In the years preceding the American Revolution, tensions in the colony of Massachusetts, and especially in the city of Boston, had been growing. Boston was one of the main shipping ports for the British into the American colonies and because of that, was the hub of resistance against unfair British taxation on the colonists imposed by the British Parliament in the 1760s. The tensions boiled to the surface on March 5, 1770, in front of what became the old state house, when British troops fired on American colonists killing five in an event that would be known as the Boston Massacre. 

In 1768, the Townshend Acts, which, after the “Stamp Act” began the era of “Taxation Without Representation” were enacted upon the American colonies. Many of the common items that were manufactured in Britain and exported to the colonies were subjected to import tariffs. Colonists objected that the Townshend Acts were a violation of the natural, charter, and constitutional rights of British subjects in the colonies. And that was just the beginning.

The colonists called for action and the Massachusetts House of Representatives drafted a document called the “Massachusetts Circular Letter” and sent a letter directly to King George wherein they demanded that parliament rescind the Townshend Acts. The letter was sent to the other colonial assemblies asking them to join in boycotting any British merchants who imported these goods.

Lord Hillsborough, the new colonial secretary for the British Parliament in London, directed the colonial governors to order all colonial assemblies to dissolve if they answered the Massachusetts Circular Letter. He also ordered the Massachusetts House to rescind the letter through Governor Francis Bernard. The Massachusetts House refused.

The British then sent the HMS Romney, a 50-gun warship, into Boston Harbor as a show of force. Tensions increased when the sailors began impressing colonist sailors into naval service and then seized the merchant ship “Liberty” a sloop belonging to John Hancock who was accused of smuggling.

In late February, a mob of Bostonians attacked a store owned by a British loyalist. Another loyalist, Ebeneezer Richardson, a Customs officer, fired a weapon through his window to disperse the crowd. But his shot hit and killed an 11-year old boy named Christopher Seider, which further electrified the situation.

Bostonians were close to rioting, which concerned British officials to the extent that they retreated to Castle William and called for the army to protect them. General Gage was dispatched to send “such Force as […] necessary to Boston” to quell the rioting. He sent four regiments of infantry in Boston. Two were later withdrawn but the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot stayed and were quartered in the town.

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The billeting of British soldiers in Boston was a further insult to the colonists. Tensions continued to simmer under the surface until the cold March night of March 5, 1770, when an innocuous interaction began a deadly series of events.

As was customary, a British soldier was standing on guard duty outside the Custom-house on King Street, which today is known as State Street. That day, the soldier was Private Hugh White was alone. Then a young wigmaker’s apprentice named Edward Garrick recognized a British officer and yelled to him in the street that he hadn’t paid his bill to Garrick’s boss (which was incorrect). But that brief interaction ignited the events that were to follow.

Private White yelled at Garrick to show more respect to an officer of the Crown. The two men began hurling insults at one another. Garrick began to poke White in the chest with his finger while continuing to insult the soldier. White then butt-stroked Garrick on the side of his head with a musket. This brought out even more colonists.

The growing crowd included a 19-year old bookseller named Henry Knox who would later become a general in the colonial army under General George Washington. The crowd was becoming more threatening and then someone began ringing church bells, which usually warned citizens of a fire. The crowd had swelled to 50.

The now unruly mob was led by Crispus Attucks, a free black man. It pelted White with snowballs and insults and he retreated to a somewhat safer but still exposed position on the steps of the Custom House. Sensing imminent danger, White called for assistance. Captain Thomas Preston, commander of the guard watch, sent a non-commissioned officer and six enlisted men, Corporal William Wemms, Hugh Montgomery, John Carroll, William McCauley, William Warren, and Matthew Kilroy to assist and if need be protect Private White and the Custom House.

The crowd had now swelled to 300-400 townspeople and grew even more threatening. The soldiers formed a semi-circle around the steps of the Custom House and loaded their weapons. Henry Knox, sensing the inherent danger present, begged Preston to diffuse the situation. Preston said he was aware of it and ordered the crowd to disperse.

But the colonists, foolishly believing that their numbers protected them, grew emboldened, and many began to arm themselves with sticks. Among the snowballs, rocks also began being thrown at the British soldiers. One object knocked  Private Hugh Montgomery down and caused him to drop his musket. He recovered his weapon, and upon standing, panicked and despite no order given to fire, discharged his weapon into the crowd. A colonist swung a cudgel at Montgomery hitting him on his arm and then swung wildly at Preston, narrowly missing the captain’s head and hitting his arm.

The rest of the British troops, who were outnumbered 50-1, panicked as well. Seconds later, a series of shots, not a volley, rang out on the streets of Boston. Despite the fact that Preston never gave the order to fire, in the volley that followed at close range, three colonists died instantly. Ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks went down in the street. In the back of the mob, an unlucky 17-year old ivory turner apprentice named Samuel Maverick was struck by a ricocheting musket ball and died a few hours later. Another wounded man, Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, lingered for two weeks before succumbing to his injuries. 

On this day in history: The Boston Massacre

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Captain Preston immediately called out for reinforcements and the majority of the 29th Regiment of Foot surrounded the Custom House to restore order. The mob had swelled further but had retreated a block or two from the Custom House. Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson spoke from the balcony and somewhat calmed the situation. He assured the colonists that there would be an inquiry into the events.

In the aftermath of the violence, both sides produced propaganda pieces supporting their side of the story thus further inflaming passions. Colonists were further moved to action by Paul Revere’s illustration of the events, yet his illustration was inflammatory and more propaganda than truth. In it, Revere showed the British troops on-line and firing under the command of their officer. When in fact the soldiers fired in absence of orders and haphazardly, not in unison.

Eight British soldiers, Captain Thomas Preston, were arrested and charged with manslaughter. Four civilians were also arrested.

In an effort to demonstrate the impartiality of colonial courts, and not to lose moderate support for the cause, two Patriot leaders (as opposed to Loyalist), John Adams, who later became the second president of the United States, and Josiah Quincy, volunteered to defend Captain Preston and his men. Preston had himself requested that Adams defend the British soldiers. Adams knew that the British soldiers could never receive an unbiased jury in Boston, and insisted that the jury consist of non-Bostonians.

Adams wrote about the Boston Massacre trial later:

“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.”

Adams presented a compelling case that the mob, not the British soldiers, had incited the Boston Massacre’s violence, calling them a “motley rabble” and claiming that the soldiers had rightly feared for their lives. The jury agreed and found six soldiers innocent; two were convicted of manslaughter because there was testimony that they had fired directly into the crowd. The punishment was reduced to branding their thumbs with an “M” for manslaughter (a common punishment in that era) in open court.

Preston was tried separately and acquitted as there was clear evidence that he never gave the order to open fire on the colonists. Preston wrote about the bloody incident later saying, “None of them was a hero. The victims were troublemakers who got more than they deserved. The soldiers were professionals… who shouldn’t have panicked. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”

The four civilians were also tried separately in December of 1770 and also acquitted. But by then, public interest in the Boston Massacre had waned and no one wanted to continue the trial any further.

The Boston Massacre was one of the most important events that led to the American Revolution against the British. Both John and Samuel Adams wrote that the events of March 5, 1770, coupled with the Boston Tea Party, would vault America into a state of Revolution against the British. However, it wouldn’t be until five years later, in April 1775, just outside of Boston in the two tiny villages of Lexington and Concord, where the colonists would be drawn into open warfare against the British.

Today in Boston, there is a circular disk several yards in front of the old statehouse to denote the place where the Boston Massacre took place.

Coincidentally, six years to the day of the Boston Massacre, the British would have to evacuate Boston after George Washington made a brilliant maneuver and moved artillery into the town at Dorchester Heights, threatening the British position. Boston was spared without a shot being fired.