Boston’s Old South Meeting House brings history to life and reminds you that it repeats itself often.
It was here, for example, that 5,000 Bostonians protested against British taxes, prompting settlers to dump 342 cases of imported British tea into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773.
Just outside the 300-year-old brick walls, a sidewalk medallion marks the location of the Boston massacre, when nine British soldiers fired at settlers rioting against the presence of redcoat troops in Boston March 5, 1770. The first of five victims was docker Crispus Attucks, who was of African and indigenous descent. He and the other four are buried in the nearby cemetery, next to Samuel Adams.
You can almost imagine Adams’ voice ringing and echoing through the white walls and galleries of the Old South Meeting House. A failed brewer but a gifted orator and politician, Adams is known as one of the fathers of the American Revolution. He was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He propagated the Boston Massacre and helped organize the Correspondence Committees, which coordinated affairs and civic resistance to British rule.
Sadly, I would bet that more people today know Samuel Adams as a 21st century beer company than as a patriot. And this is one of the points of this column.
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Yes. My daughter and I visited the Samuel Adams Brewery (not related to the revolutionary except for his name) on a four day visit to Boston earlier this month. The tour quenched both my thirst for beer and eastern seafood. It also fulfilled my need to refresh and deepen my understanding of our nation’s roots during this time of upheaval.
Boston, then a city of nearly 16,000 inhabitants (a little larger than Kelso), became the cradle of the American Revolution. I learned that the British had sent around 4,000 troops to the city and ordered the settlers to pay to quarter them. Bostonians got angry when their city became a military fortress.
Yet about half of the city has remained loyal to the British Crown. Imagine how much the Loyalist businessmen must have felt when the Correspondence Committees “asked” them not to do business with the British. It looks a bit like the companies’ pinch today to exclude opponents of masks and vaccines.
We have learned that John Adams, who later became the second president of this country, was the lawyer who successfully defended the British soldiers who killed Crispus Attucks and the other victims of the Boston Massacre. Adams, like all Founding Fathers, abhorred mob rule. During the soldiers’ trial, he portrayed Attucks as a terrifying figure who led an intimidating mob against British soldiers. However, Adams (a first cousin of Sam Adams) later took inspiration from Attucks’ actions.
Without a doubt, the British viewed Attucks and his countrymen as thugs. Doesn’t this reflect the clamor for the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, seen by myself and most Americans as the work of a mob, but as a patriotic act? by a few? History is often in the eye of the beholder.
Visiting Boston’s many historic sites leaves you convinced that British authority over its settlers was stubborn and harsh. Yet were their actions so horrific as to warrant a bloody revolution? Most of the settlers’ objections were to the Townsend Acts, which required the American colonies to pay for the North American war against France and to protect the settlers from the native tribes. Sounds reasonable. But the settlers oppose it, shouting “no taxation without representation”. Americans today share that independence, as do many who resist vaccine and mask mandates, legal and justifiable as they are.
The real value of tours like this is to be grounded in history, to be inspired by it, and to understand that it is not one-dimensional, as is often taught in schools. How cool, for example, to see Paul Revere’s pistol, which he perhaps carried on his famous nighttime ride and which reminds us of the risks the early Patriots took to build this nation. (British soldiers detained Revere briefly before he could complete his entire mission).
Visiting the homes and graves of our revolutionary patriots, visiting the places where they worked and spoke, makes history more tangible and sparks thoughts and questions, even action plans. Invoking the founders of our nation today to guide decisions is a risky controversial strategy. Who knows what they would have thought of modern problems, however complex and burdensome they are? They had flaws: they were prejudiced (the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners), excluded (only wealthy white males could vote in early U.S. history), and suspected to give too much power to the people.
Yet understanding their motivations – as well as the pressures and conflicts they faced – inspires and reminds us that they have grappled successfully with the same basic questions we still grapple with today: what is the appropriate role of government? When is violent resistance justified? How far should the popular will reign? When does the good of many outweigh the good of the individual?
Unfortunately, knowledge of our history is woefully poor. The 2020 Annenberg Constitution Civics Survey, for example, found that half of American adults could not name all three branches of government. A 2018 survey found that only one in three Americans could pass the civics exam for U.S. citizenship.
Knowing our history is essential for self-government. An inscription in the magnificent Boston Public Library reminds us: “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as a safeguard of order and freedom.
Maybe more of us should visit Boston.
Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as the city’s reporter and editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared many prestigious journalism awards, including the 1981 Staff Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.