Harvard University Press
Winner of the 2018 Society of the Cincinnati Prize
Finalist for the 2018 George Washington Book Prize
On the night of March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd gathered in front of Boston’s Custom House, killing five people. Denounced as an act of unprovoked violence and villainy, the event that came to be known as the Boston Massacre is one of the most familiar incidents in American history, yet one of the least understood. In Boston’s Massacre, Eric Hinderaker revisits this dramatic episode, examining in forensic detail the facts of that fateful night, the competing narratives that molded public perceptions at the time, and the long campaign afterward to transform the tragedy into a touchstone of American identity.
When Parliament stationed two thousand British troops in Boston beginning in 1768, resentment spread rapidly among the populace. Steeped in traditions of self-government, and famous for their Yankee independence, Bostonians were primed to resist the imposition. Living up to their reputation as Britain’s most intransigent North American community, they refused compromise and increasingly interpreted their conflict with Britain as a matter of principle. Relations between Britain and the North American colonies deteriorated precipitously after the shooting at the Custom House, and it soon became the catalyzing event that placed Boston in the vanguard of the Patriot movement.
Fundamental uncertainties about the night’s events cannot be resolved. But the larger significance of the Boston Massacre extends from the era of the American Revolution to our own time, when the use of violence in policing crowd behavior has once again become a pressing public issue.
Praise for Boston’s Massacre
Hinderaker deftly explores the characters of British leaders, American administrators, and those who stirred what many considered a mob…The author ably exposes the symbolic import of the massacre as it defined the limits of legitimate authority and of legitimate popular protest.
Readers are left with a nuanced understanding of the way we shape historical narratives after any major event… A compelling and well-researched account of the Boston Massacre, for readers seeking more refined studies of early American history.
— Library Journal
Fascinating…Hinderaker’s meticulous research shows that the Boston Massacre was contested from the beginning…The Boston Massacre’s contested meanings have plenty to tell us about America’s identity, past and present.
—Mark Spencer, Wall Street Journal
Hinderaker … [offers] a thoughtful meditation on the episode’s significance for shared American identity and memory. Untangling the complex circumstances under which Britain stationed thousands of troops in Boston in the peacetime of 1768, Hinderaker maps the colonial anxieties regarding imperial control that came to a head with the shootings…He ends with a provocative…reflection on the massacre’s symbolic resonance with more recent examples of police brutality, making this book important reading for anyone interested in questions regarding the limits of authority and protest.