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The Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770 an angry altercation between British soldiers and American colonists inflamed passions that would eventually lead to revolution. 


  • Boston, Massachusetts was a hotbed of radical revolutionary thought and activity leading up to 1770.
  • In March 1770, British soldiers stationed in Boston opened fire on a crowd, killing five townspeople and infuriating locals.
  • What became known as the Boston Massacre intensified anti-British sentiment and proved a pivotal event leading up to the American Revolution.

Boston, cradle of revolution

Even before the event that went down in history as the Boston Massacre, Boston, Massachusetts was a center of radical revolutionary ideas and sentiment. The colonists had endured years of conflict with British officials, and the number of people living in poverty and/or unemployed was growing in the city. With so many idle young men competing for work, there was bound to be trouble as British rule became more onerous.
After the Seven Years’ War had drained Britain’s coffers, the royal government imposed tighter controls over its North American colonies in order to raise revenues. When customs officials complained about the difficulties of collecting from disobedient colonists, Britain sent troops to impose order. The arrival of British soldiers in October 1768 heightened tensions in a city already on the edge of an uprising.
Over the next two years, Boston existed in a state of virtual British military occupation—one out of three men in the city was a Redcoat, a common nickname for British soldiers due to the color of their uniforms.1 Radical townspeople and idle young men harassed the soldiers, leading to numerous skirmishes and scuffles.
Engraving showing British soldiers in their trademark red uniforms.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Boston Massacre

In March 1770, British officials ordered the removal of all occupants of the Boston Manufactory House—a halfway house for people living in poverty, those who were ill, and those who were homeless—so that a regiment of British soldiers could be garrisoned there. The Manufactory House’s homeless occupants put up a resistance, and the British backed down, but other confrontations ensued.
On March 5th, one such confrontation turned violent. As a mob of angry townspeople encircled a British sentry shouting insults and throwing rocks and sticks, nervous Redcoats opened fire into the crowd, killing five Bostonians and wounding several others. One of the victims was Crispus Attucks, a free sailor of African and Native American descent who has gone down in history as the first casualty of the American Revolution.2
Local newspapers eulogized Attucks and the others as martyrs to British tyranny. Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, two of Boston’s most influential revolutionaries, proved adept propagandists. Revere is known for producing the most famous depiction of the incident—though in reality he merely copied the original engraving by young Boston-area artist Henry Pelham. The image was published in the Boston Gazette and circulated widely, stoking the flames of anti-British anger and revolutionary righteousness. Pro-British Loyalists promoted an alternate narrative, accusing agitators in the crowd of deliberately provoking the incident. Nevertheless, the radical narrative proved far more influential.3
Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, showing an orderly line of British troops firing on unsuspecting American colonists.
Image credit: Library of Congress
The colonists did not want to give the British a pretext for retaliation, and so preparations were made to ensure a fair trial. A young lawyer named John Adams, despite his commitment to the revolutionary cause, agreed to defend the Redcoats, all but two of whom were acquitted.
Even though British troops were recalled from Boston, the incident inflamed hostilities and intensified revolutionary sentiment among the colonists. For the revolutionaries, the so-called massacre demonstrated the corrupting influence of standing armies and the tyranny of the British. It was a major signpost on the road to revolution; indeed, John Adams later claimed that the “foundation of American independence was laid” that fateful day of March 5, 1770.4

What do you think?

Why do you think the incident in March 1770 happened in Boston and not somewhere else?
In your opinion, was the Boston Massacre truly a massacre? Who do you think was at fault for the incident?
How important was the Boston Massacre in the events leading up to the American Revolution?

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