Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March, 1770

Joseph Warren (1741–1775)
From The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764–1776

Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770, 1855, original painting by illustrator William L. Champney (fl. 1850–1857), reproduced as a chromolithograph and published by Henry Q. Smith, Boston. Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum. In the center is Crispus Attucks, a Boston resident of African and Native American descent who was the first to die during the confrontation. Champney’s painting was modeled after the famous hand-colored engraving by Henry Pelham, versions of which were sold as prints by both Paul Revere and Pelham only weeks after the event took place.
The following introduction is adapted, with minor changes and the addition of an excerpt from John Adams’s diary, from headnotes by Gordon S. Wood in the two-volume Library of America collection The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764–1776.
In his testimony before the House of Commons in 1766, Benjamin Franklin drew a distinction between “internal” taxes, such as the stamp taxes on newspapers and legal documents, and “external” taxes, such as duties levied on imports. Although few colonists made much of this distinction, the British government seized on it. The following year the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, admitted that he could not see “any distinction between internal and external taxes; it is a distinction without a difference, it is perfect nonsense.” But “since the Americans were pleased to make that distinction,” he was “willing to indulge them.”

Consequently, Parliament went on to levy “external” taxes or duties on colonial imports of lead, glass, paper, and tea, the revenue from which was to be applied to the salaries of royal officials in the colonies, thereby affording them a measure of independence from the colonial assemblies, their traditional paymasters. At the same time the British government decided that the North American colonies had at long last become important enough to require their own ministerial department. Lord Hillsborough, a hard-liner, was appointed the first secretary of the new American department.

The reforms accompanying the Townshend Duties created three new vice-admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston to supplement the one in Halifax. To oversee these institutions of trade enforcement, Parliament also established a new American Board of Customs located in Boston. This was scarcely the best place to put it, for Boston—in fact the entire colony of Massachusetts—was seething. Attacked by mobs, customs officials in Boston found it impossible to enforce the new trade regulations, and they pleaded for military support. When a British warship arrived in Boston in June 1768, emboldened customs officials promptly seized John Hancock’s ship Liberty for violating the trade laws. This set off one of the fiercest riots in Boston’s history.

Following Governor Francis Bernard’s dissolution of the Massachusetts assembly, Boston’s town meeting ordered the town’s inhabitants to arm and called upon all the towns in the colony to send delegates to an extra-legal convention. Lord Hillsborough concluded that all order had broken down in Massachusetts, and he sent two regiments to Boston. By 1769 there were nearly four thousand armed redcoats in the crowded seaport of fifteen thousand inhabitants. Since the colonists shared the traditional English fear of standing armies, relations between the townspeople and soldiers rapidly deteriorated. On March 5, 1770, a party of eight British soldiers fired on a threatening crowd, killing five civilians (three died at the scene and two later from their wounds).

This “Boston Massacre,” as it was called, immediately aroused American passions and inspired some of the most sensational rhetoric of the period. That fall, John Adams and Josiah Quincy as co-counsels successfully defended the soldiers against the charge of murder. As Quincy told his father, he and Adams took the case only after the leading patriots, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Dr. Joseph Warren, had urged them to do so. Three years later, on the anniversary of the event, John Adams wrote in his diary:
The Part I took in Defence of Captn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. 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. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

This however is 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 of Proofs of the Danger of standing Armies.
Boston began commemorating the incident with an annual oration, an observance that would continue until independence, when it was replaced by orations celebrating the Fourth of July. Warren, who was called on to deliver the oration in 1772, had become a prominent radical in 1767 when he published in the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym of “A True Patriot” a series of protests against the Townshend Acts. They were so incendiary that Governor Bernard sought to have him prosecuted for libel. Warren would be asked to deliver the Massacre oration once again in 1775, just three months before he was killed at the battle of Bunker Hill. The second time he delivered the oration while wearing a Roman toga—a vivid sign of the republicanism that was by then fast approaching.

Notes: The quote by Virgil on the title page is from the Aeneid, which reads in the Fairclough translation: “What Myrmidon or Dolopian, or soldier of stern Ulysses, could in telling such a tale refrain from tears?” The quote by Cicero in the footnote on page 748 is from Orations against Cataline: “All ranks support the preservation of the republic with heart and will, with zeal and virtue, and with their voices.” The rape of Lucretia, a noblewoman, led to the end of the Roman monarchy in 510–509 BCE. The second quote from Virgil (page 756, footnote) is from the Eclogues: “But soon as thou canst read of the glories of heroes and thy father's deeds, and canst know what valour is.”

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