There are certain moments in history that almost read like a volcano. You can see the pressure building and if there isn’t some valve to relieve it, there’s an eruption. In a letter to a friend, John Adams warned of just that kind of eruption. “The 5th of March, 1770, ought to be an eternal warning to this nation. On that night the foundation of the American Independence was laid.”
One snowy Monday evening, an argument broke out between a teenager and a young soldier. That lone argument evolved into a situation so intense that within half an hour, three would be dead, two mortally wounded, and the foundation for the American Revolution would be set.
This week, we backtrack 247 years to March 5, 1770, to look at the pressure that erupted in the Boston Massacre.
French Indian War
In 1763, representatives from England, France, and Spain met in Paris and signed what was called the Treaty of Paris. It officially ended the Seven Years War, which was named the Seven Years War because it lasted nine years. (From 1754-1763)
War was pretty commonplace for England and France; the two countries had been at war five times in the previous century, alone. Britain and France were becoming worldwide empires, both with holdings in the Americas, Africa, and even Asia. So their war wasn’t relegated to Europe; there was fighting all over the world--some as far away as India. This kind of widespread conflict was fairly unique and new. In fact, in one of his books, Winston Churchill referred to the Seven Years War as the actual first world war.
Despite the worldwide nature of the conflict, most of the major fighting took place in North America, west of the thirteen British colonies. In America, the war was known by a different name; it was known as the French and Indian War. (You may have heard of it from James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel “The Last of the Mohicans,” or the way better movie, “The Last of the Mohicans” starring Daniel Day-Lewis.)
The British won the eventually won the war, which ended in the signing of the Treaty of Paris. In the Treaty and other agreements, there were several important deals struck. France and Spain agreed to cede most of their claims in the New World to England. England inherited French Canada, Spanish Florida, and most French land between the Atlantic and the Mississippi River.
It seemed like a total boon for England and cemented its hold in North America, but all was not well. The French and Indian War set in motion a series of events that directly led to the American Revolution, but no one in their right mind would have guessed that within 25 years of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the colonies would sever ties with Great Britain.
A Colonists’ Relationship with England
Of the 2 million American colonists, virtually none of them had ever seen the “home country.” Most families in the colonies had been in America for generations. While they considered themselves Englishmen and loyal to the King of England, If someone were to ask a person from Philadelphia what their country or nationality was, they’d be more likely to say Pennsylvania than they were to say Great Britain. (In some ways, not dissimilar from present-day Canada or Australia.)
In their charters, each colony had its own organization for local government. Some colonies like Rhode Island were almost entirely self-governed. But even in colonies where their Governors and other officials were royal appointees, most had representative assemblies that were locally elected. Judges were elected as well, and local (male) citizens served as jurors in trials.
The local assemblies would often levy their own taxes to pay for local militias and infrastructure. While there had been some government oversight from London, which varied from colony to colony, they had largely been independent. They self-governed, were largely self-funded and economically independent.
In his book “The Boston Massacre, a History with Documents,” historian Neil York wrote this: “Every [colony was given a] charter [which] guaranteed the colonists ‘rights of Englishmen.’ They did not, however, necessarily stipulate what those rights were. Nor did London treat those charters as fundamental law, the equivalent of constitutions.”
To your average American colonist, England was extremely far away and didn’t factor into day-to-day life. All political concerns were handled at local, provincial levels. They were essentially untouched by the cares of some faraway island across the ocean. That is, until the French and Indian War.
The Standing Army
In 1689, the British Parliament passed a Bill of Rights. One of its stated rights read: “That the raising or keeping a standing army with the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of parliament, is against the law.”
The relationship between Americans and the British troops who crossed the ocean to fight in the French and Indian war weren’t great. British Navy officers thought it was legal and justified to send what they called “press gangs” onto American ships and into seaside towns to “recruit” people into service. And by “recruit,” I mean kidnap and force into service. This was called “impressment,” and the colonists, predictably, were pretty outraged at the practice. A few times, press gangs were chased out of town by angry mobs.
The British Army was no better than the navy. British officers thought nothing of giving orders to local, independent militias and “requisitioning”--or as colonists viewed it, stealing-- their weapons, supplies, and food. But, it was wartime, and so while they grumbled, the colonists generally looked the other way and went on with their lives.
When the war ended, England promised the Indian nations in North America, some of whom had fought against the French and other Indian tribes, that the English colonists wouldn’t settle west of the Appalachian Mountains. They left a large portion of the army behind to protect the colonies from Indian incursions and also to ensure the colonists didn’t start settling west of the Appalachians. This was hugely unpopular with the Americans, who felt like winning the war entitled them to the land inherited from France. Scores of settlers managed to sneak past the army to settle (illegally) in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere.
The army’s presence after the war was at best annoying, at worst, a violation of their rights, but because the army was largely on the periphery of the colonies, most colonists didn’t interact with them or care that much. They grumbled, and life went on as normal.
No Money, Mo Problems
Fighting a world war is pretty expensive. England’s national debt skyrocketed; by the end of the French Indian War, their debt had essentially doubled. The government’s yearly income was about £10 million. Their yearly expenses were roughly £8 million. But at the conclusion of the war, the interest of England debts, alone, stood at £5 million. For those not great at math, that’s a total of £13 million in expenses per year, leaving them with an annual deficit of £3 million.
In order to keep themselves from spiraling into ever-increasing deficit spending (which they and every economist ever considers to be a bad idea), they needed new sources of income. Being that much of the fighting in the war took place in or near its thirteen American colonies, England’s parliament felt the colonists should bear some of the expenses incurred.
To England, the entire concept of having an overseas empire was, essentially, an investment. The colonies were subservient: there to benefit the Mother Country. And Parliament's economic policies reflected that attitude; They intentionally created a trade deficit with the colonies, manipulating the system so that they imported more than they exported, intentionally suppressing the economies on the fringes of the empire to make sure they supported, not competed with England.
All war is about money. We often think of the American Revolution as being about these idealistic principles like freedom, independence, self-determination. But you take these “big box” ideas and follow the string of events that caused them to take root in the American psyche, it had everything to do with money.
Taxation Without Representation
You’ve probably heard the term “taxation without representation” before. Here’s why: In the years immediately following the French and Indian War, Parliament started imposing several new taxes on the American Colonists. There were many, but one specific tax was the most memorable because it was the most galling to the colonists. It was called the Stamp Act, and it infuriated just about everyone.
|A criticism of the Stamp Act that|
appeared in colonial newspapers.
The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, required most printed material to be produced on paper that carried an embossed stamp produced in London. The law applied to pamphlets, newspapers, advertisements, deeds, bills, bonds, legal documents, diplomas, and even playing cards. Most stamps were relatively inexpensive (though quickly got expensive if you needed to use a lot of paper.) But some specific stamps--like the ones used on the diploma of newly-graduated lawyers--cost up to £10.
To illustrate how onerous this was, imagine you were finally graduating from college, and suddenly the government said you had to pay them $1500 (the modern-day rough equivalent) to get proof that you graduated.
One of the first rules of any government should probably be, don’t infuriate all the lawyers and all the journalists. But that’s exactly what the Stamp Act did. Because the most influential and powerful people in their society were infuriated, and because the tax also directly affected their own lives to varying degrees, the colonists were enraged.
There were demonstrations and riots, especially in big cities. In Boston, a mob mistakenly thought their Lieutenant Governor, a man named John Hutchinson (who factors heavily into this story later), had sponsored the tax. They attacked his house and nearly tore it apart.
Colonists generally started boycotting British goods. The local governments of individual colonies started cooperating with each other to coordinate collective action against England. These were the first breaths of federal government forming.
Newspapers, orators, and famous businessmen and politicians continued to stoke the rage. John Adams was among them. In the Boston Gazette he wrote, “We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental principle of the [English] constitution that no freeman should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his own consent. . . No taxation without representation.”
The phrase “No taxation without representation” had been around for at least a century, and had been used in the protests of Irishman for decades. While some members of Parliament were unsure whether they could legally tax the colonies, most MP’s thought they had every right, because they represented the colonists’ interests. They were, after all, Englishmen, and so how could the colonists’ interests be at odds with those held by the government? Parliament genuinely felt the colonists’ rights were being maintained, while the colonists genuinely believed their rights were being trampled on. This disconnect in understanding was the root cause of all the trouble that was about to unfold.
Just a year after it was introduced, though, the vehement and sometimes violent response to the Stamp Act persuaded Parliament to repeal the tax. But, the government felt the colonists had reacted poorly, and wanted to assert their authority. So immediately after repealing the Stamp Act, they passed the Declatory (or Declaratory) Act, which affirmed, officially, that Parliament had the authority to legislate over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” The statement never once used the word “tax,” but their meaning was clear. While the colonists celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act, they were apprehensive at the Declatory Act, which, John Adams wrote “hung like a cloud over the whole American Continent.”
True to their word, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in 1767, which taxed the import of tea, paper, glass, lead, and other goods to the colonies, most of which wasn’t produced there at the time. Resentment from the Stamp Act hadn’t even had a chance to cool off, and the introduction of new taxes breathed new life into the anger.
“This new act of tyrannical taxation rekindled all the fires of opposition and resistance. . . [which] were universal through all the colonies.”-John Adams
Customs officials whose job it was to enforce and collect the taxes were being intimidated, beaten, and were generally hated. Law enforcement rarely did anything to protect them, so they were understandably terrified to do their jobs. As if the threat of physical violence wasn’t enough, the were often falsely accused of crimes, arrested, and dragged through the court system. One customs official reported:
“The oppressions the officers of the Revenue labour under in America have lately grown to such an enormous height, that it is become impossible for them to do their duty, not only from the outrage of Mobs, but for fear also of vexations Suits, Verdicts, & Judgments in the Provincial Courts, and even of Criminal Prosecutions.”-Henry Hulton, British Customs Commissioner.
Due to the taxes and Britain’s policies about exporting more than they imported, a thriving smuggling business started to rise in the colonies. Between the smugglers and the ineffective customs agents, the taxes were bringing in only a tiny portion of the revenue Parliament had anticipated. They responded by instigating draconian policies that only deepened the rift the colonists were feeling with their government.
One of most unpopular policies was the use of admiralty courts to try accused smugglers. Colonial America’s criminal court system was essentially similar to the one we use today. They used locally elected judges, and the cases were heard by a jury of local citizens. British lawmakers were convinced the colonial courts were hopelessly sympathetic and soft on smugglers, and so started trying them in military courts. (A modern-day analogy would be if the military started putting private citizens through Court Martials for certain crimes.) These courts didn’t have juries, just a single judge who ruled unilaterally. There were no appeals.
More than just anger Americans, this move disturbed them badly. Parliament was radically altering the way they practiced and enforced law, and it took away the time-honored tradition of trial by jury. But the legal policies against smugglers were nothing when compared to London’s next move. In order to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the customs officials collecting the tax, England sent troops into Boston.
Boston the Problem Child
Boston had one of the busiest ports in America. According to one source, nearly 40% of the imports coming to America passed through Boston Harbor. So, naturally, it was a hotbed for smuggling and a place where customs agents most intensely dreaded going. Boston had produced the most intense opposition to the Stamp Act and other taxes, so it was the obvious place for British officials to focus on.
When they learned of the colonial response to the Stamp Act, Parliament had been contemplating stationing troops within the bigger cities to subdue the colonists. Benjamin Franklin was living in London in the 1760’s, as a political envoy representing Pennsylvania to the government. Parliament asked him to testify before the House of Commons and asked him his opinion on sending in the army. He told them the army would “not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”
A few years later, though, when smuggling and intimidation of customs agents became too intense, Parliament ignored Franklin’s warning and in 1868 started stationing troops in Boston. With the increase of troops and customs officials, they started to crack down on smuggling.
Seeing the troops marching through the city streets was disturbing to Bostonians, and instead of diffusing the situation, the presence of the soldiers just added pressure. In the meantime, it didn’t stop the colonists’ intimidation of the customs officers.
John Hancock (later to become famous for leaving a gigantic signature on the Declaration of Independence) was one of the most popular and influential men in Boston. He was extremely rich, and had made his fortune mostly by shipping, and probably by doing a lot of smuggling. The British suspected this, and were looking for opportunities to go after him. In June, customs officials seized Hancock’s ship Liberty. As the boat was being towed away by a British warship, two customs agents lingered on the dock too long, and without soldiers nearby to protect them, a mob jumped the men and beat them mercilessly.
Things were getting increasingly violent. Like the customs agents, soldiers were constantly being accused of crime by locals (the accusations were almost always spurious) and being dragged through court. They were verbally abused and intimidated, and countless altercations broke out. The pressure kept building, and things were about to start boiling over.
One customs official named Ebenezer Richardson was followed by a mob one night. He managed to get into his home and lock the door, but the mob started throwing rocks and clubs through his windows. One rock struck his wife in the head, who crumpled to the ground. Enraged and terrified, Richardson loaded his musket and fired blindly out of a window as a warning shot, hoping it would chase the mob off. While he intended to shoot over their heads, his aim was low, and an 11-year-old boy named Christopher Seider was hit in the chest. He died a few hours later.
Samuel Adams, who had a flair for propaganda and harnessing public outrage, paid for and organized Christopher Seider’s funeral. He took advantage of the opportunity to turn the funeral into a huge propaganda spectacle. Over 2000 people attended the funeral, and they seethed with anger. The funeral was held on February 26, 1770. It was exactly one week before the massacre.
|A print made by Paul Revere depicting the entry of British Troops into Boston, as published in The Boston Gazette.|
As mentioned earlier, the presence of an army during peacetime was seen by the Americans as a direct violation of England’s Bill of Rights. But instead of being on the frontier, the soldiers were now marching through the streets of Boston, and many Americans started to feel like they were being occupied by an enemy force.
Parliament had passed a law requiring the local colonial governments to provide housing and food for the troops. Individual building owners were being reimbursed for the use of their buildings, but the local colonial governments weren’t. And the building owners didn’t have any say in the matter; if they had a warehouse that could be used as a barracks for the army, they were forced to hand over the keys.
Still, there was so much resistance against the army’s presence, that it took over a month for their commander (a Lieutenant Colonel by the name of William Dalrymple) to find housing for all his troops. In the meantime, they were squatting in tents in the middle of a freezing New England Winter.
John Adams loathed their presence just as badly as any other person, but he took pity on them as well.
"These poor creatures, the soldiers, were in a forlorn condition,—no barracks, no shelter, hungry and cold. The inhabitants shut their doors, and would [sooner] admit panthers and serpents."
The troops started to represent the government to most people, and so the soldiers became the targets of all their pent-up frustration. It didn’t help that there wasn’t a lot for the soldiers to actually do. Boston still had its own group of constables working as a police force, and the royal governor made it extremely clear the military wasn’t to work as law enforcement. That was just as well for the soldiers, because they wanted to minimize their confrontation with the colonists. When on duty, they simply patrolled the streets and drilled to keep up their skills.
John Adams felt that the army represented a danger for Boston. For reasons that we’ll soon see, though, he was particularly empathetic to the individual soldiers and the impossible situation they were in. He watched a group of soldiers drill one day and later recorded his thoughts:
“Poor puppets! You know nothing of the invisible hand, which dances you upon its wires! No more than the cogs and wheels of a clock, of the weights that move them, or the hand which they point to the hour. The men who understand the machinery and are the first springs of its movement, know no more of what they are doing than you do. They are heaping up vengeance against the day of vengeance against you, against themselves, and against unnumbered thousands of others as innocent as you.”-John Adams
The soldiers were not well paid, and so in their off-time, they started taking local jobs, which meant fewer jobs and more competition for the colonists. The average soldier’s life in Boston was fairly miserable, and the army started having a major problem with desertion. The officers stationed patrols on the edge of town to intercept any soldiers trying to flee. To Bostonians, unaware of the problems with desertion, they felt like they were being hemmed in. This claustrophobic feeling started to make the pot boil.
Later, Adams recorded that “Wrangles and quarrels frequently occurred between the citizens and the soldiers; exasperation increased on both sides, till it broke out in the melancholy catastrophe of the 5th of March, 1770.”
5th of March 1770
Before we talk about what happened the night of March 5, it’s important to remember something about history. We weren’t there. Most of the people who’ve written about it weren’t there. Often, even people who were intimately involved in the aftermath, like John Adams, weren’t there. While we have first-hand accounts of the incident, and historians attempt to piece together some kind of coherent picture, it can be a tough job.
Writing to a historian who wanted his perspective, Adams later wrote,
“I have little faith in history. I read it as I do romance, believing what is probable and rejecting what I must. . . Our American history for the last fifty years is already as much corrupted as any. . . If I were to write a history of the last sixty years, as the facts rest in my memory, and according to my judgment. . . a hundred writers. . . would immediately appear and call me, to myself, and before the world, a gross liar and perjured villain.”
Adams was a lawyer. He knew better than anyone how perception warps reality. And in the case of the Boston Massacre, feelings and rhetoric were running so high, that it’s impossible to know what happened that night with any kind of exactness. In the testimonies of eyewitnesses, there were all kinds of contradictions. Even fundamental things like the number of soldiers, the size of the crowd, the number of wounded, aren’t clear. So just know that when it comes down to it, this is our best guess about what happened that night.
The incident followed what had been a day filled with minor altercations between the locals and soldiers throughout the city. Dozens of heated arguments and fistfights, and more importantly, the rumors of those things, were popping up throughout the city.
It was a cold night. There was a thick blanket of snow on the ground. A lone British soldier, Private Hugh White, was standing guard outside a custom house on King Street. A group of young men--probably teenagers, passed by and started harassing the soldier. Their taunts grew loud and angry. Feeling threatened, White struck one of the young men with the butt of his musket. The altercation made the others furious and attracted passersby to join them. Soon, a large and growing group of men and boys were surrounding the soldier and screaming in his face. Over the din of the crowd, the soldier yelled for help from a patrol that was within sight down the street.
The patrol was led by Captain Thomas Preston. He saw what was happening and ordered his soldiers to fix bayonets. Their muskets were not yet loaded. They marched through the crowd, which parted for them. They formed up around Private White, and the crowd pressed in around them. The noise was getting extreme, and people from blocks around heard it and came running.
When it became clear the soldiers couldn’t safely make their way through the crowd, Captain Preston ordered his men to load their muskets. They formed a semicircle with the custom house at their backs.
Men started throwing things: snowballs at first, but soon, oyster shells, rocks, canes and clubs used by local rope makers. One of Preston’s soldiers was hit hard and fell to the ground. According to some accounts, the mob was screaming at the soldiers, daring them to fire.
|"Boston Massacre," by Alonzo Chappel, 1878|
Preston was standing in front of the soldiers trying to urge the mob to back up when a single shot rang out from the line of soldiers, followed by a staggered volley, most of the other soldiers firing as well.
It’s unknown exactly how many were hit, but three were dead immediately. One died later that night, and a fifth died from wounds over a week later.
Four others were reported wounded, though accounts disagree about that.
The soldiers reloaded their weapons as the dead and wounded were carried away, and much of the mob mostly dispersed, but within minutes, a huge crowd began to form in the area again, rushing to see what had happened. Many were carrying pails of water because they’d heard there was a fire. When they learned what happened the crowd soon grew angry again. More soldiers came to reinforce the small patrol, and now the crowd was once again screaming at the soldiers.
Governor Thomas Hutchinson arrived at the scene within an hour of the shooting. He addressed the crowd and calmed them by promising the soldiers involved would be arrested and tried. He was also able to convince the British officers to return the soldiers to their barracks. Hutchinson’s quick thinking probably kept the situation from getting worse.
The next day, Preston, White, and seven other soldiers surrendered themselves to city authorities. Hutchinson hoped their arrest would placate the populace, but news of the shooting was spreading through the city like wildfire, and in the days immediately following the incident, the city felt incredibly tense. John Adams reported that men all over Boston were ready to grab their muskets and march against the army. A single misstep on either side could erupt into more violence.
Hutchinson lamented about the situation.
“Our people are as infatuated as they were in the times of the Witchcraft. I have only a shadow of power. . . the authority of government is gone in all matters wherein the Controversy between the Kingdom and colonies is concerned.”
Hutchinson was an interesting man. He was British and was a royal appointee to his position. He’s often portrayed as impotent and whiny. John Adams said, “his ambition made him weak as water.” While he definitely was capable of some Olympic-level whining, he was actually a smart and effective leader. And despite the fact that he complained of having no real power, his maneuverings immediately after the shooting likely saved several lives.
It is true that Hutchinson’s power was limited and not well-defined. For example, he had absolutely no authority over the army stationed in Boston. The army was led locally by Lieutenant Colonel Dalrymple, and Dalrymple had no obligation to listen to Hutchinson. However, as the situation intensified, Hutchinson managed to persuade Dalrymple to move the army to Castle Island in Boston Harbor. Removing the troops helped to de-escalate the situation quite a bit.
Hutchinson also delayed the trial of the soldiers involved in the shooting until the following Fall, to allow tempers to cool down. He hoped to get them a fairer trial. But if the propaganda of the shooting was any indication, a fair trial was not likely.
The Propaganda War
John Adams wrote:
“This great event [the Boston Massacre] turned the attention of all the colonies to it, and the supremacy of parliament stared all men in the face. If parliament was omnipotent, could enact what statutes it pleased, and employ armies and navies, governors, counsellors, and judges to interpret them, and carry them into execution, of what use could our houses of representatives be? And what were our religion, liberties, properties, or existence worth? I recollect no event which increased the horror of parliamentary usurpation so much as this.”
In isolation, “The Boston Massacre” wasn’t a massacre at all; it was a small group of scared soldiers being attacked by a mob and defending themselves. But in the larger context, it was the moment the dam finally burst, the moment the volcano erupted. The colonists felt their rights had been violated again and again. London had badly mishandled the situation by adding armed troops and undermining the colonists’ system of government, which only served to add pressure to an already-volatile situation. If it hadn’t happened that night, it would have happened at some point thereafter. People can take only so much mistreatment before they begin to lash out.
Popular sentiment against the British deepened when the public funeral was held for the first four victims of the shooting. It was a huge public spectacle. Shops closed and church bells all over Boston rang. An estimated 10,000 mourners and onlookers attended the funeral procession and service.
|Paul Revere's block print entitled "The Bloody Massacre."|
While an extremely inaccurate depiction of the actual
event, Revere's print served to fuel the fire of indignation
sweeping over the American colonies.
Local leaders and journalists leapt at the chance to use the incident as a firebrand to incite the anger of the rest of Massachusetts and the rest of the American colonies. Paul Revere engraved a now-famous picture of the event, titled it “The Bloody Massacre,” and published it in the Boston Gazette. The picture is representative of much of the rhetoric that raced through the country at the time. It shows the soldiers standing in a line, callously firing into what appears to be a peaceful gathering of well-dressed gentlemen. The commander stands behind the soldiers, raising a sword as if he was commanding them to fire. In short, it bears little resemblance to what actually happened.
The storm of words that followed was incredible. Newspapers all over the continent carried the story. Some wealthy Boston men paid Justices of the Peace to collect affidavits from eyewitnesses and then published them in a pamphlet called “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.” It spread through the colonies and shaped local opinion.
Not all words were in condemnation of the soldiers. Loyalists were angry at the thug tactics the mobs were using. One Boston merchant wrote this about the mob at the shooting:
Upon the whole, I cannot help saying--although I have never entered into the mysteries of government, having applied myself to my shop and my business--that it always seemed strange to me that people who contend so much for civil and religious liberty should be so ready to deprive others of their natural liberty. . . If one set of private subjects may at any time take upon themselves to punish another set of private subjects just when they please, it's such a sort of government as I never heard of before; and according to my poor notion of government, this is one of the principle things which government is designed to prevent.-Theophilus Lillie
Hutchinson was also disturbed by the imbalanced and virulent words that were being published. He decided that a more balanced narrative was needed to calm things down. He oversaw the publication of a pamphlet more favorable to the soldiers. It was called “A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston.”
Here’s what historian Neil York wrote about the propaganda war: “Protesting Bostonians charged that they were being tyrannized; imperial officials countered that they were being victimized. Both pointed to the massacre as proof of their assertions."
Interestingly, both were right. The colonists were being tyrannized and the government officials and military were victimized. The reality of the situation was nuanced and double-sided, but the voices supporting the soldiers and condemning the mob were largely ignored and drowned out in the rhetoric that was flooding the American press.
The fact that we still, to this day, call it “The Boston Massacre” is proof of how effective all this propaganda actually was. Everywhere it was reported, it was described as a murder, a massacre, or even a battle. (Samuel Adams called it “Bloody Butchery.”) The perception of what happened took on a life of its own, fed by all the indignation that had been growing in the seven years since the French Indian War. The fact that it was in no way a massacre didn’t seem to even occur to the colonists. By the fall of 1770, the specifics of what had happened mattered less than the legend that had grown.
Amazingly, though, there was no more bloodshed. And while the propaganda continued to anger Americans throughout all the colonies, things in Boston started to calm down. Hutchinson’s wisdom in encouraging the army to leave the city paid off. Without troops in town, the customs agents were once again too scared to enforce the tax laws. Merchants stopped paying the taxes demanded by the Townshend Acts, and the smuggling business started to thrive once more. By the time the trials of the soldiers began that fall, life in Boston had returned to some semblance of normalcy, and while outrage in America, in general, was at a fever pitch, the frustration in Boston had dimmed.
John Adams had reluctantly agreed to defend the soldiers in court alongside Josiah Quincy. Adams had a vain streak and was extremely sensitive about what others in the community thought of him. Adams wrote that agreeing to defend the soldiers “destroyed” his popularity and caused him “great anxiety.” But he was also a deeply principled man who felt that the soldiers were entitled to fair representation in court.
While he was preparing for the trial, he wrote a quote by Italian philosopher Marquis Cesare Beccaria:
"If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind."
As he reviewed the case, he became convinced of what the imprisoned soldiers claimed: the shooting was justifiable self-defense against a violent mob that was attacking them.
There were two trials, one for Captain Preston and the other for the rest of the soldiers. Captain Preston’s trial basically hinged on whether or not he commanded his men to fire. There was no compelling evidence he did, and several witnesses (even witnesses appearing for the prosecution) testified they’d seen Preston standing in front of his men when the shots were fired. He never would have given the order if he was downrange of the muskets, and so was declared not guilty.
We don’t now have the transcript of the first case, but by several accounts, Adams and Quincy offered an amazing defense.
The second trial was more complex, and luckily, we have a transcript of the case (although Adams later said it was filled with errors.). It was impossible for the prosecution to conclusively prove that a specific soldier killed or wounded a specific victim. And the defense rested their case on the fact that the shooting was in self-defense.
“If any reasonable man, in the situation of one of these soldiers, would have had reason to believe in the time of it, that people came with an intention to kill him, whether you have this satisfaction now, or not in your own minds, they were justifiable, at least excusable in firing.”
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence . . . . [The law] commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich, or poor, high, or low. . . . On the one hand [the law] is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace."
Incredibly, the jury found six of the eight soldiers not guilty and found the remaining two guilty of manslaughter only--not murder. They were given the (odd) punishment of having their thumbs branded, but all left with their lives and as free men.
The Massacre’s Legacy
It’s understandable that most people today think that the American Revolution was the Revolutionary War. But to people alive at the time, and to most historians, the American Revolution predated the American War for Independence. John Adams wrote, “The revolution was complete, in the minds of the people, and the union of the colonies, before the war commenced in the skirmishes of Concord and Lexington.”
While we have to take into account Adams’ close relationship to the event, his memory of the Boston Massacre 46 years after the fact is interesting.
“The discussions and decisions in those cases [of the soldiers] convinced the people that they could depend on no protection against the sovereignty of parliament, but Providence and their own arms.”
Adams contended that the Boston Massacre was more important in American history than the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, or the Battle of Yorktown. While many historians would probably argue that, what is clear is that in the mind of Adams and thousands of other colonists, the Boston Massacre was for them the defining moment. Their trust in British rule was in that one volley, crushed. Loyalty to King and Country was severed.
Interestingly, though, the Massacre didn’t directly cause any further events that led to war. Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts a month after the massacre, mostly because the taxes were bringing in less money than the cost of enforcing the taxes. They only kept only one tax: this one on tea. That was going to come back to bite them in a few years.
But in the meantime, most of the taxes were gone, along with the hated customs agents. The army stayed on Castle Island and smugglers were free to smuggle once more. But for many Americans, the die had been cast. And within five years, near Boston, war would break out again. And that particular eruption resulted in the birth of the United States of America.