Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

8 (mostly) unanswered questions about the Boston Massacre

March 8, 2011 by Peggy Duckett


(credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We remember the night of March 5, 1770, when the first shots were fired from the standing British army into the crowd, an event still reenacted in Boston today.

John Adams, in his notes from the subsequent trial of the soldiers, wrote that there was “no reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here.  But it is the strongest Proof of the Danger of Standing Armies.”

As crowds gather throughout the Middle East in face-offs with military forces from their own countries, there are questions which come from our own experience that relate to now.

  1. What actions by the British inflamed the colonists? The hated Townshend Acts, competition in a tough economy and immediate anger of that preceding week (when 11-year-old Christopher Seider had been shot by a customs employee) set off colonists.
  2. What events triggered the blowup that night? When British soldier Hugh Montgomery was struck on the head and then knocked down by a flying board, the shots would begin to explode. Crispus Attucks, a mulatto dock worker in the front line, was first shot in the liver and lung; four others, three of them aged 17, lay dead or dying. Six more were wounded.
  3. How was the uprising that night finally quelled? Royal Governor Hutchinson met with his Council in the Town House and came out on the balcony to promise the crowd, “Let the law be done. I will live and die by the law.” All the soldiers were indicted for murder.
  4. How did the massacre affect the British army? John Hancock and Sam Adams, speaking for the enraged Sons of Liberty, demanded that the two regiments remaining be removed from the heart of the city.
  5. What was the evidence? Who gave the order to fire into the crowd? Samuel Adams got 96 signatures to show that Preston gave the order.  Others nearby heard no such thing, and some heard “Don’t fire”! Only Preston wrote his version, although late in life Hugh Montgomery would give his. In the seven-months delay until the rural jury was to meet, John Adams laboriously gathered evidence from those nearby on that night.
  6. How did word spread? The first, most vivid picture arrived three weeks after the incident. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this one was made to inflame.
  7. What verdicts came from the trial itself? We know that the rural jury acquitted Captain Preston, who claimed he was only trying to protect the Customs House. A later jury, considering self-defense, convicted only two men, Privates Montgomery and Kilroy.
  8. So what resulted from this first bloodshed, March 5, 1770? In the next few years some, but not all, would try to cool things down and subsequent boycotts actually would lose steam. By the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and of the Lexington and Concord battle in 1775, the Boston Massacre would be remembered as a clarion call, a precursor to the Revolutionary War.
Peggy Duckett is a Board Member of the Museum of the American Revolution.

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