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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – March, 2013
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director
“Lessons from the Boston Massacre”
The year 1770 opened with tensions high between the citizens of Boston and the British soldiers stationed in the city and sleeping in tents on the Common. The British soldiers were illegally stationed in the city during peacetime, a violation of the three English documents that made up its Constitution. Forced quartering (housing and feeding) of soldiers coupled with several recorded abuses of those soldiers while in private homes only made matters worse. After the “massacre” of March 5, 1770, Paul Revere painted a picture of what happened, and due to its depiction of a literal mass shooting by the British (ignoring the facts), caused the colonists to go to the brink of lawless rebellion.
What lessons can be learned from such an event? Before highlighting them, it will be important to recount what actually happened. The Boston Massacre cannot be understood outside the context of the rising tension between American liberty and British tyranny. The enforcing of various laws on the books of England that had been dormant for nearly 100 years in 1760 brought regulation on everything from sugar to wool. This was not merely taxation, it was control – for England wanted to force the colonies to follow the age-old economic philosophy of mercantilism – where the mother country exercised monopoly on the trade with its colonies. Though some of these taxes and controls were repealed, the principle remained, and in October of 1768, to “keep the peace”, British soldiers arrived.
Under the leadership of Samuel Adams, appeals were made to the Loyalist Governor Hutchinson to remove the troops unlawfully stationed during peacetime in Boston. The English Parliament, by law, had no authority over the colonies, for each of them had their own parliaments called by various names. It was well understood that as a British subject there could be no taxation without direct and local representation. After all, that was the essence of self-government. Thus, written appeals as well as letters in the newspaper (mostly by Sam Adams) called for England to respect her own Constitution and the individual Charters of the Colonies, particularly Massachusetts and Boston. The response of the Crown was the “prerogative” – basically all rights are in the Crown and the colonists have none. In addition, the sending of troops only confirmed that England was going to follow reason with force.
On February 22, 1770 Christopher Sneider got into a quarrel with a loyalist merchant. Christopher and several other boys began throwing rocks at his shop. Ebenezer Richardson defended the merchant, and when he fired his gun, Christopher was killed. The funeral procession for Christopher on the 26th of February was massive, with over five thousand citizens carrying his casket from Fanuiel Hall to the Granary Burial Ground. Inscribed on his casket was “innocence itself is not safe”. Sam Adams called Christopher the “first martyr to American liberty.” When Ebenezer was found “not guilty” by reason of self-defense, he was accosted by citizens and physically abused. Lawlessness was on the rise.
The 14th British regiment was stationed on King Street (now State Street in front of the Old State House a few rods from its balcony). On the night of March 5, Edward Garrick, a wigmaker’s apprentice, yelled to Captain John Goldfinch (one of the British soldiers) that he had not paid his master’s bill. Bartholomew Broaders, a friend of Garrick’s, went right up to private Hugh White’s face and screamed at him about this, and in response, White struck him on the side of the head with his rifle. A crowd now began to form.
Private White called for help, and Captain Preston responded with seven more soldiers of the 29th regiment. All of a sudden a fire bell rang out – and the crowd swelled with people running out of their homes saying “where is the fire?” The crowd pressed in toward the soldiers, who now feared for their lives. Snowballs, which had been thrown at them periodically since Sneider’s death now pelted them, often with rocks hidden within them. Taunted to the breaking point, when private Montgomery is knocked down by one of those taunting, he yells fire! Shots ring out, and five are dead, six wounded. Governor Hutchinson addresses the crowd from the balcony of the State House saying “the law shall have its course. I will live and die by the law.”
Prosecuting the soldiers for murder was Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine. Robert Paine would become a member of the Continental Congress and sign the Declaration. Samuel’s younger brother Josiah, Jr. would lead the defense of the soldiers with Robert Auchmuty and John Adams. Josiah got heavy criticism from his own father, and John Adams was highly criticized as well, being a patriot for the American cause. Josiah responded to his father “…these criminals, charged with murder, are not yet legally guilty, and… are entitled, by the laws of God and man, to all legal counsel and aid.” Adams responded “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Only two soldiers were charged with manslaughter, and all others were acquitted, having fired in self-defense.
Writing in his diary three years later, John Adams said “Psalm 51:1 – have mercy upon me, O God… I have reason to remember that fatal night… the part I took in defense of Captain Preston and the Soldiers procured me anxiety… it was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my Country.” On his deathbed, 50 years to the day from the signing of the Declaration, July 4, 1826, Adams would repeat this sentiment when asked what he thought was the greatest thing he did for his country. Why this act? Because the rule of law is the only thing, under God, that will procure more liberty instead of tyranny! It is also important to remember that today’s anger toward unconstitutional government must not erupt into lawlessness, for lawless rebellion always plants seeds of more tyranny. Let us learn this well!