Thursday, March 5, 2020

This Day in Colonial History (Boston Massacre Gives Propaganda Victory to Patriots)

March 5, 1770—When British soldiers fired on a Boston mob of 2,000 men and boys on a snowy night, they may have thought they were simply engaging in riot control. But, with five in the crowd falling dead, they arguably ended up starting the American Revolution

Crispus Attucks, a mulatto freedman who worked as a sailor, was the first to fall in the so-called Boston Massacre—and, even though the first official battle of the war did not occur for another five years, he is often regarded as the first American casualty of the revolution. That might be because the tragic incident of this night ratcheted up the already high tensions between the 13 colonies and the crown enough that the Americans could never resume their old relationship with the Mother Country.

Since the imposition of the Stamp Act five years before—and, after that was rescinded under pressure, subsequent Parliamentary legislation to raise revenues from the colonies—the British government felt increasingly compelled to keep its subjects in line. That meant not only moving 4,000 troops in to enforce the new tax laws but also ensuring they were housed—if not in barracks, then in houses or in public places such as Boston Common. 

The effect of all of this: constant brawls between the redcoats and the colonists. One of these resulted in the infamous deaths on King Street.

In a subsequent trial, a rising colonial attorney, 35-year-old John Adams, was able to convince a jury that the redcoats feared for their lives, winning acquittal for British Captain Thomas Preston and six of his soldiers on the most serious murder charges. 

(Despite the impression left by the HBO mini-series starring Paul Giamatti about the future American President, the redcoats did not escape all punishment; two were found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to branding and drummed out of the service.)

Acquittal on the murder charges did not negate the propaganda victory achieved by Adams’ older firebrand cousin, Samuel Adams, leader of the Sons of Liberty. Though a poor orator himself, he had already used silver-tongued associates such as John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren to press his case against the tax and quartering legislation. Now he used his organizational genius to whip the populace into a fervor through organizing:

* The laying-out of Attucks’ body at Boston’s Faneuil Hall; 

* A funeral procession for all the victims, attended by thousands; 

* Two mass meetings on the day after the shooting to press for the removal of the redcoats; and 

* An engraving by silversmith Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre in King-Street (the image accompanying this post), which further inflamed passions.

Four and a half years after the shooting, John Adams wrote a Scottish political reformer he greatly admired, James Burgh: “The death of four or five persons, the most obscure and inconsiderable that could have been found upon the continent, has never yet been forgiven by any part of America. What then would be the Consequence of a Battle in which many Thousands must fall of the best Blood, the best Families, Fortunes, Abilities and moral Characters in the Country?"

Adams and the rest of America would find out the following spring, at Lexington and Concord.

No comments: