Paul Revere’s Engraving of the Boston Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Unhappy BOSTON! see thy Sons deplore,

Thy hallow’d Walks besmear’d with guiltless Gore: While faithless P—n and his savage Bands,

With murd’rous Rancour stretch their bloody Hands; Like fierce Barbarians grinning o’er their Prey, Approve the Carnage and enjoy the Day.”

Summary Overview

Paul Revere’s engraving and interpretation of the events of March 5, 1770, served to encourage the American colonists to continue to resist the taxes that had been imposed by the British colonial authorities. The event, which was in reality no more than a riot, was called the Boston Massacre by the Patriots. Revere’s engraving was reproduced in countless prints and distributed throughout the colonies, though there is no doubt that even without Revere’s work, the Boston Massacre would have become a rallying cry for the colonists, as five died and six were wounded by a volley from British troops guarding the neighboring customs house—the very symbol of British taxation—at the Old State House. But what set Revere’s engraving apart was the editorializing function that it played, allowing colonists in disparate locations to have a more visceral sense of what had occurred in Boston and thus relate more directly to the Patriot cause.

Defining Moment

On the night of March 5, 1770, a crowd of protesters against the Townshend duties—a series of taxes on imports of glass, paint, paper, lead, oil, and tea—was heckling British troops. Protests had been common since the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, and the continued presence of British troops in the city had kept the situation tense and the colonists on edge. Soon after the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767, customs officials in charge of collecting the taxes requested additional troops to protect them from the protests, which were becoming increasingly common and heated. Beginning in October 1768, over two thousand troops had been stationed in Boston in order to quickly respond to any threat of violence.

When violence broke out and the British troops fired on the small crowd that was throwing snowballs (though the British would say they were throwing rocks and ice), the five protesters who died became the first martyrs of the Patriot cause, largely thanks to the public relations efforts of Samuel Adams, a master at disseminating information, and Paul Revere, whose engraving, which was distributed throughout the colonies, portrayed the horror experienced at the hands of the British. Though many historians have argued about the accuracy and originality of Revere’s work, the effectiveness of it is beyond debate. Revere’s images and words successfully portrayed the British soldiers as an army lined up and under no threat, firing upon a defenseless crowd until four were killed and one mortally wounded.

No longer was the British response to be qualified as just the handiwork of an uncaring Parliament. The British soldiers and Crown officials, as representatives of King George III, were now seen as the enemy of liberty who not only imposed unfair taxes but also resorted to violence in order to enforce them. The Patriot cause and its resistance to unreasonable British rule would now take on a new momentum.

Author Biography

The son of a French Huguenot immigrant father, Paul Revere followed his father’s trade in becoming a silversmith in Boston. Upon the death of his father in 1754, Revere took over the silversmith business and became a master silversmith. He quickly branched out into other metalworking skills, including making replacement teeth, spectacles, surgical instruments, and engraved printing. It is this last trade that would give Revere what many scholars believe to be his most important role in the drama that was building during the decade leading up to the outbreak of revolution in the colonies.

After serving as an officer in the colonial artillery during the French and Indian War, Revere returned to Boston, married Sarah Orne, and built his silversmithing business. Before long, his silverworks were considered some of the best in the colonies, and his pieces graced the homes of the wealthy and common people alike. Many pieces survive today and give testimony to his skill as a silver worker and engraver.

However, when the Stamp Act crisis began in 1765, Revere took an interest in politics, which would do much to shape the rest of his life. He became an active member of two overtly political groups associated with Samuel Adams: the North End Caucus and the Sons of Liberty, both of which were instrumental in spreading the Patriot message before the start of the American Revolution. Revere devoted much of his time to assisting these groups and served as both an express rider (a courier), delivering messages to Sons of Liberty and Committee of Safety members as far away as New York and Philadelphia, and as an engraver of propaganda illustrations. When the Boston Massacre took place, it was natural for Revere to fulfill the role that he did. He was, by 1770, well versed in political rhetoric and opinion shaping. The technical skills that he used for engraving and that had made his business successful contributed to the Patriot cause. His work as both a rider and propagandist for the Sons of Liberty and Committee of Safety allowed him to oversee the print’s distribution to all corners of the American colonies.

As many scholars have pointed out, Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre was not entirely accurate, but accuracy was not his goal. Rather, the aim was to inflame the passions of the colonial public by sparking outrage at the British for their attack on unarmed Americans. By that standard, his work was a stunning success.

Document Analysis

In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, many colonists were proud to be British and to have defeated the hated French. Following the war, however, relations between colonists and the British government quickly soured when Britain seized control of the land that had been won from France and declared it off limits to future colonial settlement. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, which halted settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains, was largely ignored by settlers, but it served to further anger colonists who were growing weary of the Crown imposing seemingly unfair legislation and taxes.

Although Britain had won the war and as a result huge amounts of land, it had also incurred a huge national debt after waging a war on foreign soil, and Parliament believed that Americans were obligated to shoulder some of the responsibility for repayment. In the first of a series of efforts to repay Britain, Parliament passed the Sugar Act in 1764, which imposed a tax on sugar and other imported goods, and the Stamp Act in 1765, which required that most printed material be produced on paper embossed with a revenue stamp. The vehemence of the protests against these two actions set the stage for the next decade, which would see an escalation of tension between the colonists and the British government that would eventually bring about war. A committed core of colonial Americans would popularize and sensationalize the protests, violence, and British attempts at taxation, by distributing broadsides that spread Patriot propaganda and portrayed the British in the worst possible light, such as in the engraving produced by Paul Revere in response to the Boston Massacre.

Colonial Response to Taxation

The frequency and force of colonial protests in the wake of the Sugar and Stamp Acts began to transform these small rebellions into a more cohesive movement. In 1764, a group of forty men, in protest against the Sugar Act, stole the cargo of a ship in Rhode Island. The next year, groups of dissidents in Boston known as the Sons of Liberty helped shape periodic, disorganized violence into focused, organized protests; and in New York, the protests took the form of boycotts of British goods. The Sons of Liberty was a loose affiliation of colonial patriot groups that formed the first formal intercolonial organization of protesters. The movement, which began in New York City in January 1765, initiated correspondence with other groups in Boston, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia. Most members were middle or upper class, but the aim was to build a broad base of political support. This tended to manifest in massive protests that often devolved into violence. Although British officials widely suspected the group of plotting to overthrow the government, the Sons’ official aims were narrower: They focused specifically on organizing resistance to the Stamp Act. Indeed, they insisted on their loyalty to the king and stressed that they were upholding the British Constitution against the usurpation of royal officials. With the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, the movement dissolved, only to make a comeback when Britain passed further revenue acts to which the colonists took exception.

The intense colonial reactions to the Stamp Act caused the British government to rethink their methods of collecting taxes from America. After the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, Parliament immediately passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that the colonies were subject to any act of Parliament at any time and without any recourse. In 1767, Parliament passed a law suspending all power of the New York legislature following a vote disallowing a British tax on New York residents to pay and support British troops in the colony. Within three years, Parliament had gone from taxing external trade to taxing internal colonial commerce and finally to restricting the power of colonial legislatures. The British also sought to enforce the Navigation Acts of over a century before that restricted all trade with foreign powers because no tax was paid to Britain on such trade.

Also in 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, a series of laws intended to reduce Britain’s national debt. With the first of the Townshend Acts, the Revenue Act of 1767, Britain returned to an expanded policy of taxing imports into the colony, such as glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea. These acts also caused a reaction among the colonists, and by 1768 and 1769, the Sons of Liberty were once again leading organized boycotts of British goods in Boston. However, violent protests against British officials could not always be prevented or controlled. In 1766, a mob threw rocks at a customs official’s house in Maine at the same time as another group was stealing a smuggled cargo of sugar and rum that had been impounded earlier that day. Protests against government officials took place in the Connecticut towns of New Haven and New London and also in Providence, Rhode Island. Customs ships were attacked at Newport, Rhode Island, and in Providence. Demonstrations and riots were becoming increasingly common, leading to the request for troops to protect customs officials.

Increase in British Soldiers

In response to the growing trend of violence, Great Britain dispatched 1,700 troops to Boston in 1768. Tensions only grew. On February 22, 1770, for example, eleven-year-old Christopher Seider was part of a crowd protesting outside the home of British customs official Ebenezer Richardson. After stones were thrown, breaking windows in the home, Richardson fired a gun into the crowd, hitting and mortally wounding Seider.

The presence of the troops also caused much consternation among the city’s tradesmen who often competed for work with poorly paid British soldiers who sought outside work to supplement their income. One of the city’s most notable agitators against the British was a ropemaker by the name of Samuel Gray, who worked at John Gray’s Ropewalks. On March 2, 1770, the ropemakers were engaged in a number of clashes with British soldiers—particularly those of the 29th Regiment—because they did not like soldiers looking for jobs in their shops. In one altercation, British soldier Patrick Walker was badly beaten and cut, and as the conflict began to escalate, the workers called in friends from other shops, and the soldiers brought in more soldiers to back them up. In the days leading up to the Boston Massacre, there were at least two encounters between ropemakers and soldiers from the 29th Regiment.

Scholars believe that the Boston Massacre grew out of the tension brought on by a combination of events such as the earlier conflicts between colonists and soldiers, the general and growing resentment against British taxation, and the strain and hostility brought on by British soldiers occupying the city.

The Boston Massacre

British soldier Hugh White was among those guarding the customs house next to the city’s State House on the evening of March 5. When a wigmaker’s apprentice taunted a soldier and accused him of refusing to pay his bill, White demanded that the apprentice show respect toward the soldier. The two exchanged insults, and White then struck the young apprentice in the head with his musket. A crowd began to gather in front of the customs house, growing to several hundred after church bells were rung. In response, Captain Thomas Preston and six of his soldiers from the 29th Regiment arrived to support White. Tensions escalated, and the crowd began throwing snowballs, pieces of ice, and rocks. Someone—it is not clear who, although in Revere’s account it is Preston—yelled “fire,” and the soldiers began to shoot in different directions. Ropemaker Samuel Gray and two others were killed instantly; another died of his wounds the next morning, and a fifth after about two weeks. One of those killed was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and American Indian descent.

Once the violence ended, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson tried to calm the tensions by announcing that he would do all he could to bring justice if the crowd dispersed. Preston and eight of his soldiers were arrested. Patriot efforts began almost immediately to make effective use of the incident, and by the time Samuel Adams and Paul Revere had publicized the event throughout the colonies, it had become known as the Boston Massacre. Revere’s image did much to shape American perceptions of the event in depicting British troops shooting in a volley and at the specific instruction of Captain Preston. Preston, while he was imprisoned awaiting trial, wrote to friends back in England about the incident, and some of his letters were published in London newspapers. In his letters, Preston accused the Bostonians of provoking the event, with the ultimate goal of having the troops removed from the city.

Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre was not the first such image produced. Fellow Boston engraver Henry Pelham produced an engraving within the first days of the incident and then showed it to Revere. Revere soon created his own version of the incident, heavily basing it on Pelham’s, and was able to get his produced, distributed, and for sale to the public first. Pelham was understandably upset with Revere’s plagiarism, and he let the silversmith know of his displeasure in a note (York, Boston Massacre 31). Regardless, Revere, with his connections and as a courier with the Sons of Liberty, was able to get his engraving distributed throughout the colonies, and it was his image that would cement colonists in a common cause, because the Revere engraving gave them a common enemy.

The brief poem at the bottom of the Revere’s engraving gives detail in words to the sensational image portraying the event. In the first place, by calling it a “Bloody Massacre” perpetrated “by a party of the 29th REGT” Revere makes it clear who he sees—and wants the colonial public to see—as the aggressors. Then, using appropriately flowery language, Revere begins to tell the story of the British monsters killing the peaceful protestors. Noting that Boston’s “hallow’d Walks” are now “besmear’d with guiltless Gore,” and referring to the soldiers as “savage Bands, / With murd’rous Rancour,” there is no ambiguity in Revere’s vision. But, according to Revere, it can be hoped that those killed did not die in vain. He continues:

If scalding drops from Rage from Anguish Wrung

If speechless Sorrows lab’ring for a Tongue,

Or if a weeping World can ought appease

The plaintive Ghosts of Victims such as these;

The Patriot’s copious Tears for each are shed,

A glorious Tribute which embalms the Dead.

The Engraving as Propaganda

Clearly, Revere views the massacre as an event that requires vengeance, which should be at the hands of patriots who would use these deaths as motivation to throw off the oppressive presence of the soldiers. Finally, acknowledging that the British government would likely either remove the soldiers before the trial or stage the trial in such a way that the judge would not act impartially and would find the soldiers innocent, Revere notes that should this transpire, his “Keen Execrations on this Plate inscrib’d, / Shall reach a JUDGE who never can be brib’d.”

As a propaganda piece, Revere’s engraving is masterful. However, as an accurate record of the events that transpired on March 5, 1770, it falls short in a number of respects. First, Revere portrays the protestors as doing nothing to provoke the soldiers—no throwing of rocks, ice, sticks, or snowballs. The soldiers are shown shooting a volley in a straight line rather than simply reacting in a more haphazard manner to an escalating crisis. Artistic flourishes such as the blue daytime sky when the incident occurred in the evening and the absence of the heavy snow on the ground are more forgivable. But more notably, perhaps, the engraving, as colored by Boston artist Christian Remick, makes no distinction of Crispus Attucks as a man of color. Historical accuracy was not Revere’s goal. Some scholars go so far as to argue that the omission of Attucks’s ethnicity was more than an artistic choice and that Revere may have viewed it as a distraction from the intended message and purpose of an entire oppressed, even enslaved, British populace (Fitz 470).

If the Stamp Act resulted in the first truly pan-colonial protest, the Boston Massacre five years later resulted in the formation of a truly anti-British opinion among many in the colonial public. While those protesting the Stamp Act were quick to assert that their loyalties lay first and foremost with King George III, and it was only his Crown officials and the members of Parliament who were to blame for the taxation crisis, the Boston Massacre removed any pretext of the King’s innocence in these matters. The Sons of Liberty, inspired by Revere’s portrayal, were transformed from a simple coordinating and correspondence committee into an actual revolutionary force. The previous goals of reforming the mercantile and taxation systems no longer seemed viable. Propaganda pieces written by Patriots such as Samuel Adams and images such as those engraved by Revere had changed the terms of the debate. Although many colonists still considered themselves British subjects and would oppose independence, an increasing number became convinced of the Patriot cause. Even the removal of troops from Boston and the postponement of the soldiers’ trial did not defuse the situation. The only option, in the minds of the Patriots, was complete independence from Britain. Momentum was now on their side. Thanks to the propagandist efforts of Adams and Revere, many saw this as the first act of war on the part of Britain, and many historians studying the events of the 1770s have agreed.

Essential Themes

In the near term, Revere’s engraving did not affect the trial of Preston and the other officers, which began on October 24, 1770. Preston’s own guilt or innocence rested on whether he issued the command to fire, and on October 30, a jury determined there was insufficient evidence and acquitted him. The eight soldiers were tried on November 27, and on December 5, six were acquitted. Two, Matthew Kilroy and Hugh Montgomery, were found guilty of manslaughter. Kilroy had been one of the soldiers who had fought with the ropeworkers at Gray’s Ropewalks and was seen targeting and killing Samuel Gray. Although both of the guilty soldiers could have been executed, they were detained and then discharged from the army and allowed to return to England. In fact, the entire 29th Regiment returned home after the Massacre. In December 1770, Samuel Adams wrote an editorial in which he accused the court of allowing the soldiers to escape with blood on their hands.

Clearly, the lasting impact of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre is as a piece of pro-independence propaganda. Its historical inaccuracy is less important than its value as a document of the revolutionary mindset among colonists. The trial of Thomas Preston and his soldiers was delayed for a number of months in the hope that the colonists’ anger would fade. Instead, the postponement allowed for Revere’s engraving to be distributed throughout the colonies. By the time the funerals for those who had been killed and, months later, the trial of the accused soldiers took place, the engraving had made its way throughout all of the colonies, and the situation, far from diminishing, had become even more dangerous for the British.

Seemingly unwilling to change course, King George III and Parliament continued to impose tax legislation on the colonies, giving further ammunition for Revere, Adams, and the Sons of Liberty. Three years later, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which led to the famous Boston Tea Party, at which a number of Sons of Liberty dressed as American Indians and dumped a cargo of tea off the side of a recently landed ship. This led Parliament to punish the colony with the passage of the Coercive Acts, which still further inflamed the situation. Within two years, outright conflict would begin and not end until the United States had won its independence.

Bibliography
  • Agresto, John. “Art and Historical Truth: The Boston Massacre.” Journal of Communication 29.4 (December 1979): 170–74. Print.
  • Christie, I. R. Crisis of Empire: Great Britain and the American Colonies, 1754–1783. New York: Norton, 1966. Print.
  • Fitz, Karsten. “Commemorating Crispus Attucks: Visual Memory and the Representations of the Boston Massacre, 1770–1857.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 50.3 (2005): 463–84. Print.
  • Triber, Jayne E. A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998. Print.
  • York, Neil L. The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  • ---. “Rival Truths, Political Accommodation, and the Boston ‘Massacre.’” Massachusetts Historical Review 11 (2009): 57–95. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bourne, Russell. Cradle of Violence: How Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006. Print.
  • Brigham, Clarence S. Paul Revere’s Engravings. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Print.
  • Forbes, Esther. Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Boston: Houghton, 1999. Print.
  • Langguth, A. J. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. New York: Simon, 1989. Print.
  • Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Knopf, 1972. Print.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Miller, Joel J. The Revolutionary Paul Revere. Nashville: Nelson, 2010. Print.
  • Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.
  • Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: Norton, 1970. Print.

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