By Clifford Olsen
Vol. 114, No. 3, pp. 16-17
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 Colonies. The viewpoint of the British and Loyalists is presented on pages 18-19.
The Jurors for the said Lord the King, upon their oath present, that Thomas Preston, Esq. William Wemms, labourer, James Hartegan, labourer, William McCauley, labourer, Hugh White, labourer, Matthew Killroy, labourer, William Warren, labourer, John Carrol, labourer, and Hugh Montgomery, labourer, all now resident in Boston, in the County of Suffolk, and Hammond Green, boat builder, Thomas Greenwood, labourer, Edward Manwaring, Esq. and John Munroe, gentleman, all of Boston aforesaid, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil and their own wicked hearts, did, on the fifth day of this instant March, at Boston aforesaid, within the county aforesaid, with force and arms, feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought, assault.”1 So stated their indictment for murder, referring to an incident on King Street most of us know as the Boston Massacre.
As we ready for the 250th anniversary of the founding of America, we remember the day resident British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Colonists. As with most events of life, there were two major points of view — one by the British and one by the Americans.
Views of the Colonies
The armed action by the British was expected; in fact, it was predicted by Benjamin Franklin, the agent in London for the Pennsylvania Assembly and the King’s Deputy Postmaster General of America. In his testimony before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, Franklin testified regarding the Stamp Act, being asked, “Can any thing less than a military force carry the stamp-act into execution?” Franklin responded, “I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose,” then went on to say, “Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”
And make a rebellion they did. Franklin went on to explain that the Colonists paid a considerable amount of taxes for the French and Indian War. The Colonies raised, clothed and paid, during the last war, nearly 25,000 men and spent many millions. Pennsylvania enacted taxes to pay the debt by 1772.
The Stamp Act, followed by other British Acts, brought out the cry of “Taxation without Representation.” Franklin explained that the Pennsylvania Assembly could levy taxes where Parliament could not, stating, “They understand it thus; by the same charter, and otherwise, they are intitled to all the privileges and liberties of Englishmen; they find in the great charters, and the petition and declaration of rights, that one of the privileges of English subjects is, that they are not to be taxed but by their common consent; they have therefore relied upon it, from the first settlement of the province, that the parliament never would, nor could, by colour of that clause in the charter, assume a right of taxing them, till it had qualified itself to exercise such right, by admitting representatives from the people to be taxed, who ought to make a part of that common consent.”2 The American Colonies were not and would not be represented in Parliament.
The Stamp Act was repealed but was followed up with other taxes that the Americans found improper for the same reasons. With the Stamp Act repeal by Parliament, they passed the American Colonies Act of 1766, which basically said that Parliament had the same authority over the American Colonies as it did over Britain. The Townshend Acts, 1767, put tariffs on imported British goods, leading to nonimportation agreements boycotting British goods and starting the manufacture of formerly imported goods in America. With the Townshend Acts, the Massachusetts General Court (the Colony legislature) issued a circular letter saying it was unconstitutional. Governor Francis Bernard dissolved the body, leading to citizen unrest.
With the Quartering Acts, and orders that the soldiers should be in the town of Boston, there were arguments for months on housing all the soldiers before they came to Boston. The British sent two regiments to Boston to enforce the measures in October 1768. With regiments normally having about a thousand men, and the white male population over 16 in Boston being just under 3,000 individuals,3 there was one Redcoat for every one and a half adult white men. What was the purpose of sending the troops and quartering them among the townsfolk during peacetime? The tariffs were what we call “Mr. Greed!” Troops were there to try to enforce Parliament’s oppressive tariffs that were not voted on by the representatives of the citizens. It was not on all British citizens, just the ones residing in the American Colonies, regarded by Parliament as their “second-class” subjects. The British housed their soldiers among the Americans, disbanding the local governments and squashing the American spirit, while saying they were there to help support the laws, the government and their British heritage. It was as Franklin had predicted. All of this led up to the events of March 5, 1770, 250 years ago.
“It was not expected however, that such an outrage and massacre, as happened here on the evening of the 5th instant, would have been, perpetrated. There were then killed and wounded, by a discharge of musquetry, eleven of his Majesty’s subjects, viz. “Mr. Samuel Gray, killed on the spot, by a ball entering his head. Crispus Attucks, a molatto, killed on the spot, two balls entering his breast. Mr. James Caldwell, killed on the spot, by two balls entering his back.
Mr. Samuel Maverick, a youth of seventeen years of age, mortally wounded: he died the next morning. Mr. Patrick Carr mortally wounded: he died the 14th instant. Christopher Monk and John Clark, youths about seventeen years of age, dangerously wounded. It is apprehended they will die. Mr. Edward Payne, merchant, standing at his door, wounded. Messrs. John Green, Robert Patterson, and David Parker, all dangerously wounded.”4
A letter dated March 27, 1770, from the Council to William Bollan (Agent for his Majesty’s Council) read, “The principal thing which we think necessary you should be informed of at this time, is the horrid Massacre which happened in Boston on the Evening of the 5th instant, when eleven of his Majesty’s Subjects were killed and wounded by a Party of Soldiers of the 29. Regt—their Leadear being Capt Preston. The Soldiers in general, and particularly of that Regiment have behaved with great Insolence and have committed many abuses upon the Inhabitants of the Town, for which it were to be wished that their Punishment had been adequate to their deserts.”5
A total of 125 depositions were taken, and several deponents mention shots also made from the customs house.
Henry Knox, a 19-year-old bookseller, swore in a deposition, “While I was talking with Capt. Preston, the soldiers of his detachment had attacked the people with their bayonets. There was not the least provocation given to Capt. Preston or his party, the backs of the people being towards them when they where attacked. During the time of the attack I frequently heard the words ‘damn your blood’ and such like expressions. When Capt. Preston saw his party engaged he directly left me, and went into the crowd and I departed.”6 Knox would become the chief of artillery and a major general during the Revolutionary War. Eight soldiers, one officer and four civilians were arrested.
Trying to let the situation cool off, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchison, the chief civil magistrate, worked to delay things. After seven months, a trial was held for the officer, Captain Preston, and then shortly afterward for the eight soldiers. Preston, defended by a team of lawyers headed up by John Adams, was acquitted after the weeklong trial. The soldiers’ trial, defended by Adams, would last nine days.
Following the verdicts on the soldiers, Lt. Gov. Hutchinson wrote to Gen. Thomas Gage, commander in chief of North America, “It is with pleasure that I embrace the first opportunity of advising you that yesterday towards evening the Jury gave in their Verdict and found Kilroy and Montgomery guilty of Manslaughter and acquitted the rest. I do not think there was sufficient ground for the Verdict as to the two. Kilroy is said to be a bad fellow and, the day before, had sworn that he would kill some of the people the first opportunity but this ought not to have been connected with the action for which he was charged. Montgomery fired the first Gun and it appears probable that he did it to save his own life.”7
The two British soldiers found guilty of manslaughter pleaded “benefit of clergy,” having their death sentences reduced to having their thumbs branded and then turned loose. As for the four civilians, their trial was on Dec. 12, and all were acquitted by the jury, without leaving their seats.8
Looking at the bigger picture, the Boston Massacre seems to have been more an issue of the Quartering Act. There were 300,000 citizens in the American Colonies; the armed action by the British against the civilians stirred many to question their allegiances and was a public relations nightmare in all of the Colonies.
- Hodgson, John, The Trial of William Wemms… Boston, 1770, p.3.
- “Examination before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons, 13 February 1766,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019.
- Benton, J.H. Jr., Early Census Making in Massachusetts, 1643-1765, Boston, 1905, p. 74.
- Bowdoin, James; Warren, Dr. Joseph; Pemberton, Samuel; A Committee of; A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Boston, 1770. p. 12-13.
- Adams, Randolph G., “New light on the Boston Massacre,” American Antiquarian Society, Oct, 1937, p.296.
- Bowdoin, Appendix p. 42.
- Ibid., p. 351-2.
- Hodgson, p. 217.