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Bill McKibben Reckons with the Glorified American History of His Boyhood

On the Myths and Truths of the American Revolution

The obvious problem with this glorification of American history that entranced me as a boy is that the egalitarian impulse that drove the Revolution didn’t apply to everyone. In my mind, that problem eventually had two names: Prince Estabrook and Mark Codman. They were Black men of that time and place, to whom we shall return in a moment.

To the extent that I thought about race in those middle school and high school years, it was with the happy notion that the problem was being solved. I’d understood racism as legal segregation; Martin Luther King and the movement he helped summon had struck it down; and now things were improving. It was the decade of firsts: the 1970s produced everything from the first African American in the Miss America pageant to the first African American member of the New York Stock Exchange, the first Episcopal bishop to head a diocese, the first four-star general. Surely this was what progress looked like—the first payments on that check that Dr. King, in his most famous speech, demanded be cashed against the country’s original promissory note.

As the decades have worn on, however, that cheerfulness has become impossible to sustain, even for a white person who was only really looking on from a distance. In my lifetime, the country mounted what was clearly a racialized war on drugs; we built the world’s largest penal system, designed largely to house Black and brown bodies; lawmakers figured out systems of gerrymandering and vote suppression to keep white political power intact; the gaps in wealth and education between Black and white America refused to close, and indeed began to widen further.

And if the present seemed grimmer than expected, so did the past: historians increasingly undercut the patriotic sense that egalitarianism was our birthright. Instead, they told the stories that had always been ignored, of the people who built America without recompense, of the people who never shared in her prosperity.

This new historiography reached its height in 2019 when the New York Times devoted an entire issue of its weekly magazine to the 1619 Project, a rearguing of the nation’s history led by Nikole Hannah-Jones that won the Pulitzer for its depiction of the enduring racial caste system that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” It was arguably the most widely read and debated piece of American history in American history, its potency proved by the reactions against it.

Right-wing lawmakers scrambled to pass bills preventing schools in their states from using it in the classroom; two days before Trump finally left office, a team of conservative leaders he’d assembled to rebut the Times published the “1776 Report,” a document so crude it might as well have been written in crayon. (It listed the chief historic threats to America’s principles as slavery, but also “progressivism,” which had produced “bureaucracy”; one historian told the Washington Post that “this ‘report’ lacks citations or any indication books were consulted.”)

The particular genius of Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project is the way that it encourages you to look a little deeper, to pull on some threads, to imagine that behind the official history another version likely lurks.

I think that the 1619 Project is a crucial document; it accomplished that rarest of feats, actually changing the way that many people understood the world. Most of it seems unarguable to me, and if I sometimes miss the less complicated American story I grew up with, I’m far more grateful for the truer picture I got in exchange.

There was one sentence in the 1619 Project, however, that came under serious scrutiny by serious historians, a sentence that bears on Lexington. In her introductory essay, Hannah-Jones had written, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” against rising abolitionist sentiment in Britain; the Revolution had been fought, she contended, at least in part to “ensure that slavery would continue.” If that was really true, my entire sense of our history, absolutely everything that I’d learned on the Green and that informed what remained of my patriotism, was an illusion, and an ugly one at that, covering up the real truth. So it was with a certain psychic relief that I watched scholars zero in on that sentence.

Five eminent historians wrote to the Times insisting that while they “applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism,” the lines about the Revolution were “not true.” Leslie Harris, an African American historian, said that it was precisely because the 1619 Project was “a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past” that she had tried to warn Times fact-checkers that the line about the origins of the Revolution was wrong: “the protection of the slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war,” and that if the paper insisted on the claim, “critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking.”

At first the Times refused to correct the article; as pressure from historians grew, it eventually relented a little, adding a word: protecting slavery was a reason, it now said, for some of the colonists to have launched the Revolution. Someone reading the original text, Hannah-Jones said, might well have assumed she meant “all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.”

So I suppose I might have kept my version of the American Revolution, and Lexington’s honorable role in its start, partially intact in my mind. But the particular genius of Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project is the way that it encourages you to look a little deeper, to pull on some threads, to imagine that behind the official history another version likely lurks. So: Prince Estabrook, and Mark Codman.

The first of those names I knew, if dimly. All Lexington guides had a mental list of who’d been on the Green that day, or at least who had been killed and wounded, and so I knew that Prince Estabrook, an enslaved thirty-four-year-old, was one of the nine injured in the fight. But that was it—he hadn’t left much of a trail for us amateur historians to follow; we lacked dramatic stories about him with which to entertain the tourists. And possibly we didn’t look too closely because slavery didn’t mix very well with the story we were telling.

In the years since, scholars have tried to learn more, though the trail is murky (which tells you something about the value attached to Estabrook’s life). A Lexington resident, Alice Hinkle, wrote a very short biography that covers what we know. Benjamin Estabrook, by 1775, was a distinguished citizen, serving at various times as coroner, town moderator, justice of the peace, and selectman. He also owned a slave, a single man named Prince. What exactly their relationship was like is not clear. (By one account Benjamin, a horse trader, would team up with Prince to peddle questionable stock. “One day Ben was trying to sell a rather poor horse to a back countryman, and Prince was seen walking around with tears in his eyes,” begging his master not to sell the animal.)

In any event, Prince Estabrook was wounded on the Green, and his wounds healed sufficiently that he was back in action two months later for the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston; before the war was out he had signed on for expeditions to Fort Ticonderoga and to the Hudson Highlands, as well as duty guarding prisoners of war in Cambridge. His enlistment records for the various campaigns list his height from five foot six to five eleven. According to Hinkle he mustered out of the service in 1783 at West Point, and then returned to Lexington—we don’t know exactly when he was freed, but a number of local Black patriots received independence in return for their service in the war.

By the 1790 census he appears as a “non-white freeman” on the rolls, still living with the Estabrooks; he seems to have followed some of that family when they settled further west in Ashby, Massachusetts, where he died—maybe in 1830, maybe at the age of ninety. “No date of death or burial records, however, have been found. The records might be missing because officials did not always record such information for African Americans.”

That small cache of biography is enough, however—enough to complicate my picture of the fight on Lexington Common. At least one of the men wasn’t there entirely of his own accord. Prince Estabrook wasn’t defending quite the same thing as Benjamin Estabrook. And if Massachusetts was not South Carolina, with vast plantations worked by barracks full of enslaved men, women, and children, slavery was not an anomaly here: there were five slaveholders in Lexington in 1775, and twenty years earlier a special census ordered by the Massachusetts General Court had found twenty-four slaves in the town. Slave owners once filled half the government posts in Concord according to local historian Elise Lemire. “This may be the birthplace of a certain kind of liberty,” she said. “But Concord was a slave town. That’s what it was.”

In the middle of the 18th century, a fifth of Boston families had a slave. The Boston Gazette may have been a patriot paper—it commissioned Paul Revere to create an engraving of the Boston Massacre and published essays from Samuel Adams under at least twenty-five different pseudonyms—but it also, the month before the battle of Lexington, ran an ad offering “a healthy Negro girl, about 20 years, remarkably good-natured and fond of children,” for a price of £40.

You can get a sense of the psychological omnipresence of slavery even in New England by the number of times patriots explain why they’re fighting the British: one after another, they insist that they don’t want to become slaves. “Indeed,” writes Gordon Wood, “they told themselves over and over that if ever they should agree to a parliamentary tax or allow their colonial assemblies to be silenced, ‘nothing will remain to us but a dreadful expectation of certain slavery.’”

To their credit, enough Northerners recognized the hypocrisy of the situation that, as the Revolution wound down, these newly independent states moved to end slavery. Between 1780 and 1804, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey all passed what historian Margot Minardi called “gradual emancipation statutes.” Massachusetts enacted a Declaration of Rights in 1780 stating “all men are born free and equal,” but it took three years before a Supreme Court ruling confirmed that slavery no longer existed in the Commonwealth; even then, says Minardi, it may have lingered on. What definitely continued was a none-too-subtle racism.

By the 1820s, politicians were worried that too many freed Black people were arriving in the Bay State from the South, drawn by its slightly freer society. Should such emigration continue, a legislative committee warned, the dangers included “an indolent, disorderly, and corrupt population,” which would gather in the towns. Oh, and these indolent people would also displace many locals from “labors and occupations which, in the end, it would be more advantageous to have performed by the white population of the state.”

In fact, even as abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison operated from a Boston stronghold, local racism gathered force; in Minardi’s words, “in the decades after the Revolution, the idea of ‘race’ became a pernicious force throughout the North. . . . Racial ideology reinscribed the inequities of slavery along lines presumed to be natural, as opposed to legal or social.” She quotes a preacher, Hosea Easton, of both African and Native descent: “slavery’s demise had only fed ‘the soul-and-body-destroying energies’ of prejudice, a beast ‘with all the innate principles of the old dragon himself.’”

Revere’s ride, immortalized by Longfellow, took him beneath the skeleton of a slave, hung for decades from a pole to remind everyone who was boss.

One suspects that much of that deep prejudice—which, as we shall see, distinguished Massachusetts even in my boyhood— had been there from the start. It’s time to raise that other name, Mark Codman, a name I hadn’t ever heard back in my tour-guide days. I learned it only because I was rereading Paul Revere’s account of his famous midnight ride to Lexington, which contains this passage describing his near apprehension:

I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, & very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, & got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officers. One tryed to git a head of Me, & the other to take me. I turned my Horse very quick, & Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him, and went thro Medford, over the Bridge, & up to Menotomy.

The part of the story that struck me was that phrase “nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains.” Clearly it was a well-known local landmark, since Revere just mentions it casually in passing, but signifying what? Signifying, it turns out, altogether too much. Mark Codman had been enslaved; he and his sister Phillis were owned by a sea captain named John Codman, who was, by all accounts, a brutal master. Brother and sister suffered long enough that, in 1755, they resolved to kill their owner— not to escape slavery, but in order to get “another master.”

Mark was afraid of sinning; he read his Bible and concluded that if he could kill his tormentor without actually shedding blood he would have avoided the letter of the holy law. He obtained arsenic from a doctor on the pretense he would use it to kill pigs; instead he and his sister poisoned the tea and porridge of John Codman till he died.

He and Phillis were tried and convicted, not just of murder but of petit treason, the first time such a charge had been laid in Massachusetts. Her punishment: she was burned alive. His sentence was almost as grim. After being hanged and then tarred, his body was gibbeted. Do you know about gibbeting? I didn’t. It means locked in a human-shaped iron cage and then hung in a public place as a warning—sometimes alive, there to die of starvation, and sometimes, as with Codman, after execution. Gibbeting was fading away in England (among other things, surgeons wanted dead bodies for dissecting), and largely unknown in Massachusetts.

But the crime of a Black man murdering his owner was evidently so unsettling that Mark was not only stuck in a cage on a pole—he was left there for decades. By the time Revere rode by him in 1775 he’d been there twenty years; by the time Revere recounted his ride in 1798, more than forty years had passed and yet he still could assume that absolutely everyone would know just what he was talking about. Mark Codman was part of the New England landscape. A landMark.

I’m not completely sure why that story smacked me even harder than the story of Prince Estabrook, but it did. One reason gibbeting was in decline was that contemporary observers complained long and hard about the stink that gibbeted bodies gave off as they decomposed—neighbors had to keep their windows closed for months. The stench still seems pungent to me, scenting everything I like to believe about American history; the line between that iron cage and Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd till he died seems direct, with the same (fearful) need to drive home the reality of everyone’s relative place in our society. Revere’s ride, immortalized by Longfellow, took him beneath the skeleton of a slave, hung for decades from a pole to remind everyone who was boss. And no one who mattered seemed to have thought a thing of it.

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Excerpted from The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened by Bill McKibben. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted with permission of Henry Holt & Company.

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is a former New Yorker staff writer and the founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.





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