The Boston Massacre
On the evening of March 5, 1770, with a foot of snow on the ground, groups of Bostonians gathered around the Custom House on King Street. Some had buckets of water, after responding to a fire alarm. Others had clubs to defend themselves or perhaps to threaten the despised “lobsterbacks. ” Private Hugh White was, in fact, being threatened by several wigmakers’ apprentices (Aron 24). When Captain Thomas Preston heard of Private White’s situation, he came with seven other soldiers to help.
Words escalated into snowballs and stones, and the soldiers began to fight back with the butts of their guns. The crowd of Bostonians was growing and now numbered about 100 (24). Then, a huge chunk of ice came flying in from the mob and knocked Private Hugh Montgomery to the ground. He stood up and fired into the crowd and several other shots followed. The event is known today as the Boston Massacre. Clearly these happenings occurred so quickly that it is hard for historians to see which side was responsible.
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However, the Boston Massacre was the fault of the British because they made the decision to station troops in Boston, they failed to remove the troops despite the rising tensions between the soldiers and the colonists, they fired into the crowd of colonists, and two soldiers were convicted despite heavy British favor in the trial. The first reason that the British were at fault for the Boston Massacre was that the British made the decision to station the troops in Boston. In the winter of 1770, many Bostonians harbored deep resentment because of the presence of British military in their city (Linder).
Two regiments of regulars had been quartered in Boston since September of 1768, when they had landed in response to a call by Governor Thomas Hutchinson to restore order and respect for British law. Trouble had arisen earlier that summer when Boston importers refused to pay required custom duties (Linder). This added to the anger in the colonies immensely. Now the colonists were further away from respecting British law than they were before. All of this information added to the obvious fact that if the troops were not in Boston, the Massacre could not have taken place, shows why stationing troops in Boston was a cause of the Boston Massacre.
When the Redcoats were stationed in Boston, it also took work and pay away from Boston workers. Regulations made by the British allowed their soldiers to work part-time at civilian jobs (Aron 28). This only caused more problems between the soldiers and the colonists. Not only were the colonists required to pay taxes they did not support, but also some of them now had no income to pay the taxes. This unemployment caused tensions between colonists and soldiers to rise even more.
Stationing the soldiers in Boston was one reason the British are to blame for the Massacre, but another reason the British are at fault for the Boston Massacre is that they failed to do anything about the rising tensions between the Bostonians and the redcoats. March 5 was not the first time soldiers and colonists fought (Aron 28). Fights between soldiers and civilians were on the rise in early March and by no means was March 5 the first time soldiers and workers clashed (28). On March 2, a fight broke out between soldiers and employees of John Gray’s Ropewalk after one of the employees insulted a soldier (Linder).
A cable-making employee reportedly asked a passing soldier, “Do you want work? ” When the soldier replied that he did, the employee told the soldier, “Wee then, go and clean my shithouse. ” The angry soldier returned later with about a dozen fellow soldiers, and the fight ensued (qtd in Linder). It was only after the massacre that Governor Hutchinson removed the soldiers from Boston. Being the royal governor of Massachusetts, he should have noticed the growing tensions and done something about them earlier. If the troops had been removed earlier, the Massacre would not have happened.
Hutchinson could have armed the soldiers with weapons such as clubs so that the soldiers would have been able to defend themselves, but at the same time would not have been able to kill anyone. The third and most obvious reason the British are to blame for the massacre is that the British soldiers fired into the crowd. When Hugh Montgomery was knocked down by a chunk of ice, he stood up and fired into the crowd (Aron 24). The other soldiers soon fired as well. The gunfire killed five people. Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, and James Caldwell died at the scene.
Samuel Maverick died a few hours later, while Patrick Carr survived for nine days before dying of his wounds (Olson). Samuel Gray was killed by a single ball entering his head, Crispus Attucks was killed by two balls entering his chest, and James Caldwell was killed by two balls entering his back (“Boston”). Benjamin Frizell, who was standing near the west corner of the Custom House before and at the time of the gun discharges, declared that the first discharge was of only one gun, the second discharge was of two guns, the third discharge was of three guns, immediately followed by the fourth and final discharge of five guns “Boston”). He also declared that of the final discharge, two were from soldiers on the ground on Preston’s right side, but three discharges came from the balcony, or the chamber window, as the flashes appeared on the left side of Preston, and higher than the flashes of the other two discharges. This information shows that at least three soldiers were on the balcony and carefully took aim and shot at individuals in the crowd. While one may argue that the soldiers fired their guns in fear for their lives, that was certainly not the case for the three soldiers who fired from the balcony of the Custom House.
As for the soldiers who fired on the ground, there are many other ways to disperse a crowd than by firing point-blank into it. Captain Thomas Preston is said to have given the soldiers the order to fire (“Boston”). This would remove the blame from the individual British troops, as they would have been acting on his command. Captain Preston’s statement, “On my asking the soldiers why they fired without orders, they said they heard the word fire and supposed it came from me… but I assured the men that I gave no such order” shows that this was not the case at all (Preston).
The soldiers may have heard the word “fire” come from the mob. Preston also recalls, “… some persons at the same time from behind calling out, damn your bloods– why don’t you fire? ” (Preston). This information suggests that perhaps another soldier was calling for the others to fire since Preston was advanced in front of his men (Preston). Some historians speculate that it was Private Hugh Montgomery who was calling for the other soldiers to fire, because he was the first one to fire after being knocked down.
Another theory is that when Preston ordered them not to fire, some of the nervous Redcoats, amidst all the confusion and confronted by an angry Boston mob, heard only the final word “fire! ” and thus opened up on the unarmed Bostonians (Leddy). Whatever happened, the soldiers should not have fired unless they were sure that the order came from their officer. Whether or not the order to fire came from Preston, the fact remains that the British soldiers fired into the crowd of Bostonians, which places the blame squarely on the British.
The stationing of troops in Boston, the failed recognition of heavy tensions that should have resulted in removal, and the British gunfire into the crowd are enough evidence to show British guilt by themselves, but the fourth and final reason the British are at fault for the Boston Massacre is that two soldiers were convicted in the trial despite heavy British favor. The Tory-filled jury was one of the reasons for the heavy British favor. Why the prosecutors did not object to a Tory-filled jury remains a mystery to historians (Aron 27).
There are several theories as to why the prosecutors did not object to a pro-Tory jury. One is that the prosecutors feared that the soldiers, if convicted, would have been pardoned by Governor Hutchinson. This would have caused even more anger in the colonies and among patriot leaders and might have caused even more violence. Another theory is that at least one of the prosecutors was a Tory himself. Other historians believe that the prosecutors did not object to a jury full of Tories because, like John Adams, they were eager to show the world how fair they were.
Still others have speculated that the prosecutors were not paying close attention because they were overconfident that no Boston jury would dare let the soldiers off (Aron 27). Paul Aron’s statement, “Whatever the reasons for the prosecution’s lapses, the trial was clearly stacked in favor of the defense,” perfectly sums up this information. Another fact that shows how the trial was in British favor is the fact that only two of the soldiers were convicted of anything. Captain Preston and six other soldiers were acquitted of murder.
The two soldiers convicted were only convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter. The six soldiers that were acquitted were only acquitted because of the British sympathizers in the jury. The soldiers had no defense other than that they thought they heard Preston give the order to fire. That would not have held up in court with a jury consisting of patriots and loyalists in an even ratio. The fact that two soldiers were still convicted despite all of the favor presented to them in the trial, shows their guilt even more clearly. The British are at fault for the Boston Massacre because they fired into the crowd.
If the soldiers did not fire, there would have been no casualties and this event would have been labeled a riot instead of a massacre. More so, the blame for the Massacre falls squarely on the shoulders of the British troops because they acted without the order of Captain Thomas Preston. However, one cannot blame the Boston Massacre entirely on the British. The Americans clearly had their role in it as well. They were antagonizing and mocking the soldiers the whole time and some of them probably got what they deserved. In short, the Boston Massacre cannot be blamed entirely on the Americans or entirely on the British.