Portion of engraving by Paul Revere, 1770
“On that night, the foundation of American Independence was laid,” wrote John Adams. “Not the Battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis, were more important events in American history than the battle of King Street on the 5th of March, 1770.”
In front of the Custom House on King Street in Boston, British soldiers fired upon a group of colonists, killing three instantly and two later as a result of their wounds. There are varying accounts of what happened, but most people agree that the soldiers were provoked by a group of rowdy colonists, and that someone yelled “fire” – though no one knows who.
Before that night, tensions had been rising in Boston for some time. After the Stamp Act was repealed, Britain felt the need to show that it still had control over the colonies, so Parliament passed a series of acts known as the Townshend Acts. These laws were designed to tax the colonies on imports they could only get from Great Britain, such as glass, paper and tea. The British thought that since this was an external tax – unlike the Stamp Act, which was internal – the colonists would not object. This, of course, was not the case. John Dickinson wrote a series of letters titled “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” in which he outlined how many colonists wished not be taxed purely for revenue for the British empire.
On March 5, 1770, the Bostonians were fuming over taxes and constant surveillance by the British military, both of which had started two years prior. As a result, a small disagreement between a wigmaker apprentice and a soldier easily escalated to a small riot. Henry Knox, the future Secretary of War, was one of the first colonists on the scene, and told the soldier, Private Hugh White, that if he fired a shot, he will die.
Through the course of the day, a crowd of more than two hundred colonists came to the defense of the apprentice. White eventually felt unsafe enough to call for help. He sent a messenger to get Captain Thomas Preston and his battalion of seven troops as backup. Allegedly, the protestors became more violent, throwing objects at the soldiers and jeering at them. As the scene was becoming more and more chaotic, Preston did not make any orders, but someone yelled “fire,” leading the soldiers to shoot into the crowd.
When the dust cleared, three colonists were dead; two others died later as a result of their wounds. The first three were Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, and James Caldwell; the other two were Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr. Attucks is considered the most famous African American of the Revolutionary War and eventually became a symbol for the abolitionist movement.
After the Massacre, the soldiers were put on trial, represented by future President John Adams and Josiah Quincey. Adams and Quincey took up the defense in order to show the British that the colonies could conduct a fair trial. Most of the soldiers ended up being acquitted, including Thomas Preston, who was found innocent because he never ordered the shots. Two soldiers were found guilty for murder, and their hands were branded with “M” as their punishment.
The incident fueled the anger of colonists like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. They used the massacre as propaganda, recreating a Henry Pelham painting and distributing copies all over the Boston area in order to incite the public. Revere misrepresented the painting in such a way as to cast the British in a more negative light. The biggest misrepresentation was the depiction of each side. The Bostonians look scared and out of sorts, while the British looked as if they were carrying out a planned attack. Although accounts differ, there is agreement that the whole thing was a mess, and that in no way were the British organized.
The British ended up withdrawing their troops from Boston and positioning them on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. While the Revolutionary War would not start for another six years, this first bloody encounter attracted more attention to radical groups like the Sons of Liberty and set the war in motion.
Fun fact: The Boston Massacre is reenacted every year in front of the Massachusetts Old State House on March 5.
Chris Calabrese is an intern at the National Constitution Center. He is also a recent graduate of St. Joseph’s University.
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