January 3, 2012 essays

The Boston Massacre

Smith continues his look at the events leading up to the American Revolution by telling the story of the Boston Massacre.

Events in Boston were getting out of hand. On June 10, 1768, the Liberty, a sloop owned by John Hancock, was seized for illegally importing Madeira wine. (Hancock, a wealthy man, eventually accumulated around 500 indictments for smuggling.) Angry Bostonians responded by assaulting the customs officers. One of these officers, Benjamin Harrison, told the story:

We were pursued by the mob which by this time was increased to a great multitude. The onset was begun by throwing dirt at me, which was presently succeeded by volleys of stones, brickbats, sticks or anything else that came to hand. In this manner I ran the gauntlet of near 200 yards, my poor son following behind endeavoring to shelter his father by receiving the strokes of many of the stones, till at length he became equally an object of their resentment, was knocked down and then laid hold of by the legs, arms, and hair of his head, and in that manner dragged along in a most barbarous and cruel manner. 

I received a violent blow on the breast which had like to have brought me to the ground, and I verily believe if I had fallen, I should never have got up again, the people to all appearance being determined on blood and murder.

This incident convinced Commodore Hood of the Royal Navy that Boston was on the brink of revolt. Hood wrote to his superiors in London:

What has been so often foretold is now come to pass. The good people of Boston seem ready and ripe for open revolt, and nothing, it is imagined, can prevent it but immediate armed force.

General Gage, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America, was of a similar mind. He wrote to the government:

If a determined resolution is taken to enforce at all events a due submission to that dependence on the parent state, to which all Colonies have been subjected, you can not act with too much vigor. Quash this spirit at a blow, without too much regard to the expense, and it will prove economy in the end.

Rumors circulated of plans to garrison soldiers in Boston, and for once rumors had understated the case. Almost the entire British garrison stationed in Halifax (Nova Scotia) – around 700 soldiers – arrived in Boston in September 1768, and an additional 1000 soldiers were on their way from Ireland.

As British warships sailed into Boston Harbor, they lined up in a menacing battle formation, their broadsides facing the town. Bostonians were hostile but restrained. Local officials refused to provide quarters for the troops, so the British rented various buildings scattered throughout Boston. This was asking for trouble. The brutal punishments inflicted by British officers on common soldiers made desertions a constant threat; and now, without a central barracks or bivouac where the soldiers could be watched, they began deserting at an alarming rate – around seventy in the first two weeks alone.

Consequently, the British tried to seal off Boston to prevent their own troops from escaping. Sentinels were ordered to keep a sharp watch, and they faced hundreds of lashes if they let a deserter slip by. At night, sentinels challenged passers-by, who were supposed to respond by shouting “Friend!” Few Bostonians were willing to play this game, so tempers flared as civilians confronted soldiers.

Sam Adams was outraged by the military presence in his town:

When these sentinels call upon everyone who passes by, to know Who comes there?, as the phrase is, I take it to be in the highest degree impertinent, unless they can show a legal authority for doing so. There is something in it, which looks like the town was altogether under the government and control of the military power. And as long as the inhabitants are fully persuaded that this is not the case at present, and moreover hope and believe that it never will be, it has a natural tendency to irritate the minds of all who have a just sense of honor, and think they have the privilege of walking the streets without being controlled. 

The civil rights of Bostonians were in jeopardy. Some responded by affirming their right to bear arms in self-defense. One anonymous Bostonian declared:

It is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves to keep arms for their own defense, and it is to be made use of when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain the violence of government.

Bostonians were getting touchy, to say the least, but they had reason to cheer on August 1, 1769, when Governor Bernard sailed for England, never to return. Bostonians were not exactly sorry to see the Governor go, as they indicated by posting broadsides with this farewell poem:

Go, Bernard, thou minion! To thy country go,
For Boston, loud proclaims you freedom’s foe.
Go on, ye pilferer, with all the rage
That half-starved spaniels for a bone engage.
Go join in concert with the croaking frogs,
Or howl in chorus with a pack of dogs;
With monkeys go and chatter on a stage,
Or turn a mastiff and each cur engage.
Better, do worse! Turn panderer, pimp, or slave,
Turn highwayman, turn murderer, or knave.

The military occupation of Boston caused many problems and solved none. By the summer of 1769, this was apparent even to General Gage:

The people were as lawless and licentious after the troops arrived as they were before. They were there contrary to the wishes of the Council, Assembly, Magistrates, and People, and seemed only offered to abuse and ruin.

Two regiments were withdrawn from Boston, but two remained. Scuffles between soldiers and civilians become more frequent, and tragedy struck on the evening of March 5, 1770. A scuffle escalated and ended in the death of five Bostonians. 

Eyewitnesses gave conflicting accounts of the Boston Massacre (as Americans dramatically called it), but the subsequent trial spoke well for American justice. The British officer in charge, Captain Preston, was defended by John Adams and acquitted by an American jury. 

Sam Adams (a distant cousin of John Adams) disagreed with the verdict, but he believed there was a more important issue involved. Incidents like the Boston Massacre were bound to occur whenever soldiers were garrisoned with civilians.

Bostonians wanted the soldiers out of Boston. Thomas Hutchinson, the acting governor, partially complied. He withdrew one of the two remaining regiments to Castle William in Boston Harbor. This wasn’t good enough for the Americans, however, so Sam Adams paid a visit to the Governor. If Hutchinson had the power to remove one regiment, Adams bluntly declared, then he had the power to remove the other regiment. Adams issued a thinly-veiled threat:

It is at your peril if you refuse. The meeting is composed of 3000 people. They are become impatient. A thousand men are already arrived in the neighborhood, and the whole country is in motion. Night is approaching. An immediate answer is expected. Both regiments or none.

Thomas Hutchinson capitulated to avoid “a perfect convulsion,” and Boston was spared additional violence. 

From 1771 to 1783, annual orations were given in Massachusetts to commemorate the Boston Massacre. These typically included condemnations of standing armies, i.e., professional armies maintained in peacetime. Opposition to standing armies had long been an important element of Radical Whig ideology – a political philosophy that animated the American resistance movement – and the Boston Massacre reinforced this traditional hostility. Consider this passage from the oration given in 1772 by Dr. Joseph Warren, a resistance leader who was later killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill:

Soldiers are taught to consider arms as the only arbiters by which every dispute is to be decided between contending states. They are instructed implicitly to obey their commanders, without inquiring into the justice of the cause they are engaged to support; hence it is, that they are ever to be dreaded as the ready engines of tyranny and oppression.

Most Americans regarded citizen militias, not standing armies, as the proper way to defend a free society. The Boston merchant John Hancock made this point in his 1774 memorial oration: 

Since standing armies are so hurtful to a state, perhaps my countrymen may demand some substitute, some other means of rendering us secure against the incursions of a foreign enemy. But can you be one moment at a loss? Will not a well disciplined militia afford you ample security against foreign foes? From a well regulated militia we have nothing to fear; their interest is the same with that of the state. They do not jeopardize their lives for a master who considers them only as the instruments of his ambition and whom they regard only as the daily dispenser of the scanty pittance of bread and water. No, they fight for their houses, their lands, for their wives, their children, for all who claim the tenderest names, and are held dearest in their hearts. They fight for their liberty, for themselves, and for their God.

Ironically, March 5, the day of the Boston Massacre, a tragedy rooted in American resistance to the Townshend Act, was also the day when a new Prime Minister, Lord North, opened debate in Parliament on revising the Townshend duties. English merchants had petitioned for repeal because they were smarting from an American boycott.

Three positions emerged during the parliamentary debates. Some members, believing that the Townshend duties cost more in lost business than they brought in, favored total repeal. Hardliners, on the other hand, opposed any changes whatsoever, arguing that any compromise would amount to a capitulation to American demands.  

Lord North favored a middle course. He wanted to repeal all the Townshend duties except the duty on tea. This duty, which was quite small, should remain as a symbol of British authority and thereby reaffirm the right of Parliament to tax the American colonies. 

Lord North got his way. On April 12, 1770, the Townshend duties on glass, paper, and paint were rescinded. Only the tax on tea was retained – a symbolic gesture that would later have profound and irreversible consequences.