A new history of “perhaps the most densely described incident in early American history.”
In his examination of the 1770 Boston Massacre, Hinderaker (History/Univ. of Utah; The Two Hendricks: Unraveling a Mohawk Mystery, 2009, etc.) deftly explores the characters of British leaders, American administrators, and those who stirred what many considered a mob. Boston was the crucible of the American Revolution, and the British occupation served as the catalyst that eventually built to the violent events of March 5. The troops sent to Boston were symbols of Britain’s overwhelming power over the colonies, and the standing army served as a threat to the independence of the local government. The author explores how England was trying to control a colony substantially increased in size, and the primary dilemma was the recurrent antagonism of Bostonians: their reactions to the Liberty Incident, the Townshend Duties, and the Stamp Act. Administrators and tax collectors were harassed, their homes invaded and destroyed. The troops’ powerlessness is the key here; they were sent to quell rebellious actions. They were never requested by civil power and thus had no power to react to citizens’ agitation unless the confusing and frustrating Riot Act was read. The incident of March 5 was caused by the troops, who were facing very real threats but were forbidden to react, being pushed too far. When someone heard (or didn’t) “fire,” shots rang out, killing five. What really happened and what people said happened were two different things, but the symbolic power of the massacre transcends the details. The trials of the soldiers, delayed for months, cleared all but two, settling few disputes about the incident. The author ably exposes the symbolic import of the massacre as it defined the limits of legitimate authority and of legitimate popular protest.
While occasionally bogged down in detail, this study of the lead-up to the American Revolution effectively explores the major players and difficult conditions.