Friday, October 9, 2015
October 9, 2015: Before the Revolution: Crispus Attucks
[October 7th marks the 250th anniversary of the convening of the Stamp Act Congress, one of the most significant moments in pre-Revolutionary American history. So this week I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy three such pre-Revolution moments, including the Congress itself on Wednesday. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the best scholars of this period, past and present!]
On three complex, telling details about the Revolution’s first casualty.
1) He was likely mixed-race: Almost nothing is known with certainty about Attucks, and that includes his parentage and heritage. Yet the historical consensus is that Attucks was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, the son of Prince Yonger (an African-born slave) and Nancy Attucks (a Natick [Wampanoag] Indian). I have no issue with the communal celebration of Attucks as an African American hero, not least because he was apparently born into his father’s state of slavery before running away to freedom in September 1750. Yet at the same time, Attucks’ heritage exemplifies just how fully cross-cultural was Revolutionary-era America, a largely forgotten historical fact with which he would thus help us engage.
2) John Adams defended his killers: If earlier posts in this week’s series haven’t already convinced you that Revolutionary America was far from united in its political attitudes or community, try this one on for size: Founding Father and 2nd President John Adams defended in court the British soldiers who had shot and killed Attucks and two other Bostonians. Of course it’s possible to see this effort as a reflection of Adams’ belief in law and justice; but on the other hand, Adams also described Attucks (in his legal arguments) as a man who had “undertaken to be the hero of the night” through his “mad behavior,” part of what Adams defined as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and mulattos, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars.” Not our most democratic framer, was John Adams.
3) His myth has served us well: Again, it’s impossible to say with certainty whether any of these historical details, including Adams’ descriptions of Attucks, are accurate. But as with so many of the Revolution’s prominent figures and moments, Attucks and his death have been turned into longstanding national myths nonetheless. And on the list of such Revolutionary mythic stories, I find Attucks’ to be one of the most inspiring and productive. Take, for example, Martin Luther King Jr’s citation of Attucks, in the introduction to Why We Can’t Wait (1964), as a model for how moral courage can help reshape history. Or take Nat King Cole’s reference to Attucks in the spoken word introduction to his amazing song “We Are Americans, Too” (1956), recorded shortly after white supremacists attacked Cole on an Alabama stage but unreleased by his label (Capitol Records) until 2009. In these and other ways, the history and myth of Crispus Attucks, uncertain as they remain, have become vital parts of our national story.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Pre-Revolution moments you’d highlight?