Early American Urban Protests — A Review Of Boston’s MassacreHistorians in the News
tags: books, Revolutionary War, teaching history, Boston Massacre
Hinderaker, Eric. Boston’s Massacre. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.
Review by Bob Carey
In this engaging study, Eric Hinderaker offers a masterclass in how to peel back the layers of data, scholarship, and propaganda to understand what we call the Boston Massacre. Such an approach, inviting views of a fraught event from different angles, calls to mind Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon (1950) where credible but conflicting stories are recounted as responses to the ever vexing question—“what happened?”
Boston’s Massacre not only asks “what happened?” but also “who said so?” and “what stories stand up?” Sorting this out is not so simple, considering that even presumably detached historians can hold conflicting views when it comes to a highly charged situation, which might be headlined “Troops Slay Innocent Protesters” or, alternatively, “The Mob Subdued!” Sound familiar? Thanks to Hinderaker we learn how over the past 250 years the Boston Massacre has been refought, rethought, or quietly restated. All this in a very readable 284 pages.
The Massacre appears almost inevitable, Hinderaker argues, when we appreciate the extraordinary changes that took place in the size, shape, and management of the British Empire. Between 1689 and 1763 the British, joined by significant numbers of loyal American colonialists, fought five major wars, including the French and Indian War. As a result of those conflicts and the growth of the British Empire, Great Britain became an imperial administrative state that needed a standing army that earlier generations would not have tolerated. Each year beginning in 1689 Parliament renewed the Mutiny Act signifying in Hinderaker’s words that “a peacetime standing army became a fact of life in Britain.”
In the colonies a standing army was anathema. Here then was the root of the problem. Britain had to bring those little cities—Hinderaker calls them “maritime commercialized undertakings with very little centralized direction or control”—into functioning administrative units of the Empire. The colonies would have to be taxed to support the military and naval operations, which had successfully driven the French from Canada. Redcoats would be lodged in private homes.
Britain had changed dramatically. The colonies and Boston? Not so much. For the British, quartering troops in Boston was simply a requirement for running an Empire. For Bostonians at every level, from the elite down to the mob, the burden of taxation and quartering troops inspired resistance.
Hinderaker is very good at walking the reader through the performative aspects of the Massacre, providing a sort of Playbill listing the cast, featured players, and that unknown character who will appear in the dazzling climax (spoiler alert: Crispus Attucks).
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