The Boston Massacre

Late in the afternoon of March 5, 1770, British sentries guarding the Boston Customs House shot into a crowd of civilians, killing three men and injuring eight, two of them mortally. Surrounded by jeering Bostonians slinging hard-packed snowballs, the small group of soldiers lost control when one of their number was struck. The soldiers fired despite explicit orders to the contrary.

The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt. Boston: Engrav’d Printed & Sold by Paul Revere, 1770. Fine Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

African-American sailor Crispus Attucks was the first to fall. Attucks’ past remains mysterious, but he likely escaped slavery around 1750 and spent the next twenty years working whaling ships. The only victim of the Boston Massacre whose name became widely known, Crispus Attucks was memorialized as the first hero of the American Revolution.

Afro-American Monument.[detail: Christopher [sic] Attucks, the First to Shed Blood and That His Own for American Independence]. Chicago: Goes Lith. Co.; B.F. Hammond, c1897. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The Boston Massacre reflected growing tension between Great Britain and its American colonies. Burdened by debt accumulated during the French and Indian War, the British government attempted to exercise greater control over its American colonies while simultaneously increasing revenues. Beginning in 1764, a series of acts and proclamations limited westward expansion, created new levels of British bureaucracy on American soil, and raised taxes. The Stamp Act, considered particularly egregious by the colonists, levied a duty on all paper documents. Everything from playing cards and newspapers to wills and bills of sale carried this additional tax.

The Boston Massacre helped galvanize Boston and the colonies against the mother country. Samuel Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, played a leading role in framing the March 5 incident as a battle for American liberty. By transforming the dead rioters into martyrs for liberty, Sam Adams secured removal of British troops from Boston. Interestingly, Adams’ second cousin, patriot and future president John Adams, defended the soldiers at their trial.

Samuel Adams. John Singleton Copley, artist; photograph of painting in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; [between 1900 and 1912]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

In the nineteenth century, Crispus Attucks served as an important symbol of the patriotism and military valor of the African-American people. “When in 1776 the Negro was asked to decide between British oppression and American independence,” renowned educator Booker T. Washington observed in an 1898 address, “we find him choosing the better part and Crispus Attucks, a Negro, was the first to shed his blood on State Street, Boston, that the white American might enjoy liberty forever, though his race remained in slavery.” Considering his probable status as an escaped slave, Attucks risked personal liberty as well as his life by participating in the demonstration.

Boston, Mass., Boston Massacre Monument. [between 1890 and 1906]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

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