Today marks the 240th anniversary of one of the pivotal events of American history, an event which would put one of the greatest patriots, for the right reasons, briefly on the side of the British, against those Bostonians agitating against British oppression.
And while those patriots were right to protest the quartering of British troops in the heart of Boston, the citizens went overboard with their taunts. They began by taunting one sentry, standing guard outside the Custom House. Later the crowd grew; Captain Thomas Preston, then in charge of the British garrison, dispatched several soldiers to relieve the sentry.
Not content just to protest the soldiers, many patriots let their passions get the best of them and started pummeling the troops with snowballs and other objects. In a panic, the troops fired on the crowd, an event which became known as the Boston Massacre.
This is not to say that the soldiers conducted themselves appropriately. Some fired directly into the crowd instead of trying to use different means to respond. And while Preston did not issue the order to fire, he was not able to control his men. (Someone did yell, “Fire,” but the cry may have come from the patriots taunting the troops.) Three men died that day (with two dying later of wounds suffered that night), with Crispus Attucks being the first to fall. This man of mixed race (having both African and Native American Indian blood) is considered the first American to give his life in the American Revolution–even though he died five full years before Lexington and Concord.
When the soldiers were arrested, Preston, having trouble finding representation, asked John Adams, the aforementioned great patriot, to defend him. And reluctantly, that great man did. He argued that the soldiers fired in self-defense, provoked by an unruly and increasingly violent mob. Of the eight men indicted, only two were convicted, but on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Even as Adams’ defense spared the lives (or at least ensured the freedom) of the soldiers and reminded Americans that the soldiers did not act out of malice, the incident still served to harden sentiment against the British. It reminded Americans that the British had stationed troops in the heart of the City of Boston, an unwarranted (or so it seemed to the patriots) assertion of royal authority.
Interesting its significance for the troops only reacted as human beings would in such stand-offs. That they had been stationed in the city was the real concern.
What happened that day, these twelve score years ago, should also serve as a reminder to those who denigrate the Tea Parties. For these patriots protesting today against the heavy hand of the state, while acting in the spirit of their Bostonian forebears, never rivaled them for the unruliness of their unrest.
And that unruly unrest which helped set the stage for the great battle for our freedom that would begin in earnest some five years, one month and 14 days hence.
Let us be grateful that the ideological descendants of the Boston patriots of 1770 have learned to be more civil in their disobedience. They don’t want to overthrow or otherwise seek independence from an oppressive regime, merely remove the causes of “oppression” and restore it to the principles our ancestors fought for those dozen score years ago.