There has been of late an efflorescence of important new work on eighteenth-century Boston. Recent books by Cornelia Dayton and Sharon Salinger (Robert Love's Warnings) and Jared Hardesty (Unfreedotn) have given fresh textures to the city streets, while Richard Archer (As If an Enemy's Country) and Serena Zabin's forthcoming Intimate History of the Boston Massacre shine new lights on the 1768-1770 occupation. Eric Hinderaker's Boston's Massacre more than joins this growing chorus.
Don't miss the possessive title: Hinderaker's book focuses on the city as much as the bloodshed on 5 March 1770. He states that the book is "about three things"--event, narrative, and memory--but the reviewer would add place to that list (1). Hinderaker dedicates four of ten chapters to discussing the contours of what it was like for several thousand troops to occupy a small imperial city. Soldiers caused problems, not least for the people who put them there. Civic officials could not agree where even to put the barracks, let alone define what the soldiers' mission ought to be. Meanwhile, the author tells us, commanding officers prepared battle plans for Boston. Confusion reigned, both before the massacre and after it.
Hinderaker's achievement is in his description of how the massacre was a particularly Bostonian event. The famous Paul Revere print that has set popular memory about what happened that March night did not make much of an impact outside Boston; indeed, half of the copies that remain are still in frames made in Revere's shop. This fact, the author argues, "suggests that they traveled only very short distances from the places they were produced" (230). It was a local production that stayed local.
Moreover, Hinderaker explains how narratives of the massacre were also referenda on Boston. In a compelling chapter on the trials of Captain Preston and the soldiers, Hinderaker narrates how the question of guilt turned on whether the slain were innocent victims or mobbish thugs who provoked violence. In other words, what kind of city was Boston? This put John Adams, charged with defending the soldiers, in a very tricky position. Adams's proper line of argument would have meant impugning his city as in the mob's grip; in the face of such a violent crowd, his clients were justified in their own self-preservation. Adams instead scapegoated Crispus Attucks, the man of mixed native and African ancestry who died at the scene. "Adams blamed all the night's aggression on Attucks alone," Hinderaker writes (207). By displacing any wrongdoing onto a person of color, Adams thus protected Boston from being depicted as lawless. Adams seized upon racial prejudice to solve his civic public relations quandary.
The author ends by discussing how Americans have struggled to make sense of the massacre. In the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionists overturned Adams's interpretation to cast Attucks as a heroic martyr to American independence. Exploring how some appealed to the massacre in the aftermath of the 1970 campus shootings at Jackson State and Kent State, he explains how it remains a problematic event. "As a symbol," he concludes, the massacre "refuses to resolve itself" (284). In part, Hinderaker implies that making the massacre a symbol necessitates divorcing it from Boston itself, from the urban and imperial context in which it must be understood--if it can be understood at all.
Robert G. Parkinson
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|Title Annotation:||THE AMERICAS|
|Author:||Parkinson, Robert G.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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