The first Boston Massacre, known as the Incident on King Street, (March 1770), remains a pivotal point which, in the pre-Revolution formative years of what was destined to become “the United States,” would define the Commonwealth and the nation. British troops had been stationed in Boston, then, the capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, to protect crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular Parliamentary legislation.
Tensions were high among the Colonists, who resented the ongoing British exploitation. On March 5, 1770 a mob formed around a British sentry to protest abuses of the Crown and subjected the soldiers to all manner of harassment, including rock throwing. The British soldiers fired into the crowd, without orders, instantly killing three people and wounding others. Two more people died later of wounds sustained in the incident. All told “the Incident on King Street” killed five civilian men and injured six others. The event is widely viewed as foreshadowing the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War five years later.
It is self-evident that the massacre of 1770, which very much shaped the aspirations of the American colonies, cannot be compared to “the Incident on Boylston Street” which took place yesterday, April 15, at Boston’s signature international event, The Boston Marathon. Two bombs detonated in near succession, near the finish line among the gathered crowd of onlookers, leaving the scene a picture of carnage and wreckage beyond the pale.
Yet what, in my mind, does tie the two events together is the singular aspect that these travesties occurred in the heart of New England. This positions them uniquely.
In the case of the first Boston Massacre, the British soldiers were tried in an American court and defended by one of America’s most brilliant Founding Fathers: John Adams. In his words to the jury to ponder the tensions of the moment, as the soldiers contended with unprovoked assault, he asked them, “Do you expect that [the soldiers] should act like a stoic philosopher, lost in apathy?” He concluded, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The Colonists heard the case and rendered the verdict of non-guilty for six of the eight soldiers (the remaining two offenders were found guilty on lesser charges).
Anyone who has not recently reflected upon what it took for the early political and religious refugees, first, to get to these shores; second, to survive those early winters; third, to reckon with the new emerging identity of this wandering contingent of exiles; and fourth, break free from the tyrannical grip of Britain — is missing a vivid picture of what it means to be American. [Note: The earliest colonists defended and protected the rights of the Native American population and they worked together, which in no small way saved the fledgling settlements.]
The unsentimental rule of law, apart from emotion, marked John Adams’s case, and ultimately served as the signature aspect in the governing document that would become the United States Constitution. The rule of law is not complicated (or, in any case, oughtn’t to be). It is sound. It is meant for the protection of citizens against mob rule and (the other side of the same coin) suppression by tyrants.
I am not a “native New Englander,” (though I have lived here longer than anywhere else, save the town I grew up in). But coming here as an outsider has given me the benefit of observing not only the unique culture of this region but also the characteristics of this special breed of American, which — still evident — reflects the sheer will of what it took to forge this nation.
I often sit on my porch, which overlooks a bay north of Boston in which a battle took place during the Revolutionary War, and watch people in the course of everyday movements. I see a young girl with black knee-length shorts and electrified-pink flip-flops walking by briskly, arm forward, other arm back. I think to myself: People are always moving here. They are always going or coming or walking dogs or carrying arm weights. Health. Fortitude. This is New England. Healthy people. People who survive brutal winters and more brutal springs and bring in the catch, even when it is cold, and walk (or run) in the rain. Who needs umbrellas?
You are saying, ‘What about the drivers? Oh–Boston drivers are the worst.’ You’re missing the point. Boston drivers are orchestrated, notched-up, go-forward-with-precision or-get-off-the-road kind of drivers. They defer to people making left turns. They move in concert, one with another, driven by some transcendent orchestration that bids them to ‘pick it up.’ They move in and out from lane to lane, watching, anticipating, calculating the general benefit of holding the line to let a left-turner go. In a split second, in fast-moving traffic, the driver is calculating: Will deferring to this person making a left turn help the movement of the whole, or will it back things up? This is how the Commonwealth works. The “whole” is ever part of the big picture and minute decisions create the energy the animates it. They keep going. It moves forward decisively.
What does all of this have to do with the Boston Massacre at Boyleston Street? Only this: on this great day a great American city opened its arms to the world and invited them to come and run. Facts are stubborn things. New Englanders are runners, you see — marathon runners — in it for the long haul. They planted the flag of “what it means to be American,” and Boston was, and remains, a critical and defining part of this nation’s precarious beginnings. New Englanders train for the long haul, rain or shine. They walk. They run. They survive. They innovate. They pace themselves. They finish the course. They overcome. Some die, of course. But this is New England. That doesn’t stop them.