Today in 1770, the Boston Massacre took place outside the Customs House in Boston, Massachusetts. While hardly a massacre, the death of five colonists at the hands of British soldiers was a watershed event in the years leading up to the American War for Independence.
The seeds of discontent which led to the confrontation that day were planted in 1767 with the passing of the Townshend Acts. These acts levied taxes on very common items that were imported into the colonies from England. These items included paper, paint, glass and tea. The acts also stated that money taken in by these taxes was to be used to pay the salaries of the governors and other British officials in the colonies. This extra taxation was instituted in an effort to offset the cost of the Seven Years War, which was termed the French and Indian War by the colonists. Since England had spent a great deal of time and treasure in defending the colonies, the powers that be in London believed the new taxes were a fair burden.
The Townshend Acts were met with stiff resistance in America. Colonists in various coastal cities organized boycotts of the taxed items, instead buying smuggled goods that, while illegal, were free from taxation. The phrase “no taxation without representation” became popular and reminded colonists that they had no representatives in the British Parliament. Boston came to be seen as the center of resistance to the taxes, so much so that England sent infantry troops to the city in the fall of 1768 to quell any violence which might erupt. This only served to raise the level of tension in the city.
The actual incident which led to shots being fired began in the early evening of March 5th. A British private, Hugh White, was standing his sentry post outside Boston’s Customs House. A local boy passing by taunted a British officer on the street and, when had didn’t receive a response, came back two hours later with some friends and began throwing snowballs at Private White. White left his post and confronted the boys; the scene ended with the private striking one of the boys on the temple with the butt of his musket. Passersby slowed down to watch the action and then stopped. In less than an hour, a large crowd had formed.
As darkness descended on the city, the crowd continued to grow and become louder and more aggressive. Private White, feeling threatened, left his sentry post and took up position on the Customs House steps, in front of the locked main entrance. One of White’s superiors, Captain Thomas Preston, soon dispatched several soldiers with fixed bayonets to his position; Preston and another officer, James Basset, went as well. The crowd bore down on the advancing column and hurled insults at them as they passed by. After they took up a semi-circular position at the Customs House stairs, they loaded their muskets. The crowd was now contained over 300 people.
As the crowd pressed against the facing soldiers, Private Hugh Montgomery was hit by a club and fell down. As he stood back up, he fired his musket as he yelled “Damn you, fire!”. The crowd took up the chant of “fire” as the soldiers stood by, their muskets at the ready. After a few seconds, shots rang out.
Eleven men were hit. Three men died instantly: Samuel Gray, James Caldwell and Crispus Attucks. Teenager Samuel Maverick died early on the morning of March 6th from his wounds and Patrick Carr died two weeks later. Afraid of another incident, authorities in the city agreed the next day to remove the British troops from the center of Boston to Castle Island in the harbor. On March 27th, three weeks after the incident, all the soldiers, Captain Preston and four men in the Customs House were indicted for murder.
Descriptions of the event and hand-drawn images were soon circulated throughout New England. The local government was determined to give the soldiers a fair trial so that Parliament would not be moved to retaliate for the mistreatment of members of His Majesty’s army. However, no lawyer would voluntarily take the side of the defense. Captain Preston sent a request to John Adams, future President and Vice President, asking for his help. Adams agreed to see to Preston’s defense in the name of a fair trial. In the end, Preston would have three defense attorneys: Adams as the lead with Josiah Quincy II and Robert Auchmuty. Sampson Blowers worked for the defense as well by investigating the jury pool. The prosecution was made up of Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and attorney Robert Treat Paine, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Captain Preston, as the senior officer present on the night in question, was tried alone. After a seven day trial he was acquitted because the prosecution failed to prove that he had ordered the shots fired.
The enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were tried together. John Adams argued that if the soldiers were endangered by the mob then they had the legal right to defend themselves. If they were provoked but not endangered, he argued, they were at most guilty of manslaughter. The jury agreed with Adams and acquitted six of the soldiers. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of murder because there was overwhelming evidence that they fired directly into the crowd. However, John Adams used an old British Common Law statute known as “Benefit of clergy” to have the men’s sentences reduced to manslaughter; they were branded on their thumbs as punishment. In the end, the jury believed that the crowd did endanger the soldiers.
The Townshend Acts were eventually repealed with the exception of the tax on tea. However, it made little difference. Relations between England and her North American colonies deteriorated to the point of outright rebellion by 1775. While the Boston Massacre was a sure signpost of the war to come, it also served as a demonstration of the ability of the colonies to ensure that one of the cornerstones of democracy, a fair trial by jury, prevailed despite public pressure and, thus, that self-governance was possible.