Read the Revolution
Double Feature: First Martyr of Liberty and The Remarkable CauseFebruary 22, 2023
Purchase First Martyr of Liberty from Oxford University Press, and purchase The Remarkable Cause from Simon and Schuster.
The incident in Boston more than 250 years ago on March 5, 1770, that left five people dead, now known as the Boston Massacre, inspired both historian Mitch Kachun and novelist Jean O’Connor. Although they write for different audiences, both authors examine the motives, emotions, and decisions of those affected by the infamous event. They also present how facts and propaganda surrounding the incident shape how Americans, and especially students, learn this history and find meaning in the earliest events of the American Revolution today.
In First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, Kachun investigates how and why Crispus Attucks’s death in the Boston Massacre has made him one of the most memorable and celebrated Revolutionary figures since 1770. Read an excerpt about how despite there being limited historical knowledge about his life, Crispus Attucks has become a symbol of patriotism and citizenship for various causes since 1850.
Studying history and memory involves understanding how particular historical interpretations have been constructed, by whom, and to what end. While a few scholars have discussed select aspects of Attucks’s historical significance in narrowly defined times or in particular places, this book is the first to examine the meanings both black and white Americans have attached to Attucks’s name, image, and story over the course of two and half centuries.
But what do we really know about Crispus Attucks and his role in the Boston Massacre? There is little certainty about Attucks’s life story. The most widely accepted interpretation suggests that he was born around 1723 near Natick, Massachusetts, a “praying town” of Christianized Indians about twenty miles west of Boston. He was likely of mixed African and Native American ancestry. He was a large man, over six feet, and was likely a slave owned by William Brown of Framingham until he liberated himself in 1750, after which he worked as a sailor and around the docks in Boston and elsewhere until his fateful role in the events of March 5, 1770.
Most modern historians of the American Revolution see the so-called Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, as a noteworthy event in the colonists’ growing disaffection with the British Empire. Available evidence confirms that Attucks was part of an unruly mob’s confrontation with a small detachment of British soldiers outside the King Street Custom House, where he and four white colonists were killed after threatening the British guards with rocks, chunks of ice, and clubs. A few days later four of the victims – Crispus Attucks, Samuel Maverick, Samuel Gray, and James Caldwell – were buried in a single grave in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground. A week or so later Patrick Carr, who lingered for several more days before dying, was placed in the grave with the others. Some months after that, the soldiers were tried in Boston for murder. All were acquitted of that charge, and only two were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, lightly punished, and sent home to England [...]
Most twenty-first-century American schoolchildren learn about the Boston Massacre and Crispus Attucks fairly early in their introduction to the American Revolution and its heroes. Even as the other victims of the massacre have been largely ignored, Attucks’s death on March 5, 1770, has led to his being singled out by many, especially African Americans, as the first to die in the cause of American independence. Attucks has come to signify African American patriotism, military service, sacrifice, and citizenship—he has become a black Founder. Since the 1850s both black and white Americans have commemorated Attucks in numerous ways, including Attucks Day celebrations, a monument on Boston Common, and institutions and organizations bearing his name. He has been the subject of juvenile biographies; a featured character in works of poetry, drama, and visual arts; and a presence in popular and academic histories and textbooks.
Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 2017), 1-6.
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For O’Connor, remembering a few lines in her grandmother’s journal inspired her interest in the history that forms the basis for her historical fiction book for young readers, The Remarkable Cause: A Novel of James Lovell and the Crucible of the Revolution. In the novel, James Lovell, a Boston teacher and a real historical character, sees conflict and courage in the beginnings of the Revolutionary War. O’Connor imagines how Lovell might have discussed the tension of the Boston Massacre, its aftermath, and its trials as local news for the young men in his classroom.
Now it was nearly dismissal time. James had just finished reading A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, the town’s collection of depositions for witnesses and participants in the Boston Massacre. Shortly after the dreadful events, the town meeting had chosen Joseph Warren, James Bowdoin, and Samuel Pemberton to obtain the facts of the situation. They had turned over the task of getting depositions to justices of the peace, who had taken ninety-six statements.
Of course, the goal of A Short Narrative was to convince the townspeople of the guilt of the soldiers. Even though copies were not to be distributed within Boston, town officials reasoned that providing copies for neighboring towns would do just as well for release of information. While he usually did not talk about happenings in the town at school, James decided to discuss A Short Narrative with the students.
“Tell me what you think of this,” James said. The boys stopped their reviews of the assigned readings, shut their books, and turned to him, their attention focused.
[...] “Here’s one of the depositions from the night of the massacre.” James read aloud from the paper. [“]Benjamin Frizell, on the evening of the 5th of March, having taken his station near the west corner of the Custom-House in Kingstreet, before and at the time of the soldiers firing their guns, declares (among other things) that the first discharge was only of one gun, the next of two guns, upon which he the deponent thinks he saw a man stumble: the third discharge was of three guns, upon which he thinks he saw two men fall[...]” James cleared his throat. “You can see that many details are unclear even to this person who was present. More than once he says he ‘thinks.’ That is because he is not certain. There were too many things happening for him to be sure of the events, and this is true for most of these deponents whose testimonies are included in A Short Narrative. People heard guns fire; some state the fire came from the soldiers, some believe they saw fire from the middle or upper story of the Custom-House, which stood behind the soldiers. We may never know what happened to be sure.” Taking advantage of the quiet that lay in the schoolroom, the students’ obvious interest, he continued...
Jean C. O’Connor, The Remarkable Cause: A Novel of James Lovell and the Crucible of the Revolution (Knox Press, 2021), 88-91.