You Didn’t Hear this from me, but…: Teaching through the rumors

boston_massacre_high-res1First, a new addition to the Neighborhood–a motorized one.

My car-buying woes are over as I am the proud owner of a brand-new Navy Blue 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5S.  The car is beautiful and price was right.  Mr. D and the rest of the Neighborhood thank the good folks at Habberstad Nissan in Huntington, NY for a fair price and a courteous, professional manner.  Thus not all car dealers are ravenous sharks with a thirst for the ignorant.

Now back to our regular programming.  It seems that as much as we try, rumors will always persist in our society.  In today’s networked community, an entire industry has developed around rumors–TMZ, the National Enquirer, Smoking Gunn and other sites thrive on the hearsay of others.  Who doesn’t love their favorite celebrity looking his/her debauched best for a police mugshot.

History and government is no exception.  We still persist with rumors about United States complicity in the 9/11 attacks.  In many parts, cynics still believe that the United states knew beforehand about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Many revisionist scholars today are re-interpreting events in a supposedly more “modern” lens, mostly using the rumors and gossip of intellectuals as a jumping-off point.  This has often wielded good results–the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the 1930’s, etc.  The classroom, however, can be a minefield for rumors, especially if kids aren’t able to process information thoroughly. 

The most blatent rumor in American history is probably of the most mundane event.  On March 5, 1770, a group of Boston street kids decided to abuse and taunt a local soldier with snowballs, rocks and oyster shells.  The soldier called for help, his colleagues arrive, and a mob of people now face them, heaving abuse and projectiles.  Someone yells, someone panics, a shot is fired, more shots, and five people lay dead.  In any other case, this would have been a direct end to a small local disturbance.  Yet two Bostonians, artist Henry Pelham and silversmith/engraver/professional pain-in-the-ass Paul Revere, create a scene for the public where the merciless soldiers are mowing down innocent civilians with smiles on their faces.  To add insult to reality, they labeled the incident a “Massacre.”

The rumor has stuck to the point that this local disturbance is officially called the Boston “Massacre.”  It wasn’t the only name it had–John Adams named it the more-benign “Slaughter on King Street”, which sounds mercifully like a Wes Craven gorefest.   Children all across the United States have shocked in horror at the mass slaughter of civilians…oh wait, there were only FIVE casualties.  The Turks killing thousands of Armenians in 1915 is a massacre.  The millions of deaths in the Holocaust is a massacre.   The millions that died of starvation due to tyrannical policies in the former Soviet Union and China is a massacre.  Yet five deaths doesn’t even warrant a front page in the local paper today.  The word “Massacre” was chosen deliberately: to paint the occupying British army as a brutal army of subjugation, not as a hapless tool of misguided imperial policy.  It was one of the first documented uses of “spin” in American history, and it wouldn’t be the last. 

New York City is the base for the other great rumor.  We all know the story of how Peter Minuit, director-general of the colony of New Netherland, “bought” Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for $24.  Today’s scholarship proves this wasn’t true: the agreement between the Lenape and the Dutch West India Company was more of a treaty of defense than an actual sale of land, with goods exchanged to seal the deal.  The one piece of evidence linked to this event is a letter by Minuit’s secretary, Peter Schaghen, to his superiors in Amsterdam.  The letter states that the Dutch “bought the island mannahattas from the wild men…”  Schaghen did not understand Lenape, so he probably wrote what he assumed was a real estate deal.

The $24 story, however, traces its origins to English chroniclers of later centuries, especially those from Puritan New England.  It got its final version in Knickebocker’s History of New York, a pseudo-history of Dutch New York written by Washington Irving, an author well-regarded in his time, but today considered something of a hack.  Both sources had the same agenda–to make the Natives and the Dutch look as stupid as possible.  Since the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, the English attempted to rewrite the history of the area by diminishing the role of the Dutch period and virtually wiping out a place for Native Americans.  Never mind that the Dutch system of capitalism and representative government proved more a model for American society than England’s staid social structure.  Nor that government systems such as the Iroquois League have formed the basis for our own founding documents about government. 

The truth is that we’ll never know the full story of these events.  The only people that know what happened that snowy night in March in 1770 were the soldiers and colonists at the scene.  Only Minuit and the Lenape can give you a true telling of their meeting.  Even with that, there’s no guarantee you’ll get an unbiased account.  One of the bases of current social studies instruction is to help students think critically–to question and critique the sources around them.  The best way to do that is to use different points of view so that students can see what is fact and what isn’t, at least to their eyes.

I teach about the “Massacre” using three sources.  First, I tell my students that something happened in Boston.  I then have them describe each of my three sources in detail.  The first is Pelham and Revere’s famous print of the “Massacre.”  Second is the mid-19th century painting by Alonzo Chappell showing a more realistic scene.  Last is the event as depicted in the HBO miniseries John Adams.   I put as little input as possible: it’s more important that they see what is real and what is “spun.”  In comparing and contrasting the sources, my kids start to understand that there is no one “story.”  Multiple sources are needed to get a clearer picture.

Nevertheless, as long as people want to be in on the big secret, rumors will spread on half the information given.  Unfortunately, it’s in our nature.  Just make sure that all the facts are there before spreading rumors to the point that they end up in textbooks.

By the way, that Paul Revere would’ve made a fortune today.  Imagine him covering the O.J. trial–I wonder who’d be smiling.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “You Didn’t Hear this from me, but…: Teaching through the rumors

  1. Putting your multiple-story presentation of the Boston Massacre together with your recent post on the use of film in the classroom, how about a screening of Rashomon?

    I smell synergy…

  2. Pingback: Myths of Our Founding: Carol Berkin on Teaching the Revolution « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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