Path to the Revolution: Boston Massacre
The Boston Massacre was one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution. These include:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
The Boston Massacre was a confrontation on March 5, 1770, in which British soldiers shot and killed several people while being harassed by a mob in Boston. The event was heavily publicized by leading Patriots such as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. British troops had been stationed in the Province of Massachusetts Bay since 1768 in order to support crown-appointed officials and to enforce unpopular Parliamentary legislation.
Amid tense relations between the civilians and the soldiers, a mob formed around a British sentry and verbally abused him. He was eventually supported by seven additional soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston, who were hit by clubs, stones, and snowballs. Eventually, one soldier fired, prompting the others to fire without an order by Preston. The gunfire instantly killed three people and wounded eight others, two of whom later died of their wounds.
The crowd eventually dispersed after Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson promised an inquiry, but they re-formed the next day, prompting the withdrawal of the troops to Castle Island. Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were arrested and charged with murder, and they were defended by future U.S. President John Adams. Six of the soldiers were acquitted; the other two were convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences. The two found guilty of manslaughter were sentenced to branding on their hand. Depictions, reports, and propaganda about the event heightened tensions throughout the Thirteen Colonies.
On the evening of March 5, Private Hugh White stood on guard duty outside the Boston Custom House on King Street (today known as State Street). A wigmaker’s apprentice, approximately 13 years old, named Edward Garrick called out to Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch, accusing him of refusing to pay a bill due to Garrick’s master. Goldfinch had settled the account the previous day, and ignored the insult. Private White called out to Garrick that he should be more respectful of the officer, and the two men exchanged insults. Garrick then started poking Goldfinch in the chest with his finger; White left his post, challenged the boy, and struck him on the side of the head with his musket. Garrick cried out in pain, and his companion Bartholomew Broaders began to argue with White which attracted a larger crowd. Henry Knox was a 19-year old bookseller who later served as a general in the revolution; he came upon the scene and warned White that, “if he fired, he must die for it.”
As the evening progressed, the crowd around Private White grew larger and more boisterous. Church bells were rung, which usually signified a fire, bringing more people out. More than 50 Bostonians pressed around White, led by a mixed-race former slave named Crispus Attucks, throwing objects at the sentry and challenging him to fire his weapon. White had taken up a somewhat safer position on the steps of the Custom House, and he sought assistance.
Runners alerted Captain Thomas Preston, the officer of the watch at the nearby barracks. According to his report, Preston dispatched a non-commissioned officer and six privates from the grenadier company of the 29th Regiment of Foot to relieve White with fixed bayonets. The soldiers were Corporal William Wemms and Privates Hugh Montgomery, John Carroll, William McCauley, William Warren, and Matthew Kilroy, accompanied by Preston. They pushed their way through the crowd. Henry Knox took Preston by the coat and told him, “For God’s sake, take care of your men. If they fire, you must die.” Captain Preston responded “I am aware of it.” When they reached Private White on the custom house stairs, the soldiers loaded their muskets and arrayed themselves in a semicircular formation. Preston shouted at the crowd to disperse, estimated between 300 and 400.
The crowd continued to press around the soldiers, taunting them by yelling “Fire!”, by spitting at them, and by throwing snowballs and other small objects. Innkeeper Richard Palmes was carrying a cudgel, and he came up to Preston and asked if the soldiers’ weapons were loaded. Preston assured him that they were, but that they would not fire unless he ordered it; he later stated in his deposition that he was unlikely to do so, since he was standing in front of them. A thrown object then struck Private Montgomery, knocking him down and causing him to drop his musket. He recovered his weapon and angrily shouted “Damn you, fire!”, then discharged it into the crowd although no command was given. Palmes swung his cudgel first at Montgomery, hitting his arm, and then at Preston. He narrowly missed Preston’s head, striking him on the arm instead.
There was a pause of uncertain length (eyewitness estimates ranged from several seconds to two minutes), after which the soldiers fired into the crowd. It was not a disciplined volley, since Preston gave no orders to fire; the soldiers fired a ragged series of shots which hit 11 men. Three Americans died instantly: rope maker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks. Samuel Maverick, a 17-year old apprentice ivory turner, was struck by a ricocheting musket ball at the back of the crowd and died early the next morning. Irish immigrant Patrick Carr died two weeks later. Apprentice Christopher Monk was seriously wounded; he was crippled and died in 1780, purportedly due to the injuries that he had sustained in the attack a decade earlier.
The crowd moved away from the immediate area of the custom house but continued to grow in nearby streets. Captain Preston immediately called out most of the 29th Regiment, which adopted defensive positions in front of the state house. Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson was summoned to the scene and was forced by the movement of the crowd into the council chamber of the state house. From its balcony, he was able to minimally restore order, promising that there would be a fair inquiry into the shootings if the crowd dispersed.
On March 27, 1770 the eight soldiers, Captain Preston, and four civilians were indicted for murder; the civilians were in the Customs House and were alleged to have fired shots. Bostonians continued to be hostile to the troops and their dependents. British General Gage was convinced that the troops were doing more harm than good, so he ordered the 29th Regiment out of the province in May. Governor Hutchinson took advantage of the on-going high tensions to orchestrate delays of the trials until later in the year.
In the days and weeks following the incident, a propaganda battle was waged between Boston’s Patriots and Loyalists. Both sides published pamphlets that told strikingly different stories, which were principally published in London in a bid to influence opinion there. The Boston Gazette’s version of events, for example, characterized the massacre as part of an ongoing scheme to “quell a Spirit of Liberty”, and harped on the negative consequences of quartering troops in the city.
The government was determined to give the soldiers a fair trial so that there could be no grounds for retaliation from the British and so that moderates would not be alienated from the Patriot cause. Several lawyers refused to defend Preston due to their Loyalist leanings, so he sent a request to John Adams, pleading for him to work on the case. Adams was already a leading Patriot and was contemplating a run for public office, but he agreed to help in the interest of ensuring a fair trial.
The trial of the eight soldiers opened on November 27, 1770. Adams told the jury to look beyond the fact that the soldiers were British. He referred to the crowd that had provoked the soldiers as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack Tarrs” (sailors). He then stated, “And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them. The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers.”
Adams also described the former slave Crispus Attucks, saying “his very look was enough to terrify any person” and that “with one hand [he] took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down.” However, two witnesses contradict this statement, testifying that Attucks was 12–15 feet away from the soldiers when they began firing, too far away to take hold of a bayonet. Adams stated that it was Attucks’ behavior that, “in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.” He argued that the soldiers had the legal right to fight back against the mob and so were innocent. If they were provoked but not endangered, he argued, they were at most guilty of manslaughter. Farah Peterson, of The American Scholar, states that Adams’ speeches during the trial show that his strategy “was to convince the jury that his clients had only killed a black man and his cronies, and that they didn’t deserve to hang for it.”
The jury agreed with Adams’ arguments and acquitted six of the soldiers after 2½ hours of deliberation. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter because there was overwhelming evidence that they had fired directly into the crowd. The jury’s decisions suggest that they believed that the soldiers had felt threatened by the crowd but should have delayed firing. The convicted soldiers were granted reduced sentences by pleading benefit of clergy, which reduced their punishment from a death sentence to branding of the thumb in open court.
The four civilians were tried on December 13. The principal prosecution witness was a servant of one of the accused who made claims that were easily rebutted by defense witnesses. They were all acquitted, and the servant was eventually convicted of perjury, whipped, and banished from the province
The Boston Massacre is considered one of the most significant events that turned colonial sentiment against King George III and British Parliamentary authority. John Adams wrote that the “foundation of American independence was laid” on March 5, 1770, and Samuel Adams and other Patriots used annual commemorations (Massacre Day) to encourage public sentiment toward independence. Christopher Monk was the boy who was wounded in the attack and died in 1780, and his memory was honored as a reminder of British hostility.
Later events such as the Gaspee Affair and the Boston Tea Party further illustrated the crumbling relationship between Britain and its colonies. While five years passed between the massacre and outright war, it is widely perceived as a significant event leading to the violent rebellion that followed. Howard Zinn argues that Boston was full of “class anger”. He reports that the Boston Gazette published in 1763 that “a few persons in power” were promoting political projects “for keeping the people poor in order to make them humble.
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