By Guy Higgins
Vol. 114, No. 3, pp. 18-19
This installment of the 250th Series examines a critical event, the Boston Massacre, from two viewpoints. On pages 16-17, we see the viewpoint of the Colonialists. The viewpoint of the British and Loyalists is presented on pages 18-19.
Winston Churchill frequently is credited with coining the phrase, “History is written by the victors.” I don’t know if he did or not, but that phrase should be kept in mind when considering any historical event. As Americans, we know that the Boston Massacre was a “Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street in Boston” and that it was one of the most significant events leading to the American Revolution. But why do we know this? We know because Paul Revere’s engraving told us so, and then our American history courses in school told us the same. But was it a massacre that was perpetrated on the Americans?
Soldiers at this time were stationed in the Colonies to protect and support the Colonies’ officials implementing the unpopular taxes on the Colonists. Eight soldiers and one officer of the Twenty-ninth Regiment had been guarding the Custom-House on King Street when a mob of angry Colonists, who were upset about the unfair taxes imposed on them by King George III, began to rally around them. The altercation had begun with the Colonists verbally threatening the soldiers, but little by little, things worsened. The Colonists began to throw rocks and snowballs and were even taking swings at the soldiers with clubs. Without being given the order to do so, the soldiers began to fire their muskets into the crowd of Colonists, instantly killing three people in the mob and wounding eight others, two of whom were later pronounced dead. The five “victims transformed into the first martyrs of American independence.” The shooting became known as the Boston Massacre to all people in the Colonies and as the Incident on King Street to the people of Great Britain.1
After all the intervening years, the allegations and pronouncements made following the event deserve to be considered if the event is to be truly understood today. Were the Colonists in the crowd that day peaceful bystanders or a “mob?” If they were protesters (angry or not), what was the motivation of their protest (was it the allegedly “unfair taxes” or other, more local issues)? Is throwing rocks and snowballs or swinging clubs at soldiers doing their lawful duty conduct that is acceptable and should have been ignored by those soldiers, or was it provocative? If the soldiers were justified in responding to these “provocations,” was their use of deadly force justified? Did Captain Preston order the firing or not, and were these Colonists victims and martyrs or law-breakers who suffered for their own actions?
The British authorities, particularly Lt. Gov. Hutchinson, immediately began investigating the affair, and Captain Preston and his eight soldiers were arrested by the next morning.2 The 14th was transferred to Castle Island without incident about a week later, with the 29th following shortly after,3 leaving the governor without effective means to police the town.4 Both Captain Preston and his soldiers were tried in Massachusetts courts and, with two “minor” exceptions, were found innocent on all charges. Yet this was many months later,and the Sons of Liberty had already written the event’s “history” without reference to the courts’ findings.
While Massachusetts, and particularly Boston, was an early leader in the move toward independence, the Colony was not a monoculture. Certainly, there were many Colonists who would later come to be called “Loyalists” in Boston, and in other Colonies, who we may assume might have viewed this event somewhat differently. So, how did the Patriot view of the “massacre” become the view of history? First, we must consider that while Colonists made the hazardous trip across the Atlantic to America for many different reasons, many of those who colonized Massachusetts in its earliest days did so because of their opposition to the Crown due to what they saw as its religious persecution of their Puritan beliefs.5 Theirs was a philosophical position, and they wanted to found a new and better example of what a government could be and not just a replica of what it was in England at that time. With settlers such as these, we can speculate that even 130 years later, the descendants of these early immigrants may have felt less loyalty to the Crown and Parliament than many other Colonists. They still considered themselves to be Englishmen, but they had become a different breed of Englishman, with a more radical attitude—Were they becoming Americans? If the two perspectives are simplified— to either another example of British tyranny or a harsh, but justified, law enforcement action against violent rioters—we may accept that even in Boston, there were Colonists who were not yet ready to accept the “Boston Massacre” view.
From the founding dates of the 13 Colonies until the end of the French and Indian War (1763), each Colony had both strong economic ties to England and a reliance on England for their ultimate defense against the French and the various American Indian nations that threatened them. While a Colony’s militia might be able to defend themselves in the event of small conflicts (e.g., King Philip’s war [1675–1678]), larger conflicts (e.g., the Conquest of Acadia  or the French and Indian War [1754–1763]) might need the assistance of the British Army and the Royal Navy, and that assistance was available because these were British Colonies, a part of the burgeoning British Empire. However, the devastating defeat of the French and their Indian allies in the French and Indian War greatly reduced the fear of these traditional enemies in the 13 Colonies and their reliance on England for defense.
Just over four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War (Feb. 15, 1763), relations between England and many of her American Colonies were growing strained. On June 29, 1767, the British Parliament passed the Townsend Acts to impose additional taxes on the Colonies.6 The British insisted that the Colonies were represented by Parliament as all Britons were, and arguments can be made for both sides of this disagreement. By 1768, tensions had risen to the point that the Earl of Hillsborough, the new British secretary of state for the Colonies, instructed Gen. Thomas Gage to send four regiments to Boston to aid the customs officials there who had repeatedly complained that angry Bostonians were preventing them from carrying out their duties. These troops arrived on Oct. 1, 1768, and were met with a hostile reception. Most Bostonians believed that the customs duties that they were protecting were a suppression of their rights as Englishmen, and they also shared the traditional English fear of a standing army in peacetime. For these Bostonians, the British troops were more like invaders than protectors.
Harassment of the British troops became common for those loyal to the Patriot cause. They complained that the troops spent their time whoring, drinking and taking jobs from poor, unemployed Boston workers in the then-tight labor market. The stage was set for a violent confrontation, but these were local issues, not necessarily bound up in a desire for independence.
All agree that tensions finally reached their breaking point on March 5, 1770, at roughly 9 p.m. in Boston, and that three men died on the scene, with another two dying later. After that, accounts markedly differ, but the Patriot movement was the first to widely publicize their version of the event, through articles in the Boston newspapers, broadsheets, Revere’s famous engraving and a report of the Committee of the Town of Boston transmitted to Gov. Pownall, and for them it was the “Boston Massacre.”
Was this a massacre? First “conceived during the Middle Ages (around 1100) the word ‘massacre’ refers to the slaughterhouse and by extension to the killing of a great number of individuals … However, the growing of the massacre’s issue is part of a Western awareness vis-à-vis exactions committed against civilians, not least to condemn fratricidal wars between Christians …Henceforth, the word ‘massacre’ defines the killing of a great number of defenceless people, mostly civilians.”
So, depending on one’s political persuasion, one could view this as a massacre.
The British, or at least that portion of the British public who were not sympatric to the Patriot movement, and their Loyalist allies in America viewed it as a regrettable, but understandable, incident brought on by the actions of an unruly mob.
The earliest known “British” account of the incident was published in The London Chronicl , 1770, April 21–24 edition. In its headline, it reports:
The following authentic Account of a most alarming Transaction at Boston is just re-ceived. From the
Boston, March 15.
So, 50 days after the incident, the British public is beginning to be informed of a “most alarming Transaction” in one of the principal cities in their North American Colonies. But does this headline indicate rage at unruly Colonists or concern? Actually, this first article is a virtual quotation from the earlier article in The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, March 12, 1770. The British public was reliant on the news that they received from overseas, and this mainly took the form of newspapers that were published in the various Colonies, which were then republished in British newspapers. So, the first knowledge that the people of Great Britain had of the affair was from the Patriot movement’s perspective: the Boston newspaper article that described the British soldiers running amuck and committing massacre.
However, in their next edition, April 26-28, The London Chronicle reported the following:
“The following is a substance of a letter from Boston, dated the 12th of March, relative to the unhappy affair between the Townsmen and the Soldiers on the 5th of that month:
“For some time past frequent affrays have happened in the streets of this town between the inhabitants and the soldiers quartered there, and particularly on the 2nd and 3rd of March, in the evening, a number of the townspeople, after insulting in the barracks, attacked a sentry upon duty at the Customhouse, and forced him from his post. Upon his requiring aid, Captain Preston (who was the Captain of the day) sent a non-commissioned officer and 12 men to his assistance, and soon followed himself. This party was also attacked, and insulted by the mob, and one them receiving a blow, fired his piece, after which six or seven others fired, by which three of the townspeople were killed upon the spot and several others wounded; one of which is since dead of his wounds. During this transaction there was a great tumult in the town. The people prepared to arm; expresses had been sent to the neighboring towns for assistance; and a resolution taken to give a Gen. alarm, by firing the beacon; but by the persuasion of the Lieutenant Governor, the people were prevailed upon, after some time, to disperse; a barrel of tar, which was carrying to the beacon, was brought back, and the troops, which were under arms, retired to their barracks.”
While this London newspaper article cannot convey a complete understanding of the impressions that the event on King Street formed on the British/Loyalist side of the political divide, in an 18th century Britain that had almost 200 offenses that were punishable by a death sentence, it seems clear that those of that persuasion would not have seen the death of five rioters as a massacre.
If this were the end of this article, it is doubtful that many who have grown up with the “history” of the “Boston Massacre,” if any at all, would be persuaded of the British Loyalist position. But there is more! Captain Preston and his soldiers were brought to trial in Boston. Preston, the British officer in command at the event, was arrested after the shootings and charged with murder. As an officer, Preston received a separate trial from the other accused soldiers. The trial lasted from Oct. 24-30, 1770, and the future U.S. President John Adams successfully defended Captain Preston, who was “honorably acquitted” of the charges. The defense was able to prove that Preston did not give the order for the troops to fire.
Preston’s eight soldiers were also sent to trial, the longest in Colonial history. It was the first time a judge used the phrase “reasonable doubt.” And a Medieval relic, “the Benefit of Clergy,” was used by two soldiers who were convicted to escape the death penalty. But the massacre trials ended quietly. Samuel Adams wrote several articles in the Boston Gazette during December 1770, under the pseudonym “Vindex,” that accused the soldiers of escaping with blood on their hands. But the mood had changed in Boston since the massacre, and he turned his attentions to keeping the memory of the massacre alive, organizing annual commemorations on March 5, a tradition that lasted until 1783.
I’m not sure what my thoughts would have been, had I been alive in 1770. I like to think that I would have subscribed to the Patriot cause, but today I am a basically law-abiding man, and I dislike mob violence—so would I have? Having said that, today I can also say that the event became known as the Boston Massacre and that it lit the “long fuse” that led to the Revolution that, as horrible as it was for the Americans living at the time, gave us the country that we love today—so, “let us remember our obligations to our forefathers, who gave us our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, an independent Supreme Court and a nation of free men.”
- Zobel, Hiller B., “The Boston Massacre,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1970, p. 675.
- Zobel, “The Boston Massacre,” p. 205.
- York, “Rival Truths,” p. 161.
- Bailyn, “Ordeal,” p. 64.
- Betlock, Lynn, “New England’s Great Migration” New England Ancestors, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 22-24, New England Historic Genealogical Society, ASIN: B003N3E05M.
- The Boston Massacre Historical Society. “Historic Timeline,” retrieved here.