I was in Boston for a software conference recently, and – for reasons I don’t fully understand, but I’m sure the travel agent did – I arrived at noon the day before the conference began. Having a half day of free time in Boston, I did what any other Revolutionary War history buff would do, I took a 2.5 mile walking tour through historic downtown Boston, a walk called the Freedom Trail.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Freedom Trail, it’s a bright red line (painted in parts and bricked in others) that traces American history through downtown Boston, including stops at Boston Common (the oldest park in the US), the Granary Burying Ground (where John Handcock and Paul Revere are buried), Faneuil Hall (where Samuel Adams, Oliver Wendall Holmes, and Susan B. Anthony all made famous speeches), and the site of the Boston Massacre.
For those of you who don’t keep their heads full of their favorite nuggets from US History 101, let me walk you through the Boston Massacre.
On March 5, 1770, on King Street in Boston, the then capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, a group of British soldiers found themselves in a difficult situation. The citizens of Boston weren’t fond of their colonial leaders and they were particularly unhappy with what they viewed as taxation without representation – taxes levied on them by their King and by a parliament where the Massachusetts province had no representatives.
Their frustration at their situation, their anger at the way they were treated, and the way their King responded, it boiled up into heated encounters all over the colonies – encounters where angry patriots threw snowballs and small rocks at British soldiers, lashing out at the Redcoats because they were a physical reminder of the representation the colonists lacked.
March 5th was bad. It started with some name-calling, which was not uncommon, and it escalated to the point that more than two dozen colonists were taunting British infantrymen and bombarding them with snowballs and rocks. The barracks officer on duty sent a unit of foot soldiers armed with rifles to encourage the crowd to disburse. He gave his men strict orders. “For God’s sake,” he said, “take care of your men, but don’t fire your weapon. If weapons are discharged, there’s no going back.”
There was no disbursing the crowd. As a half-dozen foot soldiers moved into the square, they were met by more than three hundred colonists, who were so confident that the soldiers wouldn’t shoot their own citizens that they were taunting the soldiers to shoot! No joke! A mob of angry patriots surrounded the Redcoats from three sides, chanting “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
The Infantrymen stood strong. Standing shoulder to shoulder, weapons raised, they formed a semicircle and attempted to backtrack out of King Street Square. Inching backwards, dodging stones and snowballs, the soldiers ceded King Street to the growing mob.
And then Hugh Montgomery, a Private in the British Infantry, barely 19 years old, was struck in the face by an object. In his shock and surprise, he lost his footing and fell into the officer to his left, losing grip on his weapon. It tumbled from his hands to the cobblestones and it discharged. The echo of that blast was followed, immediately, by a matching discharge from the muzzle of the rifle of every other soldier in the line.
Five colonists died. Six others sustained non-fatal injuries.
And the American Revolution began.
I stood on King Street, on a surprisingly sunny Sunday in September, on the marker that commemorates the Boston Massacre, and I cried. I cried! How crazy is that? Standing on that spot, it was as if I could see it for the tragedy it truly was. Not JUST the tragic death of five patriots. Not SIMPLY the frightening explosion of violence that changed the course of the colonies. Not EVEN the singular incident that fomented the American Revolution. NO.
This was a complete breakdown in empathy.
The thing is, there was no America yet. There were no United States. There were just angry British citizens – colonists who wanted a better future in the new world, and soldiers who wanted a better future in the new world. They weren’t on different sides, they were on the SAME side. They were all being taxed without representation. They were all being forced to buy stamps from the King for their letters and documents and contracts and agreements. They were all paying more for tea tax than for tea. And they tormented and taunted and abused each other until five people died.
I’m not working on projects where lives are on the line. I build business software and manage people for a living, and it’s not nearly as life-and-death as it sometimes feels. Walking the length of the Freedom Trail reminded me of that, but it reminded me of something else, too:
One part, maybe the most important part of my job as a consultant is to understand my customer. As a manager, it’s to understand the people who I serve. As an employee, it’s to understand my employer. As a spouse, it’s to understand my partner. When I forget to think about the people who I serve, I fail to do my job.
Maybe that’s why I stood there, pushing away tears, on King Street last September. Not because of the tragedy that gave birth to the country I so dearly love, but because it reminded me that we can always be better.