No Isolated Incident: Why Was the Boston Massacre so Shocking?


By: Warner Todd Huston

You may heave heard of the saying “nature abhors a vacuum”? In essence, it means that once something disappears nature quickly fills the hole left behind. Well, in history there is another axiom about “vacuums.” It is that nothing occurs in one. In this short piece, we’ll take a moment to find out why the Boston Massacre was one of the final straws that severed the bonds of affection between the American Colonists and the British Crown and we’ll see that it didn’t occur in a proverbial vacuum. Far from being a sudden action or one that happened without precedent, the Boston Massacre was the culmination, at least philosophically so, of actions of a similar nature that had been happening in both England and the Colonies for months beforehand.

Any student of the American Revolutionary era knows of the Boston Massacre. It was that incident that occurred on March 5, 1770 in Boston, Massachusetts during which five colonists were killed by a contingent of skittish British Infantry. It was an incident inextricably linked to the beginning of the Revolution that founded the United States of America.

The row began when British Infantry private Hugh White was confronted by a townsman claiming that the soldier hadn’t paid a debt. The argument went on for some time during which more colonists gathered. At one point, Private White struck a young man with his musket butt angering the crowd further. Eventually, several hundred Bostonians gathered and began hurling insults at the beleaguered soldier causing several more British troops to come to White’s aid. Momentarily, one of the British troops was struck with a club and, once he regained his feet, the angered private fired his musket into the crowd. This startled the rest of the soldiers causing them to follow suit. It became clear later that the officer among them did not order his troops to open fire, but five colonists were killed in the incident nonetheless.

Soon afterward, the British soldier involved were arrested and charged with murder. At length, the imprisoned soldiers were represented in court by John Adams with the result that the men were acquitted of the crime. But Adams’ successful defense of these soldiers was not the sort of solution that allowed the Colonists to forgive and forget, nor was the final verdict looked upon by many as justice properly carried out. To the most suspicious of the Colonists, it appeared as if the fix was in.

By itself, it might seem odd that this one incident led inexorably to the American Revolution. A cynical review of that history might make one suspicious that the colonists merely inflated this messy conflict into far more than it really was to serve their separatist purposes. However, the Boston Massacre was not a lone, solitary incident but was of a piece with a series of events that led to this attack being a final straw of sorts.

To begin with, the political culture of the Colonies had been steeped in the small-government, pro-liberty thinking of English Whiggery made popular several decades prior by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in the weekly periodical “The Independent Whig.” Trenchard himself was well-known among the most educated and politically active Colonists for writing a 1698 book entitled “A Short History of Standing Armies in England,” and even more famous — at least in the Colonies — for penning “Cato’s Letters,” an extended treaties on liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience. “Cato’s Letters” became one of the sources that fed the ideology of the American Patriots.

The fear of a standing army, though, had also become ubiquitous in the philosophy of peace loving colonists of both pro-separation as well as pro-British sentiment. A careful examination of history showed the colonists that every time a government emplaced an army among the people — those not on the frontiers, in any case — tyranny and despotism soon followed in that location. Boston had already been inflamed for two years before the massacre when the British regulars entered the town on October 1, 1768.

For his part, the governor of Massachusetts, Sir Francis Bernard, had been looking for a reason to bring in the Army to quell the rising incidents of tax evasion and other near mutinous behavior in his province. The Stamp Act and his ill advised 1760 Writs of Assistance to Massachusetts’ customs tax collectors had had the people in an uproar since he was appointed governor. During those two years, Bernard used these “lobsterbacks” to enforce tax collection as well as to act as a police force. Many incidents of a questionable nature had already occurred between these soldiers and the increasingly resentful townsfolk.

So, as Bernard escalated his actions by bringing in the military to tamp down insurrection his action inadvertently fed right into the worst fears that the colonists had. Once the troops arrived, the Colonists had become more sure than ever that their liberties were about to be stolen away from them and the fear that they were to go from free British citizens to virtual slaves under the heel of a standing army that would be used to grind them into dust became common even among some pro-royalists.

To spread the word, as the British Army entered Boston, a series of articles began to appear in the New York Journal (from dispatches sent out of Boston) chronicling the outrages suffered by Bostonians at the hands of the British regulars. The series lasted from October 13, 1768 to November 30, 1769. Called “The Journal of the Times,” this series was reprinted first in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, then the Boston Evening Post and then throughout the Colonies. These articles also appeared widely in England.

But, it wasn’t just a matter of fears and a ginning up of suspicions by those interested in rabble rousing against the Crown that led to further feelings of revolutionary zeal. Real incidents of government abuse were piling up one on top of the next in both the Colonies and England herself previous to the Boston Massacre. Every move the soldiers made was viewed as another act of oppression of the Colonist’s liberties and rights as Englishmen.

There was also a situation occurring in England that seemed to mirror the oppression happening in the New World. Americans with political interest had become taken with the situation of English politician and radical John Wilkes. Wilkes was seen by many Americans as the epitome of the man of the people standing against the tyranny of overpowering government.

Wilkes had been voted into Parliament by his voters half a dozen times, yet the Crown refused again and again to allow him to take his seat. At some point, Wilkes had ben accused of being an “outlaw” for having written a ribald poem titled “An Essay on Women” that the Crown deemed pornographic and it was widely known that a particular member of Parliament used his position to thwart Wilkes’ ability to take his rightful seat in that body. Wilkes was involved in an awful lot of controversy but one incident in particular caused the American Colonists to see him as their example of growing English tyranny.

In May of 1768 a mob had formed in St. George’s Fields, London to jeer the imprisonment of John Wilkes. As it happened a detachment of British troops fired on this crowd killing several. The troops were also used to hunt down and shoot to death a young boy that was, it turned out, wrongly accused of being one of the mob’s leaders. Worse, those soldiers involved in the St. George’s Fields massacre were let off without any consequences, a situation that many Americans would see as a parallel with the not guilty verdict of the soldiers in Boston a few years later.

Not long after this incident in London, in February of 1770, some soldiers in Boston ended up killing an eleven-year-old boy in another riot against a customs house there. Because of the amount of time it took for incidents to be communicated over the vast ocean, the St. George’s Fields attack was fresh in the minds of the colonists and many quickly equated this Boston incident to the Wilkes incident. Of course, shortly after the eleven-year-old boy was killed by British troops in Boston in February of 1770, the Boston Massacre occurred in March.

These incidents, the constant harassment and imprisonment of the popularly elected Wlikes in London, the killing of civilians during the 1768 riot in England and the killing of the boy in 1770 in Boston, as well as the irritant of the British troops being used against the Colonists in Boston, added up to an obvious conspiracy to destroy British liberty, quash British rights, and unleash a despotic, overweening government upon the people. It all amounted to a final straw as far as many were concerned.

Yet, then came a brief two-year-long period when it almost seemed as if the Crown had begun to realize its mistake. The troops were withdrawn from Boston and several of the onerous taxes like the Townshend Duties were repealed. But, by 1773 it started all over again with the Tea Act which soon to lead to the Boston Tea Party in December. From there it wasn’t long until full-blown revolution was on hand at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, which became the “shot heard round the world.”

Finally, it should be remembered that incidents of a like nature were playing out throughout the colonies, not just Boston, until Tea Parties of the sort that happened in Boston harbor occurred in several eastern costal cities in several colonies. It didn’t take much of a logical leap for politically active colonists to shift from imagining that their government was merely incompetent to feeling that there was a concerted plan emanating from the King and carried through several personnel changes in Parliament to destroy their constitutional rights as Englishmen.

As you can see, history is always more complicated than a simple review of “the” incidents is concerned. The Revolution did not skip from the Boston Massacre, to the Boston Tea Party to the first shots at the battle of Lexington and Concord but had rather a wide range of incidents both in the Americas and in the Motherland that finally led up to that great conflagration.

And now, you know a little more about those interesting and perilous times.

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