Originally published December 5, 2014
In 1768, amid escalating tensions between the British government and independence-minded "radicals" in New England, two full regiments were deployed in Boston as peacekeepers. Their presence was, in historian David Ramsay's elegantly ominous phrase, "a fruitful source of uneasiness."
London tried to preserve the pretense that the troops sent to police the colonies were deployed to maintain public order. However, as Ramsay observes, there was "a general conviction" within the population that the Redcoats had been dispatched as tax collectors, and "there could be no security for their property" until they were forced to leave.
By 1770, royal pronouncements and speeches in both houses of parliament increasingly characterized the Americans "as a factious turbulent people, who aimed at throwing off all subordination to Great Britain," Ramsay continues. That hostility was reciprocated by "fiery spirits" in Boston "who thought it an indignity to have troops quartered among them, [and] were constantly exciting the townspeople to quarrel with the soldiers."
Benjamin Franklin, who at the time had not abandoned hope of reconciliation between the Throne and the colonies, warned that stationing troops in Boston was akin to "setting up a smith's forge in a magazine of gunpowder." A random spark was set off on March 2, 1770, when a British soldier got into a shouting match with a local resident. Within hours a melee had broken out between Redcoats and "radicals" that rapidly escalated into a mob scene. Punches were thrown, and property was damaged, but nobody was killed.
Three days later, a contingent of armed Redcoats under the command of one Captain Preston was set upon by what one American historian later called "a crowd of disorderly loafers and boys of the town." The troops had responded to what would now be called an "officer in distress" call from a sentry named Hugh White, who had gotten into an argument with a wig-maker over an unpaid bill.
In his History of the American Revolution, Ramsay records that the British troops "were pressed upon, insulted and pelted by a mob armed with clubs, sticks, and snowballs covering stones. They were also dared to fire. In this situation, one of the soldiers who had received a blow, in resentment fired at the supposed aggressor." That soldier, Private Hugh Montgomery, had been beaten to his knees by a club-wielding assailant before screaming "Damn you, fire!" to his comrades.
Eight people in the crowd were wounded, three of them fatally. The first to fall was a black man named Crispus Attucks. A widely circulated illustration of the event depicts Attucks desperately trying to fend off the fatal attack by reaching for the soldier's gun – an act we are insistently, and incorrectly, told is a capital offense.
In the interest of "officer safety," the troops were withdrawn. The mortal remains of Attucks and his two comrades were buried in a ceremony intended "to express the indignation of the inhabitants at the slaughter of their brethren, by soldiers quartered among them, in violation of their civil liberties."
Rather than escalating the military occupation of Boston in order to suppress the revolt,British colonial authorities indicted Captain Preston and his subordinates for "willful and felonious murder." At trial they enjoyed the earnest and capable representation of "radical" attorney John Adams.