Tonight, 31 March, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a public discussion of the role of memory in history and the law, looking specifically at the trial of the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. That trial hinged on eyewitnesses’ memories, often conflicting, of a violent, emotional event months earlier. Furthermore, our public memory of the shootings and trial has changed greatly over the centuries.
Most recently we’ve seen those events depicted in ways that were both more dramatic and simpler than period documents suggest in the H.B.O. miniseries on John Adams (as I discussed here). The public memory, or possible lack thereof, of the event also proved crucial to actor Tom Hanks’s decision to produce the television series. According to his charming interview in yesterday’s Boston Globe and statements elsewhere, he started reading David McCullough’s biography of Adams:
I got up to his defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre and I said, “Why don’t I know this? Why didn’t my teachers explain that the future president of the United States got these guys off?”(I’ve heard from at least three people who say they were surprised Hanks didn’t know that since it was in their history textbooks.)
Leading tonight’s discussion will be the Hon. Hiller B. Zobel, who was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1979. Before going off on that wild tangent, though, Zobel was the coeditor of The Legal Papers of John Adams with L. Kinvin Wroth, and author of The Boston Massacre, still the best book on the event. For background reading, check out chapters 17-19. You’ll find a more scattershot series of remarks here on Boston 1775 by following the Boston Massacre label.
The historical society is at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston—all the way down Boylston nearly to the Fenway. The nearest T stop is Hynes Convention Center. The conversation will be preceded by an informal reception. Audience members will be invited, though not required, to participate in the discussion.