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, February 06, 2010

The For Liberty Bias

For Liberty is an ironic title for Timothy Decker’s picture book about the Boston Massacre, published last year by Calkins Creek. It portrays that historic event almost entirely from the perspective of supporters of the royal government, who felt Bostonians were taking too much liberty.

This perspective begins on the front cover, drawn from behind a British soldier and thus making us share his view of the crowd. One youth yells a taunt while another is about to throw a snowball at close range. The single soldier holds his bayonet away from the boys, not defending himself. This picture makes a clear statement about who were aggressors and who was a victim.

The pattern extends to the historical figures that the book presents as individuals rather than part of a group. For Liberty doesn’t name any of the eleven men and boys killed or wounded by gunfire on 5 Mar 1770. One picture shows a black man being shot, clearly meant to be Crispus Attucks, but no text on that page identifies him.

The book doesn’t name Edward Garrick, the barber’s apprentice who got clubbed in the head by Pvt. Hugh White, beginning the spiral of violence on King Street. Instead, the text says, “At the Customs House, Private White found himself harassed by apprentices and street toughs,” as if people had spontaneously decided to bother an armed sentry.

In contrast, For Liberty supplies last names for Capt. Thomas Preston and all eight of the enlisted men tried for the shootings on 5 Mar 1770. It gives full names for two people, both gentlemen who supported those soldiers: defense attorney John Adams and magistrate James Murray. And the latter may not even have been there. (I’ll discuss that later.)

The book doesn’t name any of Adams’s colleagues on the defense team, nor either of the prosecuting attorneys, nor any of Boston’s political leaders (though it says they “planned” riots).

Decker’s text actually erases some people from the scene when it says: “The mob swelled. The reasonable men went home.” Up until the shots, several men at the Customs House were trying to speak to Capt. Preston or separate the soldiers and the crowd, including merchant Richard Palmes, young bookseller Henry Knox, and town watchman Benjamin Burdick. Decker’s line allows no possibility that anyone in the crowd was acting reasonably.

For Liberty doesn’t mention Christopher Seider, a boy shot dead eleven days before the Massacre by an unpopular Customs employee, and undoubtedly on Bostonians’ minds when they heard about White hitting Garrick. Instead, the book shows an effigy of an army officer hung on a rope (no such incident is documented) and says: “By March 5, 1770, it was dangerous to be a soldier in Boston.”

Soldiers in Boston suffered in street fights with locals, and didn’t receive equal justice from the local magistrates. Customs employees were tarred and feathered in 1769 and later in 1770. But of the six people killed in political clashes in Boston in that period, all were civilians who died “for liberty,” and none were soldiers.

TOMORROW: Details large and small in For Liberty.

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