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People & Events
The Boston Massacre

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Boston Massacre

In the years following the Boston Massacre, playwright Mercy Otis Warren wrote that "No previous outrage had given a general alarm, as the commotion on the fifth of March, 1770."

Although the first protests against British taxation were organized by wealthy colonists, it was the people who held no property, paid few or no taxes, and could not vote who suffered most directly from the conflict between Britain and the colonies. The boycott of British goods organized by the Sons of Liberty meant a loss of work or business for mechanics and shopkeepers. Men and boys, especially seamen, were subject to impressment into the British armed forces. British soldiers quartered in Boston, New York and other cities took away scarce jobs from sailors, dock laborers and other working people, among whom blacks were liberally represented.

Whether enslaved or free, Boston's Africans were certainly among the most vulnerable. Up until the middle of the 18th century, local slave codes regulated free blacks, Indians and mulattos as well. Socially and economically, most free blacks occupied the lowest positions in colonial society, and along with Catholics, Jews, Indians and women, they were generally denied full citizenship. Perhaps more than for any other group, slogans such as "Liberty and Property!" resonated loudly for northern blacks.

As the number of soldiers quartered in Boston increased, so did tensions between them and local residents. A number of skirmishes were documented in the years between the Stamp Act riots and the Boston Massacre. In September 1768, a Boston newspaper reported an incident in which British troops were "severely whipped" by a mostly black group in a fight on the Common.

A fight between soldiers and ropemakers on Friday, March 2, 1770 ignited a series of confrontations that led to the Boston Massacre the following Monday. Crispus Attucks, a mulatto sailor, ropemaker, and runaway and the first to be killed, was one of a number of seaman and dock workers present. In his legal defense of the soldiers, future president John Adams called Attucks the leader of "such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together." In his closing argument, he emphasized the roles of Attucks and "a Carr from Ireland" in an attempt to play on anti-black and anti-Irish sentiment.

The middle and upper class patriots who orchestrated the large-scale anti-British actions, and who wrote many of the more than 400 pamphlets that circulated prior to the war -- among them Samuel Adams and James Otis -- had often decried the fighting and destruction of property by mob action. Yet the outrage generated by the Boston Massacre provided the patriot propagandists with an unparalleled opportunity to unite the colonists in common cause. Where before they had attempted to distance themselves from the behavior of the laboring classes, they now attempted to shape it.

The men who John Adams described as "the most obscure and inconsiderable that could have been found upon the continent" were suddenly recast as sympathetic figures, as noble men, as fathers and sons. As many as ten thousand of Boston's sixteen thousand citizens marched in the funeral procession to Faneuil Hall, that included "a long train of carriages belonging to the principal gentry in the town." In the years that followed, the anniversary of the Boston Massacre was observed in a solemn public ceremony designed to stir revolutionary fervor and promote popular support for independence.

Image Credit: Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society

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Related Entries:
"The Bloody Massacre..."
Crispus Attucks
Portrait of Crispus Attucks in Boston Massacre

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