The Boston Massacre – Snow and Gunpowder – Extra History


Boston 1770, a frigid winter night. Sounds of a fight echo on King Street. A British sentry strikes a local citizen, and other citizens begin to gather. Reinforcements arrive to back up the young sentry. Then, someone rings the fire bell, drawing more people out into the streets. The crowd shouts insults. They throw snowballs and sharp hunks of ice. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the soldiers fix bayonets. Their breath mists the air. Everything is chaos, noise, and flying ice. Then, out of the darkness comes a shout: Fire! In the 17th century, England sent out ships to colonize America. But they weren’t the only ones. The Dutch, Swedish, and French also made claims on the continent, and in the 18th century, England fought a series of costly wars to protect their overseas conquest. But defending all those colonies—and colonists—cost money. A lot of money. So in a bid to balance the books, British leadership decided that the colonists should help pay the cost of their defense. The American colonists were not pleased, and though each of the thirteen colonies had different lifestyles and customs, their leading inhabitants all began to unite in their displeasure at their faraway governments. Then, in 1765, the government imposed the Stamp Act, requiring colonial paper goods to be printed on sheets made in London, and marked with a special stamp. This included things like newspapers, playing cards, and legal documents. In other words, it hit the most influential people in American society: newspaper owners, lawyers, tavern keepers, and merchants. In addition, Parliament had bypassed colonial legal systems and directly levied many taxes on the colonists. This arguably violated the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which stated that levying taxes without the assent of Parliament was illegal. And though parliamentary representation for the colonies had been discussed, no one had ever worked out a plan that satisfied both the colonists and Parliament. As a result, cries of “No Taxation without Representation!” rang through the colonies. There was little real agreement, but many colonists found common ground in resisting the idea that Americans should pay for a war that Britain had fought for its own benefit. The government, on the other hand, saw the colonists as spoiled. Even with the new levies, they had lower taxes than most Englishmen at home and, frequently, more rights. Not to mention, The Seven Years War had been fought to defend the colonists’ land, for Pete’s sake. So Parliament ignored the protests, passed more taxes, and sent troops to protect its officials and enforce the new laws, forcing the colonists to pay for housing and feeding them. Soon, resentment boiled between the colonists and soldiers, and in late February, a mob gathered outside a customs officials house, and began throwing stones through his windows. The official fired a pistol at the crowd and fatally wounded an 11-year old boy. Two thousand people attended the funeral. Then, on March 2nd, 1770, a group of British soldiers passed some local workers. The soldiers had been there several months, and after the mass funeral, tensions are at a peak. One of the workers insults a soldier, who responds by striking him with his musket. A fight breaks out, quickly spiraling into a riot as many more workers and soldiers pile in. Outnumbered, the soldiers retreat to jeers. It’s a prelude. Three days later, a wig maker’s apprentice taunts a British officer. A private standing outside of the Customs House calls out that the apprentice should be more respectful. They exchange insults. The apprentice pokes the officer in the chest, and the private loses his patience and clubs the apprentice with his musket stock. The blow draws a crowd and the situation deteriorates. Someone rings the church bell, signaling fire. Civilians, confused, pour into the streets. Fifty Bostonians, led by Crispus Attucks, a free man of African and Native American heritage, press around the private. He retreats to the steps of the Customs House, calling for help. Seven soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston, come to his aid. They push their way through the crowd and form a semicircle on the steps, muskets loaded and bayonets fixed. They’re surrounded by several hundred people, some armed with ropemaker’s clubs. The crowd throws snowballs, ice, and razor-sharp oyster shells. They chant: “Fire!” “Fire!” “Fire!” A merchant, Richard Palmer, asks Preston if he intends to order his men to shoot. Preston replies that he will not. After all, would he order them to shoot while he’s standing in the front, in the line of fire? Just then, from the darkness behind the soldiers, Someone shouts “Fire!” At that same moment, something strikes one of the soldiers, knocking him down. When he rises, he fires. The others fire a ragged volley, one at a time. Preston shouts for them to halt. The soldiers comply, confused. Hadn’t he given the order? With dawning horror, they realize what’s happened. Three civilians, including Attucks, lay dead in the snow. Two more will die that night. The injured cluster around the Customs House steps. The crowd surges away, but continues to gather in nearby streets. Reinforcements arrive, along with the governor. Enraged citizens force him inside the Statehouse, and from the balcony, he promises that, if they disperse, there will be a proper inquiry and trial. Appeased, the crowd begins to break up. The next morning, Captain Preston and eight other soldiers are arrested. Despite the tragedy, they insist that what transpired was not a willful act of murder. They’d been outnumbered, threatened, and assaulted for hours, but public opinion didn’t care. In the weeks following the massacre, British loyalists and Boston radicals fought a propaganda war. Paul Revere published an engraving showing the soldiers firing a coordinated volley into a peaceful, unarmed crowd. Both sides told vastly different stories of what took place. Loyalists insisted the citizens were to blame for refusing to follow British laws, and Radicals insisted the massacre was an intentional, unprovoked attack designed to quell the spirit of Liberty. Clashes continued between the citizens of Boston and British troops, and eventually, the British withdrew the entire 29th regiment from Boston in order to keep the peace. The governor postponed the trial until things calmed down, and in that lull, Boston had to decide: what would they do with the soldiers? What could justice look like, and who would possibly take their case? They found their salvation in John Adams. Although an outspoken opponent of the Stamp Act, Adams was also dedicated to impartial enforcement of the law and presumption of innocence for the accused. Adams seemed perfect. His public opposition of the taxes meant no one could accuse him of being a rabid loyalist, but his dedication to legal impartiality meant he might be willing to take the case though it wasn’t really an appealing deal for him. Taking the case would not only make him unpopular, it would also risk his legal practice. But Adams believed every person deserved a defense, so, he agreed to head the defense team. The day of the trial, Preston and his soldiers stand in a courtroom, packed floor-to-ceiling. Adams encourages the jury to look beyond their prejudice and recognize that these men, outnumbered by an angry mob, had a right to self-defense. If he could prove that they’d been provoked, then they were guilty of manslaughter, not murder. The first witness takes the stand. Adams gets him to admit that he had carried a sword that night, planning to decapitate the soldiers. Other witnesses testify about the violent provocations the soldiers endured. A prosecution witness claims he saw Preston give an order to fire while standing behind his men, but Adams produces testimony from a witness who had had his hand on Preston’s shoulder when the shooting started. That witness swears Preston never gave an order and was standing in front of the soldiers. Two more witnesses swear the shout of “Fire!” did not come from Preston. Testimony is over. Time for closing remarks. Adams shuffles his papers, takes a deep breath, and addresses the jury. “I will enlarge no more on the evidence,” he says. “But submit it to you, gentlemen, facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence, nor is the law less stable than the fact. If an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear; they had right to kill in their own defense.” Adams had made a persuasive case, but, was it enough to overcome the anger, however justified, of his fellow colonists? The jury deliberates for two and a half hours. At stake is not only the soldiers lives, but Adams’ reputation. Finally, they deliver their verdict: Not Guilty. Captain Preston and six of his soldiers would be acquitted. Two were convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and branded on the thumb with an M. If they broke the law again, the mark would ensure a harsher sentence. The Revolution was still years away, but the Boston Massacre had helped turn colonial sentiment against King George the Third, the Government’s tax policy, and the British army. In the wake of the trial, Adams’ legal business took a major hit, but his involvement in the case, and his newfound reputation of impartiality, along with his skills as an orator, made him an appealing voice in Revolutionary circles. After all, if even a fair-minded man like Adams believed in the revolution, surely it wasn’t so radical. Adams went on to be a delegate at the Colonial Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. During the war, he served as a diplomat, helping gain naval support from France and negotiating the eventual peace treaty with Britain. And in the 1780s, while minister to Great Britain, he noticed a familiar face on the streets of London, Captain Thomas Preston. These two men passing on the street had helped ignite a revolution. Two men, now from different nations, linked by one event: The Boston Massacre.

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