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Fomenting the Alleged Boston Massacre

Bostonian John Adams noted in early 1770 that “Endeavors had been systematically pursued for many months by certain busy characters, to excite quarrels, recounters and combats . . . between the inhabitants of the lower class and the soldiers, and at all risks to enkindle an immortal hatred between them.” He and others laid the cause of the fatal confrontation at the feet of the irresponsible press and the mob it inflamed.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Fomenting the Alleged Boston Massacre

“There is plenty of evidence that the [New England] radicals set about fomenting trouble between the soldiers and the people in order to bring about a forced withdrawal, and they must share to a very great extent the guilt for the blood soon to be shed.

On the 2nd of March [1770], as a result of provocation by some workmen at a ropewalk, a serious affray occurred between the military and the laborers. On the evening of the 5th, the very day on which the repeal of the Townsend Acts was moved in Parliament, occurred the fatal affray ever since known, quite unfittingly, as the “Boston Massacre.”

During the early hours, groups both of citizens and soldiers wandered about the streets as if anticipating something out of the ordinary. About eight o’clock a bell was rung as the usual signal of fire. At once a crowd assembled near King Street and insulted the sentry posted at the Custom House.

A sergeant and six men were hastily ordered out to protect the sentry, Captain Preston immediately following to prevent rash action.

The mob, however, increased and assaulted the soldiers with sticks and stones, daring them to fore. Nevertheless, they did not do so until one [soldier] who had been knocked down with a club struggled to his feet and at once shot his musket into the crowd. [Captain] Preston had given no order.

The crowd was shouting tauntingly “Fire, fire” and “Why don’t you fire?”

It is impossible to say whether in the confusion the soldiers mistook the cry of someone in the crowd for an order or whether they fired in the mere excitement of self-defense. There is also the question as to whether shots may have been fired from the nearby Custom House.

Three men were killed outright and two mortally wounded. Regrettable as the incident was, it was without intention on the part of the authorities. The mob, led by a half-breed Negro, had been the aggressor. The wisdom of the English government of posting troops in the town may well have been at fault, but the local authorities had unquestionably been unable or unwilling to maintain order and to protect the citizens in their lives and property.

Whatever the larger aspects of the case, the immediate blame for the occurrence must be laid at the door of those radicals who in the newspapers and speeches had been doing their utmost to kindle resentment and ill-feeling against the soldiers and to bring on just such a clash as occurred.

Captain Preston and his little squad at once surrendered themselves to the civil authorities, and some months later, after a very fair trial which reflects credit on the town, and in which they were defended by John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Junior, all of the prisoners were found not guilty with the exception of two who were convicted of homicide and given a comparatively slight penalty.”

(The History of New England, Vol. II; Revolutionary New England, 1691-1776, James Truslow Adams, Little, Brown and Company, 1941, pp. 375-377)