Boston Massacre

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The Boston massacre in which British troops opened fire on a crowd, killing five people and inflaming American opinion. Original Artwork: Picture by Paul Revere (1735 – 1818). (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

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Paul Revere’s quite historically inaccurate engraving of the Boston Massacre. This famous depiction of the event was engraved by Paul Revere (copied from an engraving by Henry Pelham), colored by Christian Remick, and printed by Benjamin Edes. The Old State House is depicted in the background.

On the evening of March 5, 1770, tensions between English soldiers and the civilians of Boston, Massachusetts, erupted into a violent encounter now known as the Boston Massacre. An incident that began with the harassment of one English soldier ended with the deaths of five colonists and injuries to six others. The incident was an indication of colonial dis satisfaction with English rule. Later it would be depicted as a fight in the battle for colonial liberty.

Tensions rising

The roots of the Boston massacre lay in the deep colonial resentment of measures taken by the English Parliament. The Townshend Acts of 1767, in particular, had imposed taxes that affected businesses employing the working poor. As colonial resistance to the acts increased, England sent soldiers to America in 1768 to maintain order.

Tensions rose as the colonists began to suspect that the English soldiers were permanently stationed within the colonies. Soldiers began to bear the brunt of the citizens’ anger and frustrations and were subjected to harassment and acts of violence. The culmination of this tension was the Boston Massacre.

The incident

On March 2, an English soldier approached a rope maker in hopes of finding extra work during his off-duty hours. The rope maker insulted the soldier. Eventually the argument turned into a fight that involved other citizens and soldiers and lasted into the next day.

On March 5, angry townspeople confronted another soldier who was on duty and began to harass him. Several other soldiers came to his defense. Captain Thomas Preston ordered them not to fire, but the crowd began pelting the soldiers with mud, ice, and snow. Although Preston attempted to maintain order, the soldiers fired. One soldier later claimed he had received an order to do so. Three colonists died immediately, two others died later, and six others were injured.

Preston and his soldiers were arrested and taken into custody. Most Bostonians believed that the soldiers deliberately fired into the crowd. A trial did not come until October 1770. John Adams (1735-1826), who later became the second president of the United States, served as the defense lawyer for the accused. Preston and six of his men were acquitted (found not guilty). Two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter, but they received the small punishment of branding on their thumbs before returning to their regiments. The Boston Massacre added to growing colonial resentment of England, which resulted in the start of the American Revolution in 1775.

John Adams

In the 1760s, Adams continued to study law and slowly built his law practice. He also became involved in revolutionary politics. When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, victorious Great Britain had amassed great debts. To pay them, the British Parliament enacted a series of tax laws that became known in America as the Intolerable Acts. Many Americans began to feel it was unfair for Parliament, in which America had no elected representatives, to tax Americans.

After Parliament enacted the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, John Adams’s cousin, statesman Samuel Adams (1722-1803), organized protests in Boston. John Adams attended meetings and emerged as an effective spokesman against Britain’s imperial policies. In August 1765, he published the first in a series of four essays in the Boston Gazette newspaper. The essays, later published in Britain, described how colonists had emigrated to America to establish civil governments based on liberty and freedom.

In his law practice, Adams worked on a variety of cases, including divorce, wills, rape, and trespass. Adams defended John Hancock (1737-1793), who would be the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, against smuggling charges brought by British customs officials. In 1770, Adams defended Captain Thomas Preston, the British officer in charge at the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. That event happened when British soldiers fired upon a crowd of colonists, killing five of them. Adams received much criticism for defending Preston. Adams, however, believed every man deserved a fair trial, and Adams won the case.

American Revolution politics and diplomacy

In 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to seek solutions to America’s problems with Great Britain. Adams was chosen to attend as a representative from Massachusetts. Not yet in favor of independence, Adams recommended a system of equal parliaments in America and Britain with common allegiance to the crown.

In April 1775, the Revolutionary War began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Adams served that May in the Second Continental Congress, where he supported future president George Washington (1732-1799; served 1789-97) to lead the Continental Army. By then, Adams believed independence was necessary. In February 1776, he gave Congress a pamphlet called “Thoughts on Government,” in which he proposed a system of governments for the colonies. Later that year, Adams seconded the motion in Congress that led to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Adams served America during the war as a commissioner in France, seeking foreign aid for the American cause. Returning to Boston in 1779, Adams attended the state convention that prepared the Massachusetts state constitution, which Adams drafted. Along with Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and John Jay (1745-1829), Adams served as commissioner to negotiate peace with Great Britain and eventually signed the Treaty of Paris to end the war in 1783. From 1785 to 1788, Adams served as America’s first minister to Great Britain, missing the action as America drafted a Constitution to form a new plan of government.

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