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, February 28, 2008

Recovering the Memory of Crispus Attucks

Yesterday I quoted the inaccurate account of the Boston Massacre that William Tudor, Jr., published in 1823. The following year, a Boston printer advertised a new edition of the transcript of the soldiers’ trial, which was more detailed and accurate, though still incomplete. This had been printed in 1771 and again in 1807, but Tudor had apparently not consulted it.

Every so often ante-bellum printers would reprint other documents related to the Massacre which named its victims. Some newspapers ran John Hancock’s commemorative oration in 1813, 1818, and 1820. Others in 1837 and 1840 reprinted the first reports on the shootings from the New London Gazette. Boston’s official report on the event, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre..., reappeared for the first time in 1849.

However, it looks like a major impetus for recovering and publicizing the details of the Boston Massacre was the Abolitionist movement. Bostonians remembered, however dimly, that one of the shooting victims had some African ancestry. A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, published in 1834, quoted nonagenarian George R. T. Hewes identifying one of the dead men as “Attuck, a molatto.”

In 1835, Hewes sat down for more interviews with a Boston attorney and journalist named Benjamin Bussey Thatcher. He was an Abolitionist who advocated colonizing Liberia with newly free black Americans. The year before he had published a Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave, the first biography of that poet. Thatcher was also interested in Native Americans, writing about their traditions.

The book Thatcher wrote based on the recollections of Hewes and other old men, Traits of the Tea-Party, mentioned Attucks as a mulatto and, probably less accurately, a “Nantucket Indian.” That may have been enough to awaken interest in the Massacre among Thatcher’s fellow Abolitionists.

However, writers had few sources to rely on, especially outside Boston. As a result, it took a while for them to identify Attucks properly. The 21 Aug 1848 issue of the Abolitionist newspaper The North Star, published in Rochester, printed the address of H. W. Johnson at the “First of August Celebration.” (Abolitionists celebrated the date that slavery was ended in the British Empire.) Speaking of a person fleeing slavery, Johnson said:

he may go to Faneuil Hall, that old cradle of liberty, that once rocked with the loud shouts of freedom and equal rights, where once was heard the voice of Adams and Hancock, and their compatriots of revolutionary times—that sacred spot from within whose walls was borne away the mangled form of that brave black man, Benjamin Attucks, from whose veins flowed the first drop of blood that mingled with American soil, in defence of American liberty—even there he finds no protection.
On 5 Feb 1852, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, also published in Rochester, reported:
On the 5th of March, 1851, a petition was presented to the Massachusetts Legislature; asking an appropriation of $1,500 for erecting a monument to the memory of Christopher Attucks, the first martyr in the Boston massacre of 5th March, 1770.
This petition was denied, but not on the grounds that the man was really named Crispus.

Probably the most prominent reference to Attucks by the wrong name came in the Rev. Theodore Parker’s 12 Apr 1852 address “The Boston Kidnapping,” about the arrest and rendition of a man fleeing slavery:
The chief kidnappers surround Mr. Simms with a troop of policemen, armed with naked words; that troop was attended by a larger crew of some two hundred policemen, armed with clubs.

They conducted him, weeping as he went, toward the water-side; they passed under the eaves of the old State House, which had rocked with the eloquence of James Otis, and shaken beneath the manly tread of both the Adamses, whom the cannon at the door could not terrify, and whose steps awakened the nation.

They took him on the spot where, eighty-one years before, the ground had drunk in the African blood of Christopher Attucks, shed by white men on the fifth of March; brother’s blood which did not cry in vain.

They took him by the spot where the citizens of Massachusetts—some of their descendants were again at the place—scattered the taxed tea of Great Britain to the waters and the winds...
Although Johnson, Parker, and other Abolitionists didn’t have all the facts about Crispus Attucks, they knew that invoking him tied their cause to the hallowed fight for American independence.


Peregrine White said...

I'm curious - Do you subscribe to the "Crispus Attucks is a hero" viewpoint?

I'm fairly new to the research on these times but I've never understood all the interest in someone who, at best, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and, at worst, was a "rioter, not a patriot".

Further, the focus on Attucks appears to have detracted from the truly heroic, truly patriotic figures such as Prince Estabrook and other African Americans.

J. L. Bell said...

I think it’s impossible to know Crispus Attucks’s motives, and thus to judge them.

He wasn’t simply caught in the crowd. Witnesses spoke of him as a leader, and he urged another man to bring along a length of firewood as a weapon. He was standing right in front of the soldiers when they shot.

That’s striking given how Attucks was living in Boston under an alias (“Michael Johnson”), probably as a fugitive from slavery. Why would someone with such a reason to lay low take such a prominent role in a public confrontation?

Was Attucks angered by the sentry’s violent attack on a boy, or by the army’s presence in Boston, or by the Customs service? Or was he simply looking for trouble, or hoping to get into the Customs house? People have claimed all of those things, and there’s no real evidence for any.

Whig/Patriot ideology made the dead from the Boston Massacre into martyrs, and thus by extension heroes. From the first newspaper reports, Attucks has always been treated differently because of his racial identity. When rights for black Americans became an issue, therefore, he was available as a symbol of African-American sacrifices from the very beginning of the Revolution. But we can see very little of the real man behind the symbol.