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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Saturday, March 08, 2014

Adams Revisits Attucks

In July 1773, John Adams returned to the figure of Crispus Attucks in an odd new way. Adams wrote this passage into his diary:
To Tho. Hutchinson

Sir

You will hear from Us with Astonishment. You ought to hear from Us with Horror. You are chargeable before God and Man, with our Blood.—The Soldiers were but passive Instruments, were Machines, neither moral nor voluntary Agents in our Destruction more than the leaden Pelletts, with which we were wounded.—You was a free Agent. You acted, coolly, deliberately, with all that premeditated Malice, not against Us in Particular but against the People in general, which in the Sight of the Law is an ingredient in the Composition of Murder. You will hear further from Us hereafter.

Chrispus Attucks
Some authors have interpreted this as something Attucks himself wrote. However, since it refers to the shots on King Street and those had killed Attucks immediately, he couldn’t have been the author.

Instead, Adams appears to have adopted the voice of Attucks and the other people killed in 1770 as ghosts, astonishing and horrifying Gov. Hutchinson. The editors of Adams’s papers theorize that Adams was thinking of publishing the letter as a pseudonymous newspaper essay, but no one has found it in print. (Adams’s newspaper essays were usually long and legalistic.)

At the time, Massachusetts Whig politicians were angrily discussing letters that Hutchinson and other friends of the royal government had sent to London over the preceding years, recently leaked by Benjamin Franklin. Adams perceived Hutchinson as conspiring against Massachusetts’s traditional constitution. Hence his accusation in this paragraph that the governor had acted with “premeditated Malice, not against Us in Particular but against the People in general.”

The letter also hints at Adams’s mixed feelings about helping to defend Capt. Thomas Preston and the British soldiers back in 1770. By arguing that those men “were but passive Instruments” in Hutchinson’s conspiracy, he could justify defending them while still treating the government they worked for as oppressive.

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