“Unhappy Boston! See thy sons deplore,
Thy hallowed walks besmeared with guiltless gore
While faithless F–n and his savage bands,
With murd- ‘rous Rancour stretch their bloody hands,
Like firece Barbarians grinning o’er their Prey;
Approve the carnage and enjoy the day.” – Popular engraving by Paul Revere
“Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” – John Adams
On today’s date, March 5 in 1770 in the city of Boston, British troops opened fire on a mob which had been heckling them in that tense and angry city. Five men were killed. The poster pictured above along with the poem quoted next to it are part of the immediate reaction, as colonists were whipped into a fury over the incident. The quote which follows the poem is from the closing argument in the trial of the soldiers which came the following December in which the soldiers attorney, one John Adams got them acquitted of charges of murder.
Colonial Unrest Over British Taxes
Boston at that time had been a center of much of the unrest which had grown in Great Britain’s colonies in North America. The whole issue of whether the British government had the right to tax goods imported into the colonies without the colonies input into the matter had caused a great deal of resentment amongst the colonial merchants and traders. While the matter had for the moment been more or less set aside by the expiration of the Townshend Acts, a set of taxes levied by in 1767 by the British Government, there was considerable unease throughout the colonies. And this was particularly so in the port of Boston wherein British troops were quartered and in which these troops were cordially despised.
Snowballs, Troops and “FIRE!”
On the evening of this date it was cold in Boston. There was a bright moon in the sky, and a foot of snow lay on the ground. A lone British sentry on guard in front of the Custom House on King (now State) Street was being taunted by a crowd of rowdy citizens.
A squad of troops were called out to support the guard. It was a tense situation, and the ugly mood of the crowd mixed with the nervous troops was making it worse. At about 9:00 a church bell tolled – an alarm for a fire. All at once the streets were filled with throngs of civilians many of whom had come up from the waterfront and were brandishing clubs. The crowd got meaner and began throwing snowballs and chunks of ice at the troops. A Captain by the name of Preston came to the scene and began trying to calm the situation, pushing muskets down and turning fixed bayonets away. He began shouting to his men over the din of the crowd not to fire. This apparently was heard as “FIRE!” The muskets began firing. Five Boston civilians lay dead on the icy cobble stoned square. More troops came, and the crowd got uglier. Happily, Captain Preston was able to calm his men and Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson were able to restore calm.
The Propagandists Have a Field Day
The incident soon became grist for the mills of propagandists who were itching to stir up simmering resentments against the British rule in the colonies. Samuel Adams and others such as Paul Revere railed against what they portrayed as naked British aggression against peaceful citizens of Boston. Paul Revere published a poster, pictured above which became very popular depicting British troops coolly organized and murderously gunning down helpless civilians. The truth was that whatever the legitimacy of the colonial gripes against British rule, this was an instance of an angry mob getting out of hand and nervous troops reacting predictably. There was tremendous clammier for the troops to be tried and hung for their “brutal” actions.
But the British troops hired a Boston attorney named John Adams (pictured below at the trial) for their defense, and Adams, the future driving force behind the Declaration of Independence was a most effective advocate. Going against popular sentiment, Adams got the trials of the
Captain Preston and the troops moved to October, when passions had cooled somewhat. He managed to get Preston acquitted in a trial in which he was said to have performed brilliantly, although no record was made of his remarks. In the trial of the soldiers which came in December of that year Adams blamed the whole situation on the British policy of quartering troops in the town: “Soldiers quartered in a populous town will always occasion two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of peace.” The crowd had clearly pushed the soldiers beyond reasonable restraint Adams told the jury, having knocked one of them down and clubbing him when he attempted to get up: “Do you expect he should behave like a stoic philosopher, lost in apathy?” Eventually he was able to get six of the men acquitted on charges of murder, and two of them were convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Paul Revere’s Poster =
The Massacre detail =
Adams at the trial =