[On March 5th, 1770, the events that came to be known as the Boston Massacre took place on King Street. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that pivotal pre-Revolutionary moment, leading up to a special Guest Post from my sons based on their elementary school studies of the massacre.]
On three media that have contributed to our collective memories of the Massacre.
1) Pamphlets: As you might expect from the era that gave us Tom Paine and the Declaration being distributed instantly to read aloud, rapid-fire political pamphlets became a weapon of choice for both sides in the Massacre’s immediate aftermath. The colonists had A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston and its sequel, Additional Observations to A Short Narrative, which gathered depositions from numerous witnesses (or at least alleged witnesses) to make the case against the British soldiers. Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson produced his own pamphlet, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston, which used contrasting depositions gathered by Hutchinson’s agents to tell an alternative story. I don’t imagine that any of the texts in this pamphlet propaganda battle did much to sway supporters of the opposing perspective, but at the very least they provide a compelling set of contemporary accounts of the events in King Street and their collective interpretations.
2) Engravings: By far the most famous such propagandistic portrayal of the Massacre was a visual one, however. My weekend Guest Posters will have more to say about the propaganda behind the famous Paul Revere engraving, which is so mythically remembered that it turns out it wasn’t even initially created by Paul Revere—his was apparently a copy (famously published in the Boston Gazette) of an artistic rendering by the young artist Henry Pelham (John Singleton Copley’s half-brother). And as that last hyperlinked story indicates, there were at least a couple other contemporary engravings that entered the image competition around the same time, muddying the waters of artistic originality and collective copying yet further. For an event so dependent upon different and competing histories and collective memories, it’s only appropriate that the visual representations became a multi-vocal conflict in their own right, a battle to determine whose rendering became and remained the definitive portrayal.
3) Memorials: Both the pamphlet and engraving battles unfolded in the Massacre’s immediate aftermath; precisely because of those and many other heated and contested histories and stories, it took far, far longer for any more permanent commemoration to be constructed. Indeed, it was not until 1888 that a memorial was erected on Boston Common, the same time that the Massacre’s five immediate casualties were reinterred beneath a new gravestone in the city’s historic Granary Burying Ground. Given that these two historic sites are now prominently located on the Freedom Trail and at the heart of tourist Boston, it would be easy for visitors to see them as longstanding commemorations, rather than the more recent additions (and thus reflections of the gradual collective embrace of the Boston Massacre participants) that they are. Which is as good a reminder as any both that memorials are themselves contested expressions of collective memory, and that we need to study and analyze them just as much as we might learn from them.
Special Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?
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