Today in history, Mar. 5, 1770, a violent incident unfolded on Boston’s King Street, where an agitated group of colonists swarmed around a group of British regulars. This came to be known as the “Boston Massacre.”
After a group of Bostonians uttered insults, threw snowballs, and dared the British to fire, several soldiers ultimately fired into the crowd. While some colonists alleged that Captain Preston commanded ordered the soldiers to fire into the group, the soldiers claimed the action was taken upon a misinterpretation of Preston’s order not to fire.
Five Bostonians died, and six were seriously wounded, including a young boy. This incident did much to exacerbate tensions between the colonists and the crown. Firebrands such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere quickly branded the incident the “Boston Massacre,” and worked quickly to depict the even as an egregious assault against a peaceable people. In the court of public opinion, public unrest toward the British grew to an all-time high.
Future President John Adams accepted the case of Captain Preston and the British soldiers, providing a legal defense for the men in the face of murder charges. Adams believed the judgment of death for the soldiers would be intolerable, and hoped to prevent London from perceiving Bostonians as a lawless group of ruffians. Their rights as Englishmen, Adams thought, would be more likely to persist if the colonies did not resort to arbitrary punishments and violent reactions. At this point, Adams hoped to preserve good faith between the colonies and their mother country. While two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter (and branded on their hands), six were acquitted entirely.
Prior to the event, friction between the colonies and the crown were already apparent. In 1768, the Townshend Acts imposed taxes upon the colonies, which sparked widespread objections. In response to colonial indignation and obstruction of the taxes, Britain sent soldiers in hopes of assisting with the enforcement of the acts and to keep the peace – giving the appearance of a standing army, a hostile action under the British tradition. Boston’s most notorious Whig politicians saw things much differently – they declared the taxes contrary to England’s constitutional system, and believed the presence of British forces was indicative of a coercive attempt to establish forcible rule over the colonies.
Meanwhile, Paul Revere and Sam Adams stirred agitation by depicting the event as a slaughter. Viewing the acquittals as a severe injustice, they responded accordingly with a propaganda campaign that portrayed the event as a massacre. Additionally, they used the episode to initiate a boycott of British goods, which the two rallied support for over the coming months.
Many consider those who died in Boston became the first martyrs of the patriot cause and set the stage for future conflict between the colonies and Britain. Whatever one thinks about the culpability of this incident, it was an incredibly important event that turned colonial sentiment against the British crown. In many ways, it was a pivotal step on the road to independence.\
Dave Benner [website] speaks and writes on topics related to the United States Constitution, founding principles, and the early republic. Dave is also the author of Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution. See his blog archive here and his article archive here.