- First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory by Mitch Kachun
Crispus Attucks, American Revolution, Boston Massacre, Slavery, African American
Breathes there a soul so dead as never to have heard of Crispus Attucks? Surely not today. Yet as Mitch Kachun explains in First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, Attucks’s death was not always so familiar. Kachun traces the memory of Attucks as a named participant and, in some versions, the instigator of the 1770 event later called the Boston Massacre. Attucks was unfamiliar to most black Americans until 1840, and Bostonians did not memorialize him with a monument until 1888. Most Americans did not learn of Attucks in school books and fictional treatments until another sixty or seventy years after that. Kachun explains why Attucks’s story was variously forgotten, resurrected, embellished, invoked, or excoriated in particular moments like these in the two and a half centuries that followed his death.
Most historians know the same five or six things about the actual Crispus Attucks. He was born somewhere near Natick, Massachusetts, around 1723, probably of Native and African descent, possibly the child of Nancy Peterattucks, and was probably enslaved by William Brown of Framingham. After 1750, he seems to have liberated himself in some way [End Page 340] and begun working as a seaman or dockworker around Boston. He was apparently a large man. Note the relentless ambiguity of this summary of the “facts.” The only absolute certainty in this man’s biography is that he was the first of four men who died in a confrontation with a detachment of British soldiers outside the King Street Custom House in Boston on March 5, 1770; a fifth man died a few days later of wounds sustained in that encounter. All five were interred in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground. That’s it.
In the first chapter, Kachun lays out the particulars of Attucks’s origins and fatal 1770 encounter with British troops, as far as they are known or surmised. While John Adams, defense attorney for the British soldiers charged with the shootings, characterized the mob as “a rabble of negroes &c” and Attucks as the “stout mulatto” who apparently had “undertaken to be the hero of the night” (16), local newspapers portrayed the incident as an unprovoked assault on upright citizens. In this interpretation, and in the commemorations that followed for the next thirteen years, Attucks’s race, and indeed the individuality of any of the victims, disappeared; they were simply virtuous citizens who died resisting tyranny.
Yet because Attucks was the only man of color among the five victims, his race and class position made it desirable for some in later generations to disparage him, others to forget him, and yet others to laud his as a noble example. Kachun traces the infinitely malleable public memory of Attucks, and the Boston Massacre itself, in eight chronologically organized chapters. For almost a century, Attucks remained virtually anonymous, and it was not until 1839 that the first surviving reference to him by an African American was recorded—Jehiel C. Beman’s characterization of him as a “colored man by the name of Airtiks” whose death was “the first blood spilt for independence in this country,” published in the Liberator (41). Led by William Cooper Nell, black activists invoked Attucks as an African American hero and patriot to support their antebellum fight for citizenship and suffrage rights. In Boston, they petitioned the state legislature of Massachusetts to erect a monument to his memory, an effort that was unsuccessful then but finally came to fruition in 1888 with biracial support. But the efforts of black activists to mobilize Attucks’s public memory to fight Jim Crow in the 1880s and 1890s, and again in the 1930s, were met with resistance by public officials who feared that lauding the ostensible hero of the Boston Massacre would [End Page 341] seem to sanction mob actions in an era characterized by working-class strikes and violence.