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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Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Picture For Liberty Leaves

Timothy Decker’s illustrations in For Liberty are in striking black and white, with hatching and patterns to produce the illusion of grays. The effect is in some ways reminiscent of eighteenth-century engravings.

Decker chooses dramatic visual angles, such as an overhead view of King Street immediately after the Boston Massacre, probably inspired by Paul Revere’s hand-drawn scene of the scene.

One spread uses a background of radiating lines to isolate our attention on a soldier firing his gun, a technique I think comes from Japanese comics. This illustration may be why the publisher classifies the book as “graphic fiction.” But really it’s a traditional picture book.

I saw one anachronistic mustache on a townsman, but the book sidesteps other common visual errors, such as the pre-Revolution French flag.

That said, the For Liberty illustrations reflect the same pro-Crown bias as the text, as I discussed yesterday. One picture and caption portray a leather-aproned apprentice throwing a snowball right into Pvt. Edward Montgomery’s chest and knocking him down. The next shows a man in the crowd holding a stick spiked with nails; some waterfront toughs brought sticks to King Street, but those were pieces of firewood the men had picked up along the way, not prepared weapons.

In contrast, another picture shows the soldiers just standing around, not pointing their bayonets out at the crowd as witnesses agreed they did. There’s no mention that Montgomery responded to being knocked down by shouting “Fire!” to his comrades.

I saw other misstatements and omissions in the text, some bearing directly on the Massacre:

  • The book dates the Seven Years’ War as “From 1753 until 1760.” The seven years of that war actually run from 1756 to 1763. Americans like to date its start from 1754, when George Washington led Virginia troops in a clash with the French at what he called Fort Necessity.
  • “Called the Sons of Liberty, they ruled the city through boycotts and riots.” I don’t think Sons of Liberty was really an organized group in Boston; it was a label for any men opposed to Parliament’s new taxes. Regardless, this statement ignores how opponents of the new Crown taxes really controlled the town of Boston: through a big majority in town meetings.
  • “A sentry saw Private White in distress and sought help...” Hugh White was the sentry outside the Customs House. The man who ran to the Main Guard for reinforcements was Thomas Greenwood, an employee in the Customs House.
  • “A moment of silence descended over the street” after the first shot. Some witnesses recalled such a pause, but most testified to “a space of some seconds,” in the words of merchant Richard Palmes.
  • “Turning, Captain [Thomas] Preston lost his footing. As he fell, he was struck by a club.” Actually Palmes, upset by the shooting, swung at Preston with his walking stick. And it wasn’t the captain who slipped, but Palmes, so his cane glanced against Preston’s arm.
  • “After a few minutes of chaos,...” Preston “shoved their musket barrels skyward.” This line and its position in the text implies Preston stopped the shooting. In fact, he testified to having knocked the barrels of his men’s guns up after the crowd had fallen back, the soldiers had reloaded, and a few men, led by watchman Benjamin Burdick, came forward to pick up the bodies.
  • “The soldiers were taken into custody and thus protected from the angry citizens.” The soldiers were taken into custody because they were accused of murder. On the night of 5 March, townspeople were angry (three dead and eight wounded tends to produce anger), but after promises of legal action from Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson there was no attempt to attack the soldiers.
  • “Lawyers were hired to prove that the soldiers provoked the riot.” Boston hired lawyers to prove that the soldiers had committed murder (or manslaughter) by shooting into a crowd of civilians without legal authority. Politicians argued in print that stationing soldiers in the midst of a town was bound to produce violence, and they blamed the government in London and local appointees for that provocation, not the soldiers.
  • “The Boston Massacre was the first in a series of conflicts between the Sons of Liberty and the agents of the king.” This leaves out the Stamp Act protests of 1765, the standoff outside Capt. Daniel Malcom’s warehouse in 1767, the Liberty riot in 1768, the Neck riot of 1769, and the tar-and-feathering of Customs employees in 1769. The Massacre wasn’t even the first fatal conflict—that was the riot that ended in Christopher Seider’s death on 22 Feb 1770.
The book’s last page says:
John Adams foresaw a troubled future.

The lawless mob and the presence of soldiers were signs of a defective system of government. He understood that no nation held dominion over liberty, the protection of one person from the actions of another. He knew that liberty was precious and required wise, vigilant, and reasonable citizens to protect it, even, at times, from the ignorance of one’s own countrymen.
The implication of this text is that Adams was troubled by the riots. He was far more troubled by the London government using its army to force laws on a colony that had never approved them. That’s why Adams went on to lead the argument for independence. He didn’t like mobs, but For Liberty’s language of needing “reasonable citizens” to oppose “the ignorance of one’s own countrymen” is a profoundly conservative misreading of Adams’s position at this time.

But that fits with the book’s profoundly conservative distortion of the Boston Massacre. As in any conflict, there were two sides to the fatal confrontation on King Street in 1770. For Liberty consistently shows only one.

1 comment:

Robert S. Paul said...

Maybe that mustachioed civilian was a recent immigrant from the HRE? :)