutral stance, however, Murdock was clearly an Anglophile. He wrote admiringly about British officers while criticizing local politicians. In particular, he made himself the expert on Earl Percy, the British army’s second-in-command in Boston at the outbreak of the war—and the highest-ranking aristocrat in town.

Murdock’s first major Revolutionary writing was, I believe, a 1907 Atlantic Monthly piece titled “Earl Percy’s Dinner-Table,” which was later published in limited editions under that title and Earl Percy Dines Abroad: A Boswellian Episode. It imagined the conversation at the earl’s house about the political troubles in Boston, with only British officers and high-born Tories in the party. (The thumbnail image above comes from Krown & Spellman Booksellers, which offers a copy of Murdock’s Earl Percy Dines Abroad.)

At the time, Murdock’s leanings were a valuable corrective to the biases in American histories. But his own biases could sometimes affect his historical judgment. His Lexington essay stated that Gen. Thomas Gage “knew that there were thousands in the town [of Boston] who welcomed his presence, even as an enforcer of the Port Bill and the Regulating Acts.” The number “thousands” is hard to square with the town’s population of under 3,000 white males of voting age, the relatively small number of men who signed addresses welcoming their new governor, or the one thousand people of all sorts who left with the royal forces in March 1776.

Murdock was a conservative of the old-fashioned sort, which is to say a snob. In his paper on Lexington, he wrote that the Boston Massacre “deprived the town of some of its undesirable citizens.” He ended up, unconsciously or not, echoing the view of the Revolution that we see in the writings of Loyalist officials: that the common people of Massachusetts had never had it so good, so they must have been drawn into revolt only by the secret designs of cunning leaders.

In particular, Murdock proposed that sort of explanation for the shooting on Lexington Green early on 19 Apr 1775. It was, he admitted, a “theory” for which he had no evidence. Nevertheless, it eventually inspired one very good study of the Battle of Lexington and Concord as well as being uncritically inserted into some very bad books. This week I’m going to trace the life of this meme before examining the evidence for and against it.

TOMORROW: Mr. Murdock’s meme.

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