First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory by Mitch Kachun
Very little is known about Crispus Attucks. It appears that he ran away from his enslaved condition in 1750 and then, twenty years later, placed himself at the front of a crowd protesting against British soldiers on King Street in Boston. Attucks was shot and killed, along with four other civilians, on March 5, 1770, an event that became known as the Boston Massacre. He left no letters, journals, or known descendants. The "blank slate" (5) of his life, however, has invited commenters to fill in his story with suppositions, assumptions, wishful thinking, and determined mythmaking that goes on to this day. In First Martyr of Liberty, Mitch Kachun has captured this complex saga of embellished history by providing a full-scale historical memory study of Attucks.
Through the use of newspapers and trial documents, Kachun begins the book by telling readers what they can know with reasonable certainty about Attucks. He grew up a slave in Framingham, Massachusetts, a hamlet close to an American Indian "praying town" (21) where variations of the Attucks name were known to exist. This possibly mixed-race individual ran away from his master in 1750. The description in the resulting runaway advertisement closely matches that of the 1770 victim. Court transcripts and newspaper accounts at the time of the "massacre" labeled him a mulatto and a sailor. On the day of the Boston Massacre, he appears to have led a large group of club-wielding men (one source described them as sailors) to the site of the confrontation. Later, as attorney for the British soldiers, John Adams used hyperbolic language to describe Attucks, highlighting the terrifying countenance of the mulatto whose "mad behavior" (16) unleashed the catastrophe.
Attucks did not immediately assume the starring role in the Boston Massacre's story. The city's commemorations of the event from 1770 through the end of the Revolutionary War described a legitimate protest with Attucks as simply one of the victims. Thereafter, attention to the event waned while Attucks largely disappeared as a distinct historical actor until 1850. Even the War of 1812 against Britain barely mustered an article about the "massacre," let alone Attucks's role that day.
As the slavery debate intensified into the late 1840s, however, African American writers discovered Attucks, labeling him the "First Martyr of the American Revolution" (52) and using grandiose language to describe his [End Page 361] sacrifice. Black activist Henry W. Johnson wrote of Attucks's "mangled form … from whose veins flowed the first drop of blood that mingled with American soil, in defence of American liberty" (48). Writers as varied as local historians, children's book authors, and scholars addressed this sailor's story, considering issues such as his ancestry, his life from 1750 to 1770, the extent of his political awareness, his connections to the radical movement, his prominence on the night of March 5, and the character of the event itself.
As the African American community suffered cessation of voting rights in many states, a devastating fugitive slave law, and a Supreme Court decision that decreed that African Americans were not and could never be citizens, Attucks rose to prominence as a symbol in abolitionist circles. If the ultimate offering a citizen could make to his country was the sacrifice of his life, abolitionists argued, surely Attucks and the community he represented deserved an equal place in the nation he helped found. Meanwhile, writers continued to enhance his story. A popular book entitled The Black Man, written during the Civil War by African American William Wells Brown, created "events out of whole cloth" (61), such as a fictitious meeting that Attucks attended in 1769 and the "fact" that Attucks's name was the rallying cry for black soldiers at Bunker Hill. But despite a rising profile among African Americans whose babies, organizations, military companies, and banks adopted his name, Attucks was either vilified or ignored by the white community and in the most popular school textbooks.
These tendencies led to two "racially exclusive parallel paths" (69) when it came to historical memory in the Jim Crow era. White authors characterized the March 5 event as a mob action and dropped Attucks from the story altogether. On the other hand, faced with lynchings and the failed expectation of equal opportunity for African Americans, black authors made Attucks's story do more work. Inspired by "the fiery eloquence of [James] Otis" (71), one said, Attucks wrote a letter to the royal lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, threatening revenge for the Boston Massacre, a miraculous feat for someone who had died in that conflict. Black authors described him as a literate man with an understanding of the fundamentals of all governments. They made him a messianic figure who unleashed the forces of the American Revolution and insisted he was an American hero, not just an African American hero.
This last assertion seems to have made some headway even among white audiences. In 1888, the city of Boston unveiled a monument to the Boston Massacre with Attucks's name at the top. In 1906, a headstone listing him in fourth position was erected over the joint graves of the victims. During both world wars, his manly deportment and bravery reminded Americans that black men made great soldiers.
The postwar Attucks was reimagined as a friend of Paul Revere and a subject of admiration by the likes of George Washington and, ironically, John Adams. He even exhorted Boston crowds. Aside from this new wave of [End Page 362] fiction, he also figured in more legitimate scholars' research and was used to promote the study of African American history in all of the nation's schools. Some African Americans, however, saw Attucks as a fool who gave up his life for a nation still devoted to slavery after the revolution, while others compared him unfavorably with more radical men such as Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Most recently, corporate America, entertainers, television producers, and the forces of multiculturalism have used his name to push their products. With respect to the current state of affairs, an interesting mix of good scholarship and "true doozies of misinformation" (213) continues to construct the Attucks needed by various groups. Beyond Kachun's analyses of these more popular mobilizations, he also finds mistakes in a number of current prominent historians' treatments, a good reminder to all in the profession to check the sources.
Kachun concludes that Attucks should not be treated as an American hero because there are insufficient sources to substantiate that view. He should, however, be included in America's story, argues Kachun, because he represents the diversity of colonial America and the active participation of workers therein. Each generation, Kachun suggests, will continue to assess the historical record in light of its own needs, determining who and what "belongs" (2) as a part of American history. So Attucks is destined for many more makeovers as Americans contest the terrain of our national story.
Kachun has done a masterful job in finding and assembling the evidence for this book. He has combed the written sources, highlighted the public representations by providing wonderful images, and generously cited many scholars in the body of the book. But the sheer number of examples sometimes masks the connection between what society needed of Attucks at any one time and the varying descriptions of the man. Each chapter unveils a mixture of fact and fiction, yet it is often difficult to gauge how the exaggerations differ from one era to another.
The book would have benefited from a reflection on the cost of focusing on one man and his legacy. Kachun notes the attention that early abolitionists paid to the black veterans of the revolution, but once they discovered Attucks they seem to have abandoned the thousands of men who made a carefully considered decision to serve over months or years in the interest of seeing a better day for themselves and their families. The aura of one man overshadows the legacy of many. Luminaries such as William Cooper Nell, John Hope Franklin, and Benjamin Quarles wrote about Attucks, but they wrote much more about the wider African American community in the revolution. Focusing on one man in incredibly dramatic circumstances certainly attracts the reader's attention, but there is the concomitant danger that the average reader will walk away with the impression that one or two black men—the exceptional ones such as Attucks and Peter Salem, a soldier mentioned in Kachun's conclusion—participated in the revolution. This predicament is not unlike the attention paid to the marquis [End Page 363] de Lafayette that all but annihilated in the popular memory France's crucial role in the American Revolution. This is admittedly not a book about black soldiers, but a paragraph in the introduction and conclusion highlighting the service of thousands of active participants would be a salutary reminder of the heroes Attucks does represent.
Still, the riches of this book will be apparent to any reader. Kachun shows us how one man became a symbol of bravery and selflessness to a community continually under siege by the wider society, and in so doing, he has made a valuable contribution to the field of historical memory. [End Page 364]