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Road to Revolution: The Boston Massacre


 

Tensions were set to explode on the frigid, snowy evening of March 5, 1770 as an angry crowd of Bostonians taunted eight British soldiers standing guard in front of the Customs House on King Street in Boston, Massachusetts. Garbage, oyster shells, and even snowballs flew from the hands of some disgruntled colonists toward the Redcoats. Others threatened the soldiers with sticks and clubs, daring them to open fire. Fearing for their lives as the chaos continued, the British ultimately opened fire, killing five Americans and wounding several more. The fallen included Crispus Attucks, a black sailor and former slave who was the first to be killed, as well as Patrick Carr, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, and James Caldwell. Word of the fatal confrontation quickly spread and came to be known as the “Boston Massacre.”

Since early 1770, tempers in Boston had already been on edge with the Sons of Liberty and other Patriots opposing the occupation of the city by 2,000 British troops. Why were the Redcoats in Boston? The answer stems back to Great Britain's victory in the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War in 1763, which led to France being expelled from North America and secured enormous territorial gains for the British Empire. Although the empire had emerged from that conflict stronger then ever, it had also left the Crown with an enormous war debt. Over the following years, the relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies steadily grew more tenuous as the British government continually passed what the colonists viewed as repressive tax laws upon them to pay down the French and Indian War debt. As colonial resistance intensified in response to the measures passed by a parliament that was nearly 3,000 miles away and that lacked any American representation, the British reacted to the unrest by sending in troops to enforce these laws. This was the backdrop that underlined the confrontation that ended in bloodshed on the streets of Boston on that cold Monday night in March 1770.


After the Boston Massacre, the strain between the Crown and many of the colonists intensified to a whole new fiery level. Some three weeks after the incident, the notable Patriot Paul Revere created an engraving of the confrontation that showed British soldiers slaughtering innocent Bostonians. His work was widely distributed among the public and helped turn the Boston Massacre into a rallying cry for opponents of British rule.

Paul Revere's famous engraving. It was titled the “Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street in Boston.” (Photo Credit: Paul Revere Heritage Project)

The British soldiers who fired on the crowd were brought to trial nearly seven months after the showdown on King Street. One of their principal legal defenders in court was John Adams, who would go on to become one of the key figures of the American Revolution and the second President of the United States. By stressing that the soldiers had acted in self defense against an unruly mob, Adams and his partner Josiah Quincy ultimately won an acquittal for six of the eight defendants. The other two Redcoats were convicted of manslaughter. For their punishment under English law, the letter "M" for murder was branded on their thumbs with a hot iron. After that, they were released.

The Boston Massacre emerged as a seminal moment in the buildup to the American Revolution. Over the next five years, colonial resistance continued to strengthen in the face of further British attempts to assert their control over the colonies. The uneasy stillness would finally be broken by the crash of musketry on the fields of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

Sources

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: The French and Indian War.


History.com: Boston Massacre.

Paul Revere Heritage Project: Boston Massacre Engraving by Paul Revere.