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Definition: Boston Massacre from Philip's Encyclopedia

(1770) Riot by American colonists, angered over the quartering of troops in private homes. Starting with some snowballing, it was put down by British soldiers and resulted in the death of five civilians, including Crispus Attucks. The riot was exploited for anti-British propaganda by Samuel Adams and the Boston radicals. The soldiers were tried for murder, defended by John Adams, and acquitted.


Summary Article: Boston Massacre from Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History
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Image from: After the Massacre: Samuel Adams Demanding of Governor Hutchinson the Instant Withdrawal of British Troops, illustration from 'Colonies and Nation' by Woodrow Wilson, pub. in Harper's Magazine, 1901 in The Bridgeman Art Library Archive

Tensions had been increasing in Boston, in the Massachusetts Colony, ever since the autumn of 1768, when 1,700 British troops—many of whom were Irish Catholic—landed in what was a mostly Protestant community. There followed a series of incidents that local individuals favoring independence from Great Britain used to inflame public opinion. Troops roamed the streets and checked travelers entering Boston; they held military parades on Boston Common, and some hurled sexual insults at local young women. Many of the soldiers, unable to subsist on their meager pay, competed for unskilled jobs in Boston and thus bid down the price of labor, upsetting many working-class Bostonians.

There had been retaliatory incidents for some time, too. Crowds tested the discipline of the soldiers by throwing snowballs, ice, rocks, and whatever else was easily available. Then, on March 5, 1770, a crowd of about 400 people came to a British guard post protecting the customs office. They threw snowballs, rocks, and other objects at the sentry; soon, Captain Thomas Preston and seven soldiers appeared. Captain Preston ordered the crowd to disperse, and, with the mob continuing to pelt his troops, he ordered his men not to fire. However, one soldier fired, others followed, and they shot eleven people, five of whom eventually died. Among the dead was Crispus Attucks, a former slave often cited as one of the first martyrs to American liberty.

American patriots such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere tried to use this incident as a rallying point for anti-British sentiment. Adams published pamphlets that attacked this British offense to American liberty and described the colonials who died as heroes and martyrs rather than the mob that, arguably, they were. Similarly, Revere portrayed the massacre in a very famous engraving that had the soldiers calmly lined up in formation and firing on a peaceful crowd, rather than showing the reality of a mob that was threatening the few soldiers at a particular guard post. Indeed, the engraving didn’t even show snow on the ground.

Adams’s cousin, John Adams, and Josiah Quincy, Jr., chose to defend the soldiers on the grounds of self-defense. They did this both to demonstrate a commitment to justice and to protest mob violence; both men were ardent patriots. The trial was held some seven months after the so-called massacre, and the jury decided largely in favor of the British soldiers, convicting only two of them on a lesser charge of manslaughter (they had their thumbs branded in punishment). However, the tension soon caused the British to withdraw troops to Castle William and thus vacate Boston.

More important, Parliament repealed many of the external taxes that had angered many colonists (“no taxation without representation”), save for the tax on tea. As colonists drank mostly smuggled, cheaper tea, tensions seemed to lessen for more than two years until Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773. Boston patriots responded with the so-called Boston Tea Party, and events seemed to rush inexorably toward revolution and war.

See also:

Anglophobia; Association; Boston Tea Party; Bunker Hill, Battle of; Continental Congress; Declaratory Act; Intolerable Acts; Lexington and Concord, Battles of; Navigation Acts; Quartering Act; Quebec Act; Stamp Act; Townshend Acts; War of Independence, US

  • Dickson, Alice. Boston Massacre. New York: Franklin Watts, 1968.
  • Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.
  • Charles M. Dobbs
    Copyright © 2005 by Will Kaufman and Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson

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