The 248th Commemoration of the Boston Massacre
By Richard Campbell
As every school child in New England should know, the Boston Massacre occurred when the Regulars, who had arrived in force from Britain in 1768 to patrol the streets of Boston, killed five Colonists on King Street Boston, on March 5, 1770. What is often not mentioned in brief text book accounts is that the Boston Massacre was more of a riot that spun out of control. Its annual re-enactment sponsored by the Bostonian Society draws Colonial re-enactors from New England and beyond, for a momentary acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by the Colonists in kindling the Revolution that birthed our nation. Next to the kind of massacres we as a nation have been forced to accept in which adolescents are allowed to buy automatic weapons to mow people down in public schools, the Boston Massacre, seems quaint by comparison. But at the time, the violence of this event provoked considerable outrage among the Colonists.
Let us put aside our modern day notions of the Sons of Liberty, our early nation’s freedoms or lack thereof, or the almost mythical stature of our founding fathers, and consider the sheer audacity of the Colonists to believe they could extricate themselves from his Majesty and his troops. It wasn’t merely that the troops had been harassing the common man on the Streets of Boston, or that a series of intolerable acts had passed; but the preceding brawl at Gray’s Rope Walks and the killing of an eleven year old boy by a Royalist Custom’s officer eleven days before the incident, really heated up the town. Most historians concede that nerves were raw on both sides, and in fact the Colonists hadn’t been very nice to the Regulars, as records show a series of scuffles around town up to the event. It must be said, Boston citizens were clearly itching for a fight.
The mob descriptions at Dock Square and other altercations nearby give the impression that multiple confrontations were playing out throughout the neighborhood that evening, as alarm bells pealed from churches, drawing crowds of citizens- some with fire buckets, others with weapons. No one is sure who yelled “fire” -whether it was a command from the British officer, Captain Thomas Preston, or by the Colonists, but the King’s soldiers took that command for real and did just that. According to Hancock and Adams, the order was given without provocation.
But realize it was dark at a time when street lights didn’t exist, and the events happened very quickly. Several other witnesses begged to differ from the Colonist’s testimony that claimed the shots came at innocent victims who did not provoke the soldiers- but can you really trust a Loyalist? Captain Preston claimed that he and his men were defending the Custom’s house from being looted and that Colonialist beat his soldiers with clubs. Most accounts had a group of 50 people in the street throwing snow balls, and among them more serious patriots, like Crispus Attucks, (the first to fall when shots were fired), carried sticks. An anonymous artist illustration and secondary testimony supports these claims. Clearly Loyalist sympathizers- we Bostonians know better! Or do we?
The major historical events that preceded the Boston Massacre are well known, and easier to document accurately. We in South Boston know the taint upon Castle William, (now Fort Independence) where the Royalists held the Stamps of the Stamp Act, requiring almost all documents to bear a revenue stamp. It was particularly stupid of the crown to make enemies of printers in the Colonies- leaflets went flying all over the place. Then consider the infamous Sugar Act that though it underscored the hypocrisy of many Colonialist involved in the more infamous triangle slave trade, was really a burden on brewers. You can do a lot of things to piss people off, and making rum, (which Colonists consumed quite copiously) more expensive would be on the top of the list. At the center of all this, it was clear King George III was a few fries short of a happy meal. It seems he simply never thought the Colonists were prepared to take on the British Empire.
Much is made of the value of the famous Revere drawing, which was an engraved copy of another artist’s work, (Henry Pelham), and still stands out as a kind of indelible, though possibly not completely accurate, record of the incident. According to most historians if Revere was on hand, there isn’t a lot of first hand evidence outside of a pretty accurate map, later attributed to Revere by a Boston Public Librarian in 1887, which local historian Jane Triber mentions in her biography of Revere.
What is much most important about the Boston Massacre is what happened after the incident, the reportage for which the Sons of Liberty proved to be able propagandists. The trial and testimony of this event was really sensational in the colonies, and the press ripped the British crown for the acquittal of Preston, and others, while only convicting two of the murderers, Killroy and Montgomery, who would have been hung, but escaped that fate through an arcane biblical injunction.
While the loyalists mistakenly believed the trial was a PR victory, (especially since John Adams was the defense attorney), they miscalculated the importance of the verdict to ending the stay of royal troops in Boston, and the drive to the revolutionary cause. On this past Saturday the re enactors played well the innocent town folk, the altercations before the massacre, and the churlish troops provoking angry comments. Up to the shots fired and fallen heroes all was quiet but the narration of historians, and a few arguments that sparked the event. Ironically, right before the massacre began, ambulances sounded loudly as they rushed past the crowd for a modern day emergency.
There was no doubt about the crowd’s loyalties, when the man playing governor Hutchinson, (a most odious loyalist figurehead!) appeared in the window of the Old Statehouse, encouraging the citizens of Boston to go home peacefully. And this is how it should be. We are Bostonians, after all, which makes us right the majority of the time, and certainly reluctant to admit any wrong doings in regards to those pesky British, dressed Royal Red and lording it over us. The only thing that matches that enmity in modern times is our rivalry with New York Yankees fans. Huzzah!
Triber, Jayne E. A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Print.
Fischer, David H. Paul Revere’s Ride. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1996.