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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Monday, March 31, 2008

Discussion of the Boston Massacre Trial Tonight

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.


Marissa said...

Yes, Adams's participation in the Boston Massacre trial is in the history textbooks. Interestingly, Adams said that "the Part I took in Defense of Captain Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently."

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. My analysis of Adams’s “Obloquy enough” comment is here.