March, 1770: Boston Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On the night of March 5, 1770, a small crowd gathered around a soldier at the guard post in front of the Customs House at Boston, accusing him of striking a boy who had made disparaging remarks about a British officer. John Adams depicted the hecklers as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack tars.” The sentinel’s call for aid brought eight men from the Twenty-ninth Regiment and Captain Thomas Preston, officer of the day. The crowd increased, especially after someone rang the bell in the old Brick Meeting House; men and boys hurled snowballs and pieces of ice at the crimson-coated regulars and, with cries of “lobster,” “bloody-back,” and “coward,” taunted them to retaliate.

On the night of March 5, 1770, a small crowd gathered around a soldier at the guard post in front of the Customs House at Boston, accusing him of striking a boy who had made disparaging remarks about a British officer. John Adams depicted the hecklers as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack tars.” The sentinel’s call for aid brought eight men from the Twenty-ninth Regiment and Captain Thomas Preston, officer of the day. The crowd increased, especially after someone rang the bell in the old Brick Meeting House; men and boys hurled snowballs and pieces of ice at the crimson-coated regulars and, with cries of “lobster,” “bloody-back,” and “coward,” taunted them to retaliate.

The crowd’s hostility stemmed from more than this particular incident; it rested on a series of occurrences between the Bostonians and the military during the seventeen months that the troops had been garrisoned in the city. If possible, the townspeople had expressed even more antipathy for the Customs Commissioners, who that very evening gazed uneasily from the windows of the Customs House on the scene before them in King Street. They were the real source of the trouble; their cries for protection had brought troops to Boston in the first place.

The Americans were right about the role of the commissioners, but their version of what transpired shortly after nine o’clock on the evening of March 5 is highly questionable. Captain Preston probably did not order his nervous troops to fire into the angry throng, but fire they did after one of their number was clubbed on the head. Three Americans died instantly, two a short time later, and six more received wounds.

Crispus Attucks

The “Boston Massacre” may have been a misnomer, the result of extreme harassment of the redcoats, and triggered, according to John Adams, by an unprincipled mulatto, Crispus Attucks, “to whose mad behavior, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.”

Attucks, son of an African American father and a Massachuset Indian mother, was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, the first death in the cause of the American Revolution. Attucks’s father was a black slave in a Framington, Massachusetts, household until about 1750, when he escaped and became a sailor. Crispus’s mother lived in an Indian mission at Natick. Attucks was known around Boston as one of the Sons of Liberty’s most aggressive agitators. When the British claimed that he had provoked their soldiers, they may have been right. Attucks and Paul Revere were among the earliest Sons of Liberty, a clandestine society that agitated against the British by engaging in acts of propaganda and creative political mischief.

Patriot Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. (National Archives)

General Thomas Gage. (National Archives)

The Sons of Liberty tormented Tories and their supporters, often stripping, tarring, and feathering tax collectors, then walking free at the hands of sympathetic colonial juries. They later would form the nucleus of a revolutionary armed force, but in the early years, their main business was what a later generation would call “guerrilla theater.”

Americans elsewhere wondered whether their respective colonies would be the next to have a standing army in their midst, an army seemingly intent on destroying their liberties, not only by its presence but also by the use of fire and sword. At the time, however, Massachusetts had been singled out ostensibly because of the Customs Commissioners’ appeal for protection. Undoubtedly, another consideration made the decision to comply an easy one for London politicians: the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with its spirited opposition to the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Revenue Act (1767), had long been viewed as a hotbed of sedition.

The conduct of His Majesty’s revenue collectors had incited colonial opposition. They were considered by many to be “customs racketeers,” a lecherous band who played fast and loose with the complicated provisions of the Sugar Act (1764) in order to win, in Vice-Admiralty Courts, judgments that lined their own pockets. This was substantially the opinion of New Hampshire’s Governor Benning Wentworth, and the British commander in chief in North America, General Thomas Gage, admitted almost as much to the secretary of state for the colonies, Wills Hill, earl of Hillsborough and marquis of Downshire. Nevertheless, the secretary of state ordered the general to dispatch regulars to the Massachusetts capital.

Gage’s troops met no resistance when they landed on October 1, 1768. Despite the obvious displeasure of the populace, reflected in the town fathers’ reluctance to aid in securing quarters for the soldiers (soon increased by two additional regiments), there followed months of relative calm with no mob activity against either the redcoats or the customs collectors. Lord Hillsborough, however, was determined to deal harshly with Massachusetts, and had he been able to impose his will, Parliament would have wrought changes to equal or surpass in severity the Coercive Acts of 1774.

Because of troubles in Ireland, threats from France and Spain, and the colonial boycott of British goods in protest against the Townshend duties, the government rejected Hillsborough’s schemes and eventually repealed all the Townshend taxes except the one on tea. The employment of troops against civilians was ticklish business to George III and Englishmen in general, calling forth memories of Stuart days. The logical step was to remove all the troops, but two regiments remained in Boston.

Rising Tensions

Serious tension began to build in the late summer and fall of 1769, when Bostonians believed that the redcoats were becoming permanent residents. The soldiers were subjected to every form of legal harassment by local magistrates, to say nothing of mounting acts of violence against the men in uniform. The redcoats in the ranks, like all European soldiers of their day, were hardly of the highest character, often recruited from the slums and the gin mills, and stories of theft, assault, and rape by the regulars were not without considerable foundation. The culmination, foreseen by the army and townspeople alike, was the Boston Massacre. Only then were the last regiments pulled out of the city, leaving behind a legacy of fear and suspicion that was revived every succeeding March 5. “Massacre Day,” as it was called, was commemorated by the tolling of bells and a patriot address that stressed the danger of standing armies.

Tension in Boston rose again in 1773, due to another act of political mischief by the Sons of Liberty, who remembered the victims of the Boston Massacre at the Boston Tea Party. In 1888, a monument to Attucks was erected at the Boston Common.

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