Tensions Ignite: The Boston Massacre, 1770

Learning Objectives

  • Detail the events surrounding the Boston Massacre

The Massachusetts Circular got Parliament’s attention, and in 1768 Lord Hillsborough sent 4,000 British troops to Boston to deal with the unrest and put down any potential rebellion there. The troops were a constant reminder of British aggression toward the colonies, an illustration of the unequal relationship between the Empire and its subjects. Adding insult to injury, some British soldiers moonlighted as dockworkers, creating competition for employment. Boston’s labor system had traditionally been closed, privileging native-born laborers over outsiders, and jobs were scarce. Many Bostonians, led by the Sons of Liberty, mounted a campaign of harassment against British troops. The Sons of Liberty also helped protect the smuggling actions of the merchants; smuggling was crucial for the colonists’ ability to maintain their boycott of British goods because it allowed them to avoid paying taxes on imported goods and bring in cargo that did not originate in Britain.

John Hancock was one of Boston’s most successful merchants and prominent citizens. While he maintained too high a profile to work actively with the Sons of Liberty, he was known to support their aims, if not their means of achieving them. He was also one of the many prominent merchants who had made their fortunes by smuggling, which was rampant in the colonial seaports. In 1768, customs officials seized one of Hancock’s ships, the Liberty, and violence erupted. Led by the Sons of Liberty, Bostonians rioted against customs officials, attacking the customs house and chasing out the officers, who ran to safety at Castle William, a British fort on a Boston harbor island. British soldiers subdued the rioters, but clashes between British officials and Bostonians became more common as Imperial control tightened in the colonies.

The Boston Massacre

The tensions erupted with deadly consequences on March 5, 1770, in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. On that night, a crowd of Bostonians, some of them children, started throwing snowballs, rocks, and sticks at the British soldiers guarding the customs house. The mob heckled the soldiers, calling them “lobster backs” (a reference to their bright red uniforms, as well as the fact that lobsters are bottom-feeders). Feeling threatened and insulted, the British soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five colonists. Crispus Attucks, the first man killed—and, though no one could have known it then, the first official casualty in the Revolutionary War—was of Wampanoag and African descent. The bloodshed illustrated the level of hostility that had developed as a result of the British occupation of Boston, the competition for scarce jobs between Bostonians and the British soldiers, and the larger question of Parliament’s efforts to tax the colonies.

The Sons of Liberty immediately seized on the event, characterizing the British soldiers as murderers and their victims as martyrs. Paul Revere, a silversmith and member of the Sons of Liberty, circulated an engraving that showed a line of grim redcoats firing ruthlessly into a crowd of unarmed, fleeing civilians. The massacre confirmed the fears of many colonists, who saw Britain as a tyrannical government using its armies to subdue loyal British subjects. To others, the attacking mob was equally to blame for pelting the British with rocks and insulting them, believing that those who resorted to violence against the Empire had received their just deserts.

It was not only British Loyalists who condemned the unruly mob. John Adams, one of the city’s strongest supporters of peaceful protest against Parliament, represented the British soldiers at their murder trial. Adams argued that the mob’s lawlessness required the soldiers’ violent response and that without law and order, a society was nothing. He argued further that the soldiers were the tools of a much broader program, which transformed a street brawl into the injustice of imperial policy. Of the eight soldiers on trial, the jury acquitted six, convicting the other two of the reduced charge of manslaughter.

watch it: Adams Defends the British Soldiers

In his capacity as a defense attorney, John Adams argued: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defense; if it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snow-balls, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind; this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offence of killing, down to manslaughter, in consideration of those passions in our nature, which cannot be eradicated. To your candour and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause.” Read the full text of Adams’ speech here.[1]

Watch Paul Giamatti recreate John Adams’ speech in defense of the British soldiers on trial for murder after the Boston Massacre, from the HBO Mini-Series John Adams:

You can view the transcript for “John Adams, Boston Massacre” here (opens in new window).

A line of British soldiers shoots into a crowd of colonists, all of whom are white and well-dressed. Some of the colonists attempt to flee; others help the injured or hold up their hands, asking the British for mercy; several lay bleeding and dying on the ground. In the foreground, a small dog stands beside two of the victims. The Boston State House and surrounding buildings are visible in the background.

Figure 1. The Sons of Liberty circulated this sensationalized version of the events of March 5, 1770, created by Paul Revere, in order to promote the rightness of their cause. The verses below the image begin as follows: “Unhappy Boston! see thy Sons deplore, Thy hallowed Walks besmeared with guiltless Gore.”

Propaganda and the Sons of Liberty

Long after the British soldiers had been tried and punished, the Sons of Liberty maintained a relentless propaganda campaign against British oppression. Many of them were printers or engravers, and they were able to use public media to sway others to their cause. Shortly after the incident outside the customs house, Paul Revere created “The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt.,” based on an image by engraver Henry Pelham. The picture—which represents only the protesters’ point of view—shows the ruthlessness of the British soldiers and the helplessness of the crowd of civilians. Notice the subtle details Revere uses to help convince the viewer of the civilians’ innocence and the soldiers’ cruelty. Although eyewitnesses said the crowd started the fight by throwing snowballs and rocks, in the engraving they are innocently standing by. Revere also depicts the crowd as well-dressed and well-to-do, when in fact they were laborers and probably looked quite a bit rougher.

Newspaper articles and pamphlets that the Sons of Liberty circulated implied that the “massacre” was a planned murder. In the Boston Gazette on March 12, 1770, an article describes the soldiers as striking first. It goes on to discuss this version of the events: “On hearing the noise, one Samuel Atwood came up to see what was the matter; and entering the alley from dock square, heard the latter part of the combat; and when the boys had dispersed he met the ten or twelve soldiers aforesaid rushing down the alley towards the square and asked them if they intended to murder people? They answered Yes, by God, root and branch! With that one of them struck Mr. Atwood with a club which was repeated by another; and being unarmed, he turned to go off and received a wound on the left shoulder which reached the bone and gave him much pain.”

What do you think most people in the United States think of when they consider the Boston Massacre? How does the propaganda of the Sons of Liberty still affect the way we think of this event?

making connections: freedom of the presS

A revolution in printing and communication played a vital role in the unification of the American colonies against British rule. Years later, John Adams wrote to his friend, newspaper editor Hezekiah Niles, that:

 “it is greatly to be desired, that young men of letters in all the States, especially in the thirteen original States, would undertake the laborious, but certainly interesting and amusing task, of searching and collecting all the records, pamphlets, newspapers, and even handbills, which in any way contributed to change the temper and views of the people, and compose them into an independent nation.” Adams remarked to Niles that the complete and incredibly fast way that the colonies had united was “a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”[2]

This perfection of mechanism was accomplished in part because of the developments in printed communication which had begun in Europe after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenburg in 1440. By 1638, the first printing press arrived in the American colonies and was housed at Harvard College. In 1725, William Bradford established the first newspaper in New York City, the New York Gazette. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the non-importation movement stopped British type (the small letter blocks which were used to print) from entering the colonies, so the demand for American type rose. Texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania were printed and distributed widely within the colonies, creating a uniform sense of current events which helped to fuel colonial outrage at their treatment by the British. For the first time, ordinary people could buy a newspaper and read what had happened only days earlier in a different colony, rather than hearing the news second or third-hand weeks after the event. Authors used pseudonyms to protect themselves from retaliation, while the Sons of Liberty used the press to release the names of merchants or officials who supported the British. This revolution in printing allowed for the swift and total unification of the colonies because it was so influential on public opinion. The role of the press in the American Revolution also solidified the American ideal of “freedom of the press” such that it was codified in the U.S. Constitution because the Framers realized that they may not have had a revolution without it.

Partial Repeal

An engraving shows a boat full of colonists watching the Gaspée burn before them. Several of the men have raised their hats into the air.

Figure 2. This 1883 engraving, which appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, depicts the burning of the Gaspée. This attack provoked the British government to convene a Royal Commission of Inquiry; some regarded the Commission as an example of excessive British power and control over the colonies.

The Boston Massacre occurred after Parliament had already partially repealed the Townshend Acts. By the late 1760s, the American boycott of British goods had drastically reduced British trade. Once again, merchants who lost money because of the boycott strongly pressured Parliament to loosen its restrictions on the colonies and break the non-importation movement. Charles Townshend died suddenly in 1767 and was replaced by Lord North, who was inclined to look for a more workable solution with the colonists. North convinced Parliament to drop all the Townshend duties except the tax on tea. The administrative and enforcement provisions under the Townshend Acts—the American Board of Customs Commissioners and the vice-admiralty courts—also remained in place.

To those who had protested the Townshend Acts for several years, the partial repeal appeared to be a major victory. For a second time, colonists had rescued liberty from an unconstitutional parliamentary action. The hated British troops in Boston departed. The consumption of British goods skyrocketed after the partial repeal, an indication of the American colonists’ desire for the items linking them to the Empire. Most of the colonists still saw themselves as British and simply hoped that the government would eventually begin to treat them as equals instead of a colonial backwater to be micromanaged and overtaxed.

Smoldering Resentment

Even after the partial repeal of the Townshend duties, however, suspicion of Parliament’s intentions remained high. This was especially true in port cities like Boston and New York, where British customs agents were a daily irritant and reminder of British power. In public houses and squares, people met and discussed politics. Philosopher John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, published almost a century earlier, influenced political thought about the role of government to protect life, liberty, and property. The Sons of Liberty issued propaganda ensuring that colonists remained aware when Parliament overreached itself.

Violence continued to break out on occasion, as in 1772, when Rhode Island colonists boarded and burned the British revenue ship Gaspée in Narragansett Bay. Colonists had attacked or burned British customs ships in the past, but after the Gaspée Affair, the British government convened a Royal Commission of Inquiry. This Commission had the authority to extradite colonists charged with treason to Great Britain for trial. Some colonial protestors saw this new ability as another example of the overreach of British power since many colonists had never been to Britain and would not be tried by a jury of their colonial peers, but by native British citizens, many of whom saw them as rabble-rousing colonial bumpkins.

Samuel Adams, along with Joseph Warren and James Otis, re-formed the Boston Committee of Correspondence, which functioned as a form of shadow government, to address the fear of British overreach. Soon towns all over Massachusetts had formed their own committees, and many other colonies followed suit. These committees, which had between seven and eight thousand members in all, identified enemies of the liberty movement and communicated the news of the day. Sometimes they provided a version of events that differed from royal interpretations, and slowly, the committees began to supplant royal governments as sources of information. They later formed the backbone of communication among the colonies in the rebellion against the Tea Act, and eventually in the revolt against the British crown.

Review Question

What factors contributed to the Boston Massacre?

What was the significance of the Committees of Correspondence?

Try It


Boston Massacre: a confrontation between a crowd of Bostonians and British soldiers on March 5, 1770, which resulted in the deaths of five people, including Crispus Attucks, the first official casualty in the war for independence

Committees of Correspondence: colonial extralegal shadow governments that convened to coordinate plans of resistance against the British

  1. “Adams’ Argument for the Defense: 3–4 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/05-03-02-0001-0004-0016. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Legal Papers of John Adams, vol. 3, Cases 63 and 64: The Boston Massacre Trials, ed. L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. 242–270.]
  2. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 10, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/adams-the-works-of-john-adams-vol-10-letters-1811-1825-indexes#lf1431-10_head_120.