The Silence of the Ellipses: Why History Can’t be about Telling Our Children Lies

tags: textbooks, teaching history, Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks, 1776 commission

SAM WINEBURG (wineburg@stanford.edu; @samwineburg) is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA. He is the author of Why Learn History (When it’s Already on your Phone) (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

The story of Crispus Attucks and his role in the Boston Massacre opens the chapter called “The Coming of the Revolution” in The Americans (Danzier et al., 2014), published by Holt McDougal/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the three publishing behemoths that dominate the American market. Attired in formal jacket and ruffled white shirt, his portrait graces the side of the page, even though that portrait is a sheer fabrication. Few seaman had the leisure, not to mention the means, to sit for formal portraiture in 1770. Attucks, the text says, was “part of a large and angry crowd that had gathered at the Boston Custom House to harass the British soldiers stationed there. More soldiers soon arrived, and the mob began hurling stones and snowballs at them. Attucks then stepped forward.” A quotation from John Adams comes next, in which the Founding Father calls Attucks a “hero”:

This Attucks . . . appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night; and to lead this army with banners . . . up to King street with their clubs . . . . This man with his party cried, “Do not be afraid of them,” . . . He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down.

The text resumes:

Attucks’s action ignited the troops. Ignoring orders not to shoot civilians, one soldier and then others fired on the crowd. Five people were killed; several were wounded. Crispus Attucks was, according to a newspaper account, the first to die.

Attucks’ appearance in textbooks is a relatively recent phenomenon. Eclipsed from memory from the 1770s well into the 19th century, he was resurrected in 1851 by William Cooper Nell, an African American journalist and historian, author of the Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. By mid-century, Attucks emerged as a symbol for abolitionists, Black and white. In 1888, Boston’s Black community unveiled a monument in his honor (over the objections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who believed that the “famous mulatto was a rowdyish person” and “not a fit candidate for monumental honors”; The New York Times, 1888, p. 4).

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that Attucks became a regular feature in textbooks. Among the first was Henry Graff’s 1967 The Free and the Brave, which stated that “Attucks and his fellow victims had become the first martyrs in the American struggle against Britain.” A review of seven textbooks published between 2003 and 2009 found that all but one featured Attucks in their narration of the Boston Massacre (Kachun, 2017).

The Americans not only features Attucks but goes the extra mile by including his portrait and the quotation from John Adams. Knowing little else, readers would assume that John Adams was paying tribute to a fallen martyr when he called Attucks the “hero of the night.” Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Adams’ words were, in fact, part of his summation at the trial of the eight British soldiers accused of murder, a trial in which Adams served as counsel for the defense.

In taking the case, Adams faced a formidable challenge: how to undermine the jury’s natural allegiance with the slain victims and make them identify with the reviled British soldiers. He did so by driving a wedge between upstanding Bostonians and the “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs” (that is, ill-mannered non-whites, lowly Catholics, and uncouth seamen) responsible for the bloodshed (Trial of the British Soldiers, 1824). These hooligans were a different stock from “the good people of the town.” Indeed, Adams stated, “Why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them.”

According to Adams, Crispus Attucks was a hero all right: the kind of hero who presided “at the head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together,” a hero commanding his “myrmidons” who were “shouting and huzzaing, and threatening life . . . throwing every species of rubbish they could pick in the street.” Adams repeatedly plied the trope of the fearsome non-white body and exclaimed that the looming figure of the “stout Attucks was enough to terrify any person,” including the besieged British soldiers.


Tracing where footnote-less textbooks get their information can be an exercise in futility. Not so with The Americans. The textbook’s authors cited The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, first published in 1973, by the University of Massachusetts historian Sidney Kaplan and his wife Emma, as the source for the Adams quote. Fairness demands that we consider the possibility that it was the Kaplans who doctored Adams’ quote, and that the textbook authors, failing to check the original, merely reproduced it. Yet, while noting that the local press singled out Attucks for both praise and blame, the Kaplans wrote that for John Adams “it was all blame.” In their quote from Adams’ summation, they leave intact the charged racial language referencing Attucks’ menacing figure (“a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person”) and role as instigator (the “head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together”). The Americans, on the other hand, hides these references in the ellipses.

With the Kaplans’ text in hand, the authors of The Americans made a choice. Instead of helping young Americans see how a Black (or mixed race) body was stamped from the beginning, to invoke Ibram X. Kendi’s phrase, they performed laser surgery on Adams’ words in an act that would do Winston Smith proud.

I have to imagine that in editing John Adams’ words, The Americans’ authors thought they were doing something noble: giving American children of all hues a hero who is a person of color. But the sly three dots of an ellipsis cannot erase the stain of racism any more than a bathroom spray can eliminate the stench of a skunk. Editorial subterfuge only forestalls a reckoning.

As Farah Peterson (2018) notes, Black people are allowed onto the stage of American history only if they satisfy certain conditions: “when they intersect with the triumphal tale of the creation of a white American republic.” By depicting Crispus Attucks as a hero, lauded by John Adams, The Americans presents an image of a Founding Father and a Black patriot standing together as fellow lovers of liberty. A more honest approach would present Adams’ words more completely and prompt an examination of the hoary legacy of race-baiting, stretching from Crispus Attucks to the Scottsboro boys to Michael Brown.

Read entire article at Phi Delta Kappan

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