The Boston Massacre


boston massacre
Detail from Paul Revere’s famous engraving ‘The Bloody Massacre in King Street’

In the mid-1760s the tensions between the American colonies and the British parliament were mainly politically motivated. Through small but active groups of agitators, such as the Sons of Liberty, the revolution was given a new motivating factor in some cities: the presence of troops. There had always been some British troops in American cities, either in transit to war zones or the frontier or on recreational leave; the French and Indian War had naturally increased the numbers of British soldiers in Boston, New York and other key harbour cities. The end of this war, however, did not result in a major clearance of regular soldiers from the cities: their numbers remained irregularly high while the British parliament worked on policy to control the new western territories and enforce trade customs and regulations. The presence of these soldiers was inconvenient for colonists in the cities and an affront to the radicals. The presence of standing armies in cities in peacetime was uncommon: regular soldiers were usually only stationed in cities for defence … or to deal with imminent rebellion.


Having English soldiers in Boston was consequently viewed by some as an insult or an imposition on their liberty. The radicals even hinted that it might be part of a build-up in preparation for military oppression of the colonies; at the least it might be a scare tactic. Other factors also exacerbated this delicate situation. The Quartering Act of 1765 was the first of two such acts (the second one of the Coercive Acts of 1774) that required colonial governments and citizens to contribute to sheltering and supplying British soldiers, where adequate barracks were not available. Not only would the colonies have to tolerate the presence of troops, they would have to pay for them as well. Some responded defiantly: in New York, the local assembly refused to comply with the obligations of the Quartering Act on principle, leading parliament in London to temporarily suspend the business of the assembly until these were met (the first coercive measure against an American colonial assembly).

“Anti-British opinion was inflamed with broadsides and pamphlets, such as ‘A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston’, first published in 1770 by a partisan committee chaired by James Bidden… The document included eye-witness interviews of military men, citizens and others, who testified about their experiences on that day … Coverage of the “massacre’ had little impact in the American colonies outside Massachusetts, but for many years after it was commemorated on its anniversary.”
Martin Manning, historian

It was in Boston, however, where the most public opposition to British military garrisons would occur. The people of Boston had been hostile to the soldiers for some time, and not always for political or ideological reasons: the soldiers often competed with the lower-classes for part-time work, behaved in a disorderly manner in taverns and occasionally clashed with rowdy mobs of zealous Bostonians (usually bands of drunken sailors, or Sons of Liberty chapters). The impressment of Boston citizens by the Royal Navy also stirred their opposition to the military. As revolutionary tensions increased after the Stamp Act and Townshend duties, the relationship between common Bostonians and British regulars worsened. Gangs of bored workers, belligerent sailors and Sons of Liberty would circulate and taunt the British, calling the soldiers ‘lobsterbacks’ and worse; these groups were often whipped up and spurred on by Samuel Adams’ rhetoric and John Hancock’s rum.

In March 1770 one of these gangs focused their attentions on a lone British sentry in King Street, prompting other soldiers to leave their barracks to offer support. Abuse was exchanged, snowballs and rocks thrown, and scenes of disorder and confusion followed. Amid the chaos an unknown figure fired a shot, leading several soldiers to believe that the order to fire had been given. The soldiers, in no formation and under no orders from their superiors, fired upon the Bostonians, killing three and fatally wounding two more. It was a tragic scene caused by a hostile mob and nervous soldiers, a theory supported by the outcome of the trial of Captain Preston, the highest ranking British officer on the scene, who was acquitted of murder. Defending the soldiers, key revolutionary figure John Adams assigned blame to the violent rabble of ‘saucy boys’ rather than the soldiers… and he was at least partly right.

For the radicals looking to propel the revolution forward, the truth was not going to get in the way. The events of March 1770 were labelled the ‘Boston Massacre’ or ‘the Bloody Massacre of King Street’; rumours were circulated that it was an intentional act, sanctioned by royal officials, and that more of the same was planned for other colonial cities who dared resist a military presence. Most effectively, leading propagandist Paul Revere created a colourful but wildly exaggerated engraving that suggested a coordinated assault on harmless citizens. Revere circulated his engravings around Massachusetts, making a small profit. The ideas it contained were apparent to all, even the uninformed and the illiterate: British military oppression had taken hold of Boston. Coming on the tensions of the 1760s these ideas, though they had little foundation in truth, found a willing market.


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