March 5, 1770 – the Boston Massacre. On the evening of March 5, 1770, five colonists were shot and killed by British soldiers during a riot in front of the Boston Customs House.
By the 18th century it had become firmly established in England that, based on the Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights, only Parliament had had the authority to tax English citizens. By the 1760’s, most of the members of Parliament were elected representatives of the English people. The accepted rule, therefore, was that only elected representatives could impose taxes on the citizens that they represented and who had elected them in the first place.
For hundreds of years, Parliament had imposed taxes on English citizens in order to pay for the cost of running the English government, from the beer they drank, the salt they ate, and even the number of windows in their houses. While Englishmen certainly grumbled about paying taxes, they were generally accepted since their own elected government was imposing them, rather than an arbitrary or foreign power.
Up until the 1760’s, however, colonists did not pay the taxes imposed by Parliament. Instead, because of how the tax laws were written, those taxes only applied to English citizens living in England. Colonists only paid those taxes imposed on them by their own colonial elected assemblies, such as the House of Burgesses in Virginia.
After 1763, all this was to change. The conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 left England in control of much of North America, but that victory had come at a cost: the crown had borrowed heavily to finance the war, and that debt now needed to be paid. Since English citizens were already among the most heavily taxed people in the world, Parliament was forced to look for a new source of revenue. Unfortunately for British/American relations, their eyes landed on the colonies;
England’s new Prime Minister, George Grenville, needed to come up with as much money as he could to pay off the debt left over from the war and to cover the cost of British troops still stationed in the colonies to protect from Indian attacks. In early 1765, Grenville got Parliament to impose a new tax on paper goods used in the colonies. Called the Stamp Act, it added a small tax on every piece of paper that colonists bought. Grenville did not expect much if any protest, since English citizens in England had been paying a similar stamp tax for years. Moreover, even with the tax, the colonists still paid far fewer taxes than other Englishmen, and so, to Grenville, it seemed only fair.
It would be an understatement to say that he misjudged the colonial reaction.
Opposition in the colonies to the tax erupted almost immediately. The cry of “No Taxation Without Representation” was heard throughout the colonies. Colonial Assemblies sent a formal petition to King George III and Parliament claiming that Parliament had no legal right to tax them, and colonists organized mass boycotts against any paper goods that required a stamp. Effigies of tax collectors were hung in public squares, and many tax collectors resigned to save their necks. Those who refused were physically attacked; some were tarred and feathered.
The center of this opposition, however, was Boston. There, a group of men (led by Samuel Adams) formed an organization called the Sons of Liberty, which was responsible for much of the violence directed towards British government officials. For example, they mobbed the house of Andrew Oliver, the Boston tax collector, shouting that they were going to kill him. Two weeks later, another mob physically attacked the home of the royal Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, stole everything of value, smashed what they couldn’t take, and literally pulled down the walls and roof.
Eventually the boycotts had their intended effect, and in 1766 Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. The calm which returned to the colonies was short lived, however, when in 1767 Parliament imposed a new set of taxes (in the form of import duties) on popular goods imported to the colonies. Not surprisingly, the colonies rose up once again in protest. Colonists organized new boycotts against English goods, and in Boston the Sons of Liberty roamed the streets once again attacking tax collectors and merchants who were reluctant to join the boycott.
This time, however, England responded with force. Thomas Hutchinson, now the royal governor of Massachusetts (and with a new house), suspended the local elected Massachusetts assembly, and in 1768 thousands of British soldiers were sent to Boston to stop the rioting, restore order, and enforce the law. In effect, Boston was under British martial law, and the colonists were not pleased. Over the course of the next two years, fights between soldiers and citizens became commonplace. Boston’s citizens simply hated what they viewed as an occupation of their city by a foreign army.
Adding to the tension was the fact that British soldiers were allowed to take part time jobs when not on duty. Since they already had their army pay, these soldiers were often willing to work at less than the going rate. This had the effect of taking work away from Boston’s own poorer citizens, which increased their resentment of the British troops. Most of these unemployed laborers, moreover, were young, uneducated men, who looked forward to a good brawl after a night of drinking rum in a tavern. As a result, fistfights between colonists and English soldiers became more and more frequent. The city was a powder keg just waiting for a match.
On March 2, 1770, an English soldier looking for part-time work entered the shop of a Boston rope maker named John Gray. Gray asked the soldier if he wanted a job. When the soldier replied that he did, Gray then invited him to “clean my shithouse.” The soldier responded by hitting Gray, who returned the favor and chased the soldier from his shop.
The soldier later returned with some friends, and a great brawl between them and Gray’s friends followed in the streets. The next day, on the 3rd, there were more fights on the streets, as more and more men on both sides were drawn into the fray. While the 4th was calm (it being Sunday, and a day of rest for fighting, apparently), the 5th began with rumors of more fights to come.
What happened the night of March 5th was not the result of any plan, but rather the culmination of a year of conflict and mutual hatred between citizens and soldiers. At about 8:00 that night, a small group of colonists looking for a fight gathered around a government building in the city. The building was guarded by a lone sentry, Private Hugh White. The evening’s entertainment began when a citizen, Edward Gerrish, insulted White to his face. White defended his honor by smacking Gerrish on the side of his head.
Word of White hitting Gerrish quickly spread. Soon, several more citizens appeared and surrounded White. They hurled insults, snowballs and chunks of ice at him. For some reason, local church bells began ringing – the signal that there was a fire – which brought more citizens to the scene. White found himself surrounded and outnumbered by an angry mob.
White’s commanding officer, Captain Thomas Preston, had been in a nearby guardhouse the entire time, watching the scene unfold. He had hoped that the crowd would simply get bored of harassing White and eventually leave on its own. After the ringing of the bells, however, he realized that he would need to go rescue White from the mob. Taking seven soldiers with him, he marched out to White, intending to escort him back into the safety of the guardhouse. Reaching White was easy; once Preston got there, however, the situation quickly deteriorated.
At this point, bad luck and mistakes by Preston came into play. Rather than simply get White and march back to the guardhouse, Preston ordered his men to form a line, facing the colonists. Preston stood by the front of his men. On Preston’s order, the soldiers loaded their muskets (with bayonets attached) and held their guns low but pointed towards crowd standing before them.
Although it was nighttime, the area was well lit by the moon and its reflection off the snow and ice on the ground. For about fifteen minutes, there was a standoff. Preston seemed unable to decide what to do. More and more colonists came to the scene, and the crowd swelled to a few hundred. Citizens shouted insults, dared the soldiers to fire, and threw sticks, ice and snowballs at them. It was, in fact, a riot.
Suddenly, a piece of ice hit Private Hugh Montgomery, one of the soldiers standing near the end of the line. The impact caused him to slip, and when he regained his footing, he fired. After a short pause, the other soldiers fired as well, point blank into the crowd. Eleven citizens were hit; three died on the spot, two more within a few days. Six others were wounded. At the front of the crowd, and the first to die, was a former slave named Crispus Attucks,. When the shooting was over, Preston and his men quickly retreated back to the guardhouse.
The next day, thousands of Bostonians took to the streets, demanding justice. Preston and the soldiers were charged with murder, and Governor Hutchinson ordered that Preston and his men be kept in jail while they waited for their trial. Hutchinson also ordered the rest of the troops in Preston’s regiment to leave town. The public calmed down and looked forward to the trial.
Since they were charged with murder, Preston and his soldiers faced the death penalty if convicted. They were represented at trial by none other than John Adams, future president and cousin of Samuel Adams. John was no less sympathetic to the American cause than his cousin Sam, but as a lawyer he firmly believed that everyone was entitled to a fair trial – even British soldiers. He also was a bit of an egotist who desperately wanted fame, and this case provided him with a golden opportunity to get some.
By the time the trial began in the fall of 1770, news of the repeal of the Townshend Acts had reached the colonies, and the colonists’ mood had considerably softened (ironically, the Townshend Acts – the cause of all the violence – had been repealed by Parliament the day before the “Boston Massacre”: March 4, 1770). At trial, the jury heard from many witnesses, who all gave contradictory testimony. Adams argued that the soldiers had acted in self-defense. The jury agreed, and found Preston and five of the soldiers not guilty. The remaining two soldiers were found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, branded on their thumbs, and released.
The repeal of the Townshend Acts brought a long period of relative calm to the colonies. From 1770 to 1773, American merchants resumed importing and selling British goods, and American colonists enthusiastically resumed buying them. In 1773, with the Tea Act, however, Parliament would reignite the conflict for good.