Creating a Revolutionary State of Mind

Professor of History Neil York explored how deeply held assumptions can affect the way scholars make sense of history’s story.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 23, 2017)—On the evening of March 5, 1770, five civilians were dead and six wounded after British soldiers fired into a crowd that had gathered in Boston after an altercation between a solider and civilian. This event was later known as the Boston Massacre, and Paul Revere’s engraving of it “is probably the most reproduced image of early American history,” said Neil York, a professor of History at BYU. However, he admits that the image is “a misrepresentation of the event,” specifically designed to encourage support for the Revolution.

During his lecture, York explained his fascination with the concept that historians attempt to discover and convey a state of mind they believe was present at a certain place and time in history. “I think it’s a lot more fluid, a lot more complicated than that,” York admitted. “Even if we can recognize that Revere is consciously trying to create a state of mind for his contemporaries, I think a lot of us who do this sort of research realize that we do the same thing.” He believes that many of the assumptions historians make are based on prior understanding, “presuppositions that go back to our childhood.” Often, these assumptions are so deeply rooted that they are hard to recognize, much less challenge.

As an example, York showed the audience an excerpt from New England Soul, written by historian Harry Stout. It reads, “Although the Boston Massacre did not lead to further bloodshed or violence, it provoked a torrent of sermons and outcries which for their sheer fury and blood revenge exceeded anything in the annals of New England oratory.” York remarked that James Byrd, a scholar from Vanderbilt, made a similar claim in his 2013 book, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. Although York was quick to point out the excellent scholarship of both men, he said that the “actual sermons Stout referenced [don’t] really illustrate what [he] was saying.”

For example, a sermon by John Lathrop was printed in the newspaper and therefore survives today, unlike the majority of sermons given at that time. This sermon, referenced by Stout, “[is] not calling people to protest,” said York. “[It is] not saying that [they] have been abused and tyrannized and therefore should leave the British Empire.” Instead, the focus is on the fact that the soldiers were pulled out of Boston and how lucky the colonists are that something more serious didn’t happen.

Another sermon referenced by Stout is a sermon by Charles Chauncey, entitled Trust in God. Although Stout used it as evidence of the “sheer fury and blood revenge” of sermons given after the Boston Massacre, its focus was on Chauncey’s worry that people were sinning and becoming less godly, with barely a mention of the event.

In addition, York points out that these men make bold claims about a state of mind present in Boston, Massachusetts, after the massacre with relatively little evidence. York pointed out, “We’re talking about less than 10 percent of the clergymen who spoke [after the Boston Massacre] as the database for this conclusion about this state of mind. To me, that’s not a representative sample.” York, however, was quick to point out that, “They aren’t bad scholars.” Instead, he believes, “Some things they’re examining and questioning; other things they aren’t because they just inherited an attitude that’s the foundation of their understanding rather than their own research.”

After all, York explained, he ran into the same problem after publishing his first book. “Most of the reviewers liked it,” he said, “except one. She criticized how he took a few sources and assumed they were representative of the population as a whole, “And I was furious,” York said. However, he soon realized that her comments held truth, and has since been careful not to assume he knows exactly what the impact of an event was in history just because he knows about the events that came after. He asked a few faculty members to share their experiences with assumptions in their work, stressing the universality of the issue.

York contested that history scholars have a very hard time escaping the tendency to create a state of mind based on assumption and hindsight. He said, “The natural tendency is to only think in terms of the causational trail that says, ‘This happened because of that.’” But, he pointed out that the Boston Massacre was used later as political propaganda to create a revolutionary state of mind where it might not have existed that March in Boston after the shooting. Of the Boston Massacre and the Revolution, York said, “There are a lot of things that could have gone differently. There might not have been the kind of revolution we end[ed] up with, and [Paul Revere’s picture] might tell a different story.”

Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the American studies program of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in International Development.


Image from Boston Massacre Historical Society