The Boston Massacre was an incident in which British regulars fired into a group of Bostonians who were harassing them. It is generally considered one of the first acts of violence of the American Revolution.
Summary of the Boston Massacre
The Boston Massacre was a deadly altercation between British soldiers and a Boston mob that occurred on March 5, 1770, where the Redcoats fired on colonists, killing five and wounding six others. It was the culmination of resentment by the Boston citizenry toward British troops that Parliament had deployed in 1768 to enforce the Townshend Acts of 1767. The incident on March 5 began when a small group of Bostonians started harassing a lone British sentry guarding the Customs House. When a crowd assembled and became more hostile, British reinforcements arrived on the scene to protect the sentry. The soldiers, under the command of Captain Thomas Preston, fired their muskets into the crowd. The first person killed was Crispus Attucks, an African-American who worked on the docks in Boston. In order to restore peace between the Redcoats and the colonists, Governor Thomas Hutchinson conducted an investigation and the soldiers were tried in court. They were defended by Founding Father John Adams and two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. In the years following the Boston Massacre, March 5 was observed as a holiday in Boston and a memorial was held to commemorate the incident.
This engraving by Paul Revere depicts the “Bloody Massacre” where British troops fired into the mob on the night of March 5. Image Source: Library of Congress.
History of the Boston Massacre
The history of the Boston Massacre began long before the night of March 5, 1770. It is important to understand the Boston Massacre was not an incident that just happened one night, out of nowhere. There was a slow, steady buildup of tension between colonists living in Boston and British officials, especially Governor Francis Bernard, over British policies.
The Stamp Act Crisis in Boston and the Sons of Liberty
In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on the colonies by requiring various types of documents to be printed on paper that included a stamp on it. The paper was printed in Britain, shipped to the colonies, and had to be purchased from authorized Stamp Distributors. The colonies were outraged when news of the Stamp Act arrived, and the so-called Stamp Act Crisis began. There were protests throughout the colonies. American merchants set up trade boycotts and refused to order products from Brittain and the colonial papers were full of articles that criticized the provisions of the act. The slogan, “No taxation without representation” became popular.
In Boston, a group formed that quickly gained a reputation for its harassment of British officials, which included physical violence and vandalism. Prominent members and associates of the group in Boston were Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, James Otis Jr., and John Hancock. The group came to be called the Sons of Liberty, and similar groups were formed in other cities, including New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia. Throughout the summer and fall of 1765, the group was responsible for publicly threatening British officials if they enforced the provisions of the Stamp Act. The Sons also coordinated riots that included mobs attacking the homes of men like Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
On the morning of December 17, 1765, a broadsheet was posted throughout Boston that demanded Stamp Distributor Andrew Oliver appear at the Liberty Tree at noon and announce his resignation. Oliver did as was requested, although he read his resignation from the window of a house near the Liberty Tree because it was raining.
Parliament Repeals the Stamp Act and Passes the Declaratory Act
On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to protest from British merchants who believed it would damage their prospects of doing business in the colonies. However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared Parliament had the “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”
The Declaratory Act made it clear the threat of Parliament levying taxes on the colonies was still viable. The Sons of Liberty in Boston did not disband when the Stamp Act was repealed, they continued to meet to discuss and plan resistance to British policies. They believed Parliament was going to continue to exercise its authority — which it gave itself — to levy taxes on the colonies.
In 1767 and 1768, Parliament did exactly as the Sons of Liberty and prominent leaders like Samuel Adams expected, when it passed a series of acts for various purposes, including establishing a flow of revenue from the colonies to Britain, tightening control over the colonial governments, and paying the salaries of royal officials in the colonies.
Collectively, they are known as the Townshend Acts and they set up a system where the officials were obligated to support the taxes because the revenue generated from them paid their salaries. The five acts were:
- The New York Restraining Act
- The Townshend Revenue Act
- The Indemnity Act
- The Commissioners of Customs Act
- The Vice-Admiralty Court Act
The Liberty Affair
In order to help enforce the Townshend Acts, the American Board of Customs Commissioners was located in Boston. The Board of Customs played a key role in an incident with John Hancock and one of his ships. On May 9, 1768, a small ship owned by Hancock, the Liberty, arrived at the Port of Boston. It had come from Madeira, so the British Customs Officials expected the ship to be full of wine.
Initially, the Customs Officials said they could not inspect the ship’s cargo right away, because it was too dark. They said they had to wait until the morning of May 10. When the cargo of Liberty was inspected on the morning of May 10, Customs Officials found it was carrying less than 25% of what they expected. They informed the Customs Commissioners and said could not explain where the other 75% of the cargo went. They said they watched the ship all through the night of the 9th and did not see any cargo taken off the ship.
On May 17, the HMS Romney, a British man-of-war, arrived in Boston Harbor. The ship was under the command of Captain John Corner. Corner sent press gangs onshore to force sailors into service on the Romney. Merchants and smugglers alike avoided Boston Harbor, for fear of losing crew members, and the mere presence of the Romney and Corner’s press gangs increased tension between the colonists and the British in Boston.
On June 9, the situation grew worse when Thomas Kirk, one of the Customs Officials who had inspected the Liberty, changed his testimony about what happened on the night of May 9. Kirk told Joseph Harrison, the Collector of the Port of Boston, that the Captain of the Liberty, John Marshall, had offered him a bribe and the Liberty was, in fact, smuggling Madeira wine. Harrison took the new information to the Board of Customs Commissioners. Harrison, along with other British officials, including Comptroller Benjamin Hallowell were warned by members of the Sons of Liberty to leave Hancock’s ship alone.
The warning was ignored, and on June 10, David Lisle, the Solicitor General to the Board of Customs, ordered the Liberty to be seized. Sailors from the Romney were sent to carry out the task.
A crowd gathered and some of them tried to convince the British officials to leave the Liberty alone, at least until John Hancock could arrive on the scene. The Harrison and Hallowell declined and a fight broke out while the sailors towed the Liberty away and moored it near the Romney.
Harrison and Hallowell fled the scene and disappeared. However, the crowd at the dock, which had grown to around 3,000 people, chased after them. When the crowd was unable to find them, they went to their homes and smashed in the windows. After that, they went back to the dock and pulled Harrisons’ personal boat out of the water. They dragged it through the street and stopped at the Liberty Tree, where they set it on fire and burned it to ashes.
The seizure of Liberty caused unrest in Boston because many people believed the action to be illegal. Rumors began to circulate that people from all around Boston were planning to go into town to “begin an insurrection.”
The people of Boston sent a letter to the colony’s agent — or representative — in London, Dennys De Berndt. The letter also placed the blame for the Liberty Affair on what Massachusetts believed were unconstitutional laws that imposed taxes for the purpose of raising revenue. It also compared the Customs Officers and Commissioners to thieves who stole from the people of Massachusetts.
The Customs Board of Commissioners also expressed concerns that an uprising was imminent in a letter it sent to London. The Commissioners accused the local assemblies of coordinating efforts to resist British policies. The Commissioners believed if there was an uprising in Boston it would spread to other colonies. The only way to stop that from happening was to send troops to Boston to occupy the town.
Governor Bernard also sent a detailed narrative of the incident with the Liberty, and the unrest that followed, to Lord Hillsborough, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. Bernard urged Hillsborough to do something to help prevent an uprising because he believed the colonists were capable of insurrection.
Ultimately, John Hancock was taken to court by the Customs Commissioners. John Adams defended Hancock and won the case. However, Liberty was confiscated and the British used it in their own fleet. In July 1769, Liberty was involved in the Gaspee Affair off the coast of Rhode Island.
British Troops Occupy Boston to Enforce the Townshend Acts and Restore Order
In order to restore order in Boston, prevent an uprising, and enforce the provisions of the Townshend Acts, British troops were sent to Boston to occupy the town. Governor Bernard had asked for troops as early as 1766 due to the unrest and his request was finally granted. The American Customs Board of Commissioners also asked for troops to help them enforce the Townshend Acts in the aftermath of the Liberty Affair. Ships carrying troops arrived on September 28, 1768. On October 1, the troops disembarked and were quartered at various locations throughout the town.
For several months, the monthly Boston Town Meeting discussed the problem of troops occupying the city during peacetime. During the meetings, the officials in Boston and Massachusetts questioned the legality of housing a standing army during a time of peace. They argued it was a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution, the and English Bill of Rights. They believed it would certainly be seen as illegal if it was done in London.
This illustration from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, published in 1865, depicts British troops entering Boston. Image Source: Archive.org.
Joseph Warren Comes Into the Spotlight
In March 1769, the Boston Town Meeting adopted a petition to the King, asking for the removal of the troops. At the same meeting, Joseph Warren was appointed to a committee to clear the town from the false accusations that had been made, in regards to rebellion and loyalty to the Crown. The members of the committee were James Otis, Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, Richard Dana, Joseph Warren, John Adams, and Samuel Quincy.
John Adams was not as involved as some of the others during this time. He was more cautious about becoming too involved with the unrest. He wrote: “I was solicited to go to the Town Meetings and harangue there. This I constantly refused. My friend Dr. Warren the most frequently urged me to this: My Answer to him always was ‘That way madness lies.’. . . he always smiled and said, ‘it was true.’”
Bernard Replaced and Some Troops Leave Boston
On July 21, 1769, Governor Bernard left Boston and returned to England. He was replaced by Thomas Hutchinson, a native of Massachusetts.
Soon after Bernard left Boston, two regiments — the 64th and 65th — were removed from the city. The 14th Regiment and 29th Regiment remained. Despite the reduction in the number of troops that were quartered in the city, the activities the troops indulged in made matters worse with the citizens of Boston. Some of the issues were:
- British officers paraded their troops through the streets on a frequent basis.
- On Sundays, the troops would race their horses through the streets.
On top of those things, off-duty soldiers were often employed by businesses in the city when they were off duty. The residents of Boston who needed jobs accused the soldiers of taking their jobs.
The people of Boston retaliated by insulting and teasing the troops, which would sometimes lead to arguments or even fights.
The Death of Christopher Seider
On February 22, 1770, a mob gathered outside the shop of a Customs Official Ebeneezer Richardson. The people were upset that Richardson had broken up a protest in front of the shop owned by Theodophilus Lillie, a Loyalist merchant.
The crowd turned violent and threw rocks through the windows of Richardson’s house. One of them hit Richardson’s wife. When that happened, Richardson grabbed his gun and fired into the crowd. 11-year-old Christopher Seider was shot twice, once in the arm and once in the head.
After the boy died, his body was taken to Joseph Warren for an autopsy. Warren found the body contained, “eleven shot or plugs, about the bigness of large peas.”
Warren’s autopsy confirmed the boy was indeed killed by Richardson’s weapon. Some consider the boy to be the first casualty of the American Revolution.
Samuel Adams arranged for Seider’s funeral and a public display was made of what Richardson had done. An estimated 2,000 people attended the funeral at the Granary Burial Ground and fueled the outrage of the people of Boston.
Incident on March 2, 1770
On March 2, a British soldier, Private Patrick Walker, was walking along Gray’s Ropewalk in Boston, looking for a job. A Boston rope maker, William Green, asked Walker if he was looking for work. When Walker said he was, Green told him he could clean the public toilet. Walker was offended and told Green, “Empty it yourself.”
When the two exchanged heated words, Walker tried to hit Green. One of Walker’s employees knocked Green down. When Walker was able to get to his feet, he went to the barracks and gathered some friends. He returned to the scene with a handful of soldiers and they were looking for a fight.
When the rope makers saw them, they gathered to held defend Walker and then roughly 40 soldiers arrived on the scene. The crowd of rope makers included Samuel Gray and, possibly, Crispus Attucks. A full-scale riot broke out and the rope makers forced the British soldiers to return to their barracks.
The “Bloody Massacre” Takes Place on the Night of March 5
On the morning of March 5, the news of Christopher Seider’s death appeared in the Boston Gazette. That night, an altercation between a British soldier, Private Hugh White, and a 13-year-old boy, Edward Garrick exploded into violence.
The incident started when Garrick insulted Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch. Goldfinch ignored the boy, but Private White, who was nearby at his post, demanded the boy apologize to Goldfinch. Garrick refused, and words were exchanged. Then Garrick poked Goldfinch in the chest, which led to White hitting the boy in the head with his musket. Garrick’s friend, Bartholomew Broaders, started arguing with White, which drew the attention of more people. The crowd grew and included Boston bookseller Henry Knox.
The officer in charge of the night’s watch, Captain Thomas Preston, was alerted to the trouble and sent an officer and six privates to assist White. Preston ordered the troops to fix bayonets and went with them to the scene. By the time they arrived, the crowd had grown to more than 300 people.
The commotion and shouting led to the church bells being sounded, which usually meant there was a fire. More people came running to the scene, including John Adams.
The crowd started throwing snowballs, ice, rocks, and other things at the troops. Private Hugh Montgomery was hit with something and dropped his musket. When he picked it back up, he fired into the crowd, even though Preston had not given an order to fire. Montgomery’s discharge struck and killed Crispus Attucks. Within moments, the other troops panicked and fired into the crowd. When the shooting was over, five were dead, and six were wounded. Along with Attucks, the others killed by British fire were Samuel Gray, Patrick Carr, James Caldwell, and Samuel Maverick.
The crowd backed away and Preston called soldiers from the 29th Regiment out. The British took defensive positions in front of the Town House to protect themselves from the mob. Governor Hutchinson was called out to help restore order. Hutchinson promised the mob there would be an investigation into the incident, but only if the mob dispersed. The mob did break up.
During the melee, Warren was called to the scene to tend to the wounded. Later, he recalled the incident and wrote: “The horrors of that dreadful night are but too deeply impressed on our hearts. Language is too feeble to paint the emotions of our souls, when our streets were stained with the blood of our brethren, when our ears were wounded by the groans of the dying, and our eyes were tormented by the sight of the mangled bodies of the dead.”
Warren continued, and made it clear he believed that British troops firing on British citizens was a final straw, “To arms! we snatched our weapons, almost resolved, by one decisive stroke, to avenge the death of our slaughtered brethren, and to secure from future danger all that we held most dear.”
Samuel Adams dubbed the incident “The Boston Massacre.”
Aftermath of the Boston Massacre
Before the mob broke up, the Patriot leaders sent express riders to neighboring towns to inform them of what happened. On the morning of March 6, people from the towns and countryside went into Boston and gathered at Faneuil Hall. According to Hutchinson, they were “in a perfect frenzy.”
A delegation of prominent city leaders was chosen to go to Governor Hutchinson and ask for the immediate removal of the troops. Warren was one of the members of the delegation, along with Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Hutchinson had the troops moved out to Castle William in the harbor.
A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre
A week later, the Boston Committee of Safety organized a committee, which included Warren, to investigate the incident. Warren wrote the report for the committee, which was called “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.” The report blamed Parliament for what happened because of the situation it had put the troops in.
The report said, “As they were the procuring cause of the troops being sent hither, they must therefore be the remote and blameable cause of all the disturbances and bloodshed that have taken place in consequence of that measure.”
The report was published as a pamphlet and included an appendix with 96 depositions. It was sent to Britain to ensure the government received the American viewpoint of what was happening in Boston.
Boston Massacre Trials
Captain Preston and his men were eventually tried in court for the accusations made against them in regards to the incident. John Adams defended them in court, along with Josiah Quincy, Jr., Sampson Salter Blowers, and Robert Auchmuty.
Preston’s trial started on October 24, 1770. He was found not guilty on October 30.
The trial of the eight soldiers from the 29th regiment started on November 27. The jury reached its verdict on December 5. Six of the soldiers were acquitted. Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy were found guilty of manslaughter. Montgomery and Kilroy were branded with the letter “M” — for manslaughter — on their hands, where the palm meets the thumb.
Repeal of the Townshend Acts
After the Boston Massacre, the situation calmed down in Boston, especially since the troops had been moved to Castle William.
On March 5, the same day the news of Christopher Seider’s death was printed in the Boston Gazette and the Boston Massacre took place, Lord North made a motion in the House of Commons to partially repeal the Townshend Acts.
On April 12, 1770, Parliament voted to repeal the taxes levied by the Townshend Acts, except for the tax on tea.
After the repeal of the Townshend Acts, many of the Patriots toned down their involvement in political affairs. However, Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams continued to write in the papers and warned people that it was only a matter of time before Parliament would start levying taxes and infringing on their rights again.
Massacre Day Remembrance
In the years following the Boston Massacre, May 5 was a holiday in Boston and a memorial was held to commemorate the incident. Each year, a prominent member of the community was chosen to deliver a speech, which would be printed in the papers.
Massacre Day 1772
In 1772, the committee that selected the speaker unanimously chose Joseph Warren. He delivered his speech at the Old South Church, and it marked the first time he spoke publicly before a large audience. An estimated 5,000 people were in attendance. Warren used the opportunity to give a passionate speech that criticized Parliament and he called on the people to defend their rights against oppressive British policies.
Warren’s speech was a huge success with the Patriot faction and was printed in the papers throughout the colonies.
Massacre Day 1775
In 1775, as March 5 approached, rumors spread through Boston that British officers were threatening violence against whoever delivered the Massacre Day speech. Once again, Joseph Warren delivered the speech from the pulpit at Old South Church. The church was so full that Warren had to use a ladder to climb in through a window a the back of the pulpit. Roughly 40 British officers were seated in the front rows and some of them were even on the steps leading to the pulpit. They intended to harass Warren during the speech. Warren’s friends, who were also in attendance and scattered throughout the church, feared for his life and were prepared to react at a moment’s notice to protect him.
Warren delivered the speech dressed in a white Roman toga, which was meant to be a symbol of liberty. His speech lasted for roughly 35 minutes. Warren delivered a speech that clearly laid out that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies without their consent and criticized it for the “baleful influence of standing armies in time of peace.” He pointed out that Britain had made a significant change in its colonials policies, starting with the Sugar Act, when it decided to pass legislation for the purpose of raising revenue.
One of the more famous quotes from his speech was, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Within six weeks, British troops marched to Concord, by way of Lexington, where they were met by Massachusetts Minutemen under the command of Captain John Parker. When Parker and his men refused to lay down their weapons — even though they were dispersing, as ordered by British officer Major John Pitcairn — a shot war fired. Within moments, British troops and American Minutemen were firing on each other and the War for Independence had begun.
Significance of the Boston Massacre
The Boston Massacre was an important event in American history because British troops fired on and killed American colonists. Because of that, it is commonly referred to as the “First Bloodshed of the American Revolution.”