The Boston Massacre: Interpretations of an Historical Event
In the late winter of 1770 the port city of Boston, Massachusetts was a community in conflict. Boston had been the scene of protest during the Stamp Act and after and the British government had sent troops to keep order. Many of the colonists considered them to be an occupying force, representatives of an oppressive government. They vented their anger at the soldiers on the streets and in private. Pro-British sympathizers and anti-British colonists clashed in taverns, at workplaces, and on the streets. On February 22 Ebenezer Richardson, a British sympathizer and informer, tried to take down a sign with anti-British slogans on it. An angry crowd followed him to his house and yelled at him, throwing stones and breaking windows. When one of the stones hit his wife, Richardson fired a musket into the crowd, killing eleven-year-old Christopher Seider. The angry crowd took Richardson to the Boston jail, and four days later two thousand Bostonians (one-seventh of the city's population) marched in young Seider's funeral. After this incident men and boys took to the streets at night looking for soldiers, and off-duty soldiers gathered to look for townsmen. Each group was spoiling for a fight.
Competition for work between soldiers and townspeople compounded the hard feelings. The soldiers made low wages and many of them took part-time jobs during their off-duty hours. For several days in early March sporadic fistfights occurred near a rope factory as Boston men and off-duty soldiers argued and fought over jobs.
The evening of March 5, 1770 was a cold one in the port city of Boston, and hard feelings ran high. That evening a crowd gathered around the Boston Custom House, a symbol of Britain's authority over the lives of the colonists. The crowd taunted the soldier who was on sentry duty there. The fearful soldier called on Captain Thomas Preston, the officer of the day, for help. Preston and seven soldiers came to the Custom House to protect him. Someone was ringing the church bells of Boston, signaling a fire, and more colonists came to the square in front of the Custom House to investigate. As you will see from the sources below, there are differing accounts as to what happened next. What is clear is that a soldier fired into the crowd, and others followed. Their shots killed five colonists and wounded six others. Those killed were Crispus Attucks, a sailor whose mother was Indian and whose father was African American; James Caldwell, also a sailor; Samuel Maverick, a seventeen-year old apprentice; Samuel Gray, a rope maker, and Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant who worked in the clothing trade. Almost every resident of Boston attended their funeral services. Preston and his men were charged with murder. The colonists called this the "Boston Massacre."
The soldiers' trial came in October 1770. John Adams and Josiah Quincy were leaders of the radicals opposed to British actions, but agreed to defend Preston and his men because they believed that the soldiers were entitled to a fair trial. The jury acquitted Captain Thomas Preston and six of the soldiers and convicted two of manslaughter, which brought the punishment of branding on the thumb. Preston returned to England and received a pension of L200 per year from the King as a "compensation for his suffering."
The "Boston Massacre" was a key event on the road to revolution. But how are we to interpret the meaning of this event? An examination of the following documents about the Boston Massacre will help you think about the many meanings that this event held for participants and also for Americans today, and how students of history use sources to interpret those meanings.
Your assignment is to
Consider the different kinds of sources that historians use to interpret history. In this case we will evaluate testimony of witnesses and participants in the incident, an engraving of the incident that became very popular, and an essay written in 1997 about one meaning of the incident for Americans today.
Study the discussion questions for each document below.
Click on the link and study each selection with the discussion questions in mind. Make notes, and provide examples for the questions you are considering. What kind of source is this? From what perspective does it come, and why? What specific points does this source reveal about the Boston Massacre? How does this selection compare with the others you are reading?
Draw conclusions about the meaning of the Boston Massacre for colonists and others. Draw conclusions about the meaning of the Boston Massacre today. How, in your opinion, do these source materials help students of history to interpret events of the past.
Accounts of the Boston Massacre
The first two documents present contrasting views of what happened on the evening of March 5, 1770 in front of the Boston Custom House:
Source 1: An Anonymous Account of the Boston Massacre
What does the author of the "Anonymous Account" say happened? What evidence does the author present? Who was at fault? What does this author say about the question of troops being sent to Boston in the first place and how does this author feel about their conduct prior to the night of March 5th? How does this impact the author's view of what happened on March 5th itself? Provide specific examples from this account that illustrate how this author interpreted the event--including the depositions of other witnesses, choice of language, and the place of these incidents in the history of Boston and its relationship with Great Britain. This account is "anonymous" but who might have written it and why?
Source 2: Captain Thomas Preston's Account of the Boston Massacre (13 March 1770)
The testimony of Captain Thomas Preston, the officer of the day on March 5, 1770 in Boston, provides a very different view of what happened that night. What does Preston say about the events of that night, and who does he feel was at fault. What evidence does he give? How does it compare to the "Anonymous Account"?
Source 3 "The Boston Massacre: Paul Revere's Famous Engraving" The Early America Review: A Journal Of People, Issues, And Events In 18th Century America Vol. 1 No. 3 Winter 1996-97
Paul Revere was probably not an eyewitness to the Boston Massacre, but his engraving became the most famous image of that evening then and now. As the authors of your text Out of Many tell us: "It hung in so many Patriot homes that the judge hearing the murder trial of these British soldiers warned the jury not to be swayed by 'the prints exhibited in our houses.'" The engraving fits the definition of propaganda: it contains ideas, words, and images that seek to persuade the viewer to support a particular point of view. What "version" of the Boston Massacre does Revere present in his engraving? What choices does he make about the composition and contents of the image? Why do you think there were so many of his prints in Boston homes? How has this engraving influenced the historical view of the Boston Massacre?
Source 4 Chris Mahin, "The True Story of the American Revolution--The Boston Massacre: The Poor, Not the Elite, Began the American Revolution," People's Tribune (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 2/February, 1997
Chris Mahin presents a view of the Boston Massacre in our day. He asks readers to re-evaluate their interpretation of the Boston Massacre. What, in his view, is the real story of the Boston Massacre and American Revolution? What evidence from the Boston Massacre does he give to support his view?