Printer Friendly

The Boston massacre: on a cold winter's night in 1770, a regiment of British troops fired into an angry mob of Bostonians, killing five people. Boston demanded justice--but who was at fault?

After defeating France in the French and Indian War in 1763, Britain passed a series of laws and taxes on American colonists. Having run up a large war debt, Britain wanted the colonists to pay for their own defense against Indian attacks. The Quartering Act of 1765, for example, required the colonists to house British soldiers and provide them with firewood, beer, and candles. The Stamp Act taxed paper documents, such as newspapers, giving birth to the slogan "no taxation without representation," and leading to riots in the streets. A year later, the British Parliament was forced to repeal (strike down) the measure.

In 1767, the British imposed the Townshend Acts, which taxed imported goods, such as paper and tea. British troops were sent to Boston to enforce the unpopular measure. The soldiers had orders not to harm any Bostonian. But confronted daily by angry townspeople and denounced by fiery politicians like Samuel Adams, those orders were hard to follow. Many colonists threw eggs at the soldiers, whom they called "lobsterbacks," and trained their dogs to attack them. Finally, in March 1770, violence broke out. A young law clerk, Jonathan Austin, was an eyewitness to the event that would be called the Boston Massacre.


Jonathan Austin: The trouble started around noon on a Friday, the second of March. A group of rope makers was in the street when a British soldier named Patrick Walker came by, looking for extra work. The rope makers were in no mood to be friendly.

William Green: Hey, soldier--do you want some work?

Patrick Walker: In faith, I do.

Green: Good, clean my outhouse.

Walker: Clean it yourself, you swine!

Green: Bloody lobsterback! My outhouse is a perfect place for you.

Austin: There was a brief scuffle between the soldier and the rope makers. Later, Walker returned with a group of his fellow soldiers. Sticks and clubs went flying. When the dust settled, the soldiers were fleeing back to their barracks.


Austin: As you can imagine, that wasn't the end of it. Over the weekend, more fights broke out. Monday the fifth was clear and cold. A foot of snow and ice covered the ground. As night fell, groups of men roamed the streets with clubs, looking for a fight. Near the Customs House, a young soldier named Hugh White was standing guard when an apprentice wig maker called to him from the dark.

Edward Garrick: Your captain is a stingy, good-for-nothing goat. My master made him a fine wig, and he refused to pay.

Hugh White: What say you? My captain is a gentleman.

Garrick: Gentleman, hah! There are no gentlemen in your regiment.

White: You mean there are no gentlemen in this town, only ruffians [bullies] and cowards. Show your face, coward.

Garrick (stepping forward): I am not afraid of you. Go back to England where you belong, lobsterback!

Austin: That's when White swung his gun and hit Garrick across the face. Garrick ran, calling for help. White followed and hit him again. Word got out, and soon a crowd gathered, pressing in around the soldier.

Crowd: Lousy rascal! You lobster scoundrel!

Austin: Hearing the commotion, I arrived and begged the crowd to back off. But they began to pelt White with ice from the street. The soldier started to load his musket. A local bookseller in the crowd shouted a warning.

Henry Knox: Do not fire, soldier. If you fire, you will die for it.

White: If they touch me, I will fire!

Crowd: Knock him down! Kill him! Cowardly Brit--you're afraid to fight!


Austin: The mob around Private White continued to grow. Hearing his soldier was in danger, British Captain Thomas Preston was torn about what to do.

Captain Preston (to his soldiers): If I assemble troops, the mob will surely grow angrier. And yet I can't leave a man to their mercy.

Austin: Finally, Preston came to White's aid with a squad of seven soldiers. But the crowd wouldn't let them move. Angry, screaming men pressed within inches of the soldiers' bayonets. Richard Palmes, a merchant, tried to prevent violence.

Richard Palmes: Captain Preston, are your men's muskets loaded?

Preston: Yes.

Palmes: I hope they don't intend to fire on these people.

Preston: By no means. The men will not fire without my orders.

Crowd (taunting): Go ahead and fire! Fire, you rascals, and to the devil with you!

Austin: Then, everything seemed to happen at once. A club flew from the crowd and knocked Private Hugh Montgomery to the ground. Montgomery leaped to his feet, and his gun went off. Finally, I don't know where from, came the command to fire. Men who had been taunting the soldiers began to fall, including a rope maker named Samuel Gray and a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks. It was chaos.

Preston (to his men): Stop at once! Who gave you the order to fire?

Austin: Preston knew immediately that things had gone dreadfully wrong. But it was too late. In a matter of minutes, four people lay dead, and a fifth would soon die.


Austin: News of the shootings greatly upset my boss, John Adams, a lawyer and cousin of Samuel Adams. He wanted the British troops to leave Boston, but also felt that the crowd had provoked the soldiers--or deliberately made them angry. Adams was in his office the next morning when a Tory [colonist loyal to the British King] named James Forrest burst in.

James Forrest: Sir, I come with a message from a very unfortunate man, my friend Captain Preston. He is to stand trial and cannot find a lawyer. As God is my judge, he is innocent! John Adams: That will be for a court to decide. But if he needs my assistance to get a fair trial, he will have it without hesitation.

Forrest: Captain Preston will be much relieved.

Adams: But tell him that I will not use tricks. This case is as important as any that has ever been tried in the world. I will use only the facts and evidence that the law will allow.

Austin: Samuel Adams and the newspapers were already calling the shooting a "massacre" [the brutal killing of many people]'. Bostonians cried out for justice, and the colonial authorities knew they had to provide it.


Austin: Captain Preston's trial did not start until October. The prosecution called witnesses to say that the soldiers fired on a peaceful assembly. Mr. Adams's witnesses described the crowd as an angry mob. Several others testified that Captain Preston did not give the order to fire. One of them was a black servant named Andrew.

Andrew: The officer was standing before me--and I am certain the voice that said "Fire" came from beyond him.

Austin: The jury decided that Captain Preston was not guilty. Finally, in December, the soldiers went on trial. The prosecution referred to them as cold-blooded murderers. But Mr. Adams's associate, Josiah Quincy, called witnesses to show that the soldiers were frightened for their lives. Josiah Quincy: How many people were gathered around the soldiers?

Patrick Keaton: About 200.

Quincy: How close were they to the soldiers?

Keaton: So near you couldn't get your hat between them and the bayonets.

Quincy: And what did the soldiers do?

Keaton: They were silent. They just trembled, as if they expected to die.

Austin: Mr. Adams's final summation, or legal argument, was a classic.

Adams: There are times, even in the fairest governments, when passions will run high, and riots will result. In times like these, the law must remain steady. It must not bend to any man's wishes. It must punish evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low.

Austin: In the end, the soldiers were declared not guilty of murder. Two of them, Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy, were convicted of manslaughter [the unlawful killing of a person without intending to do so]. They were branded on the thumbs with a hot iron and sent back to England with the rest of the soldiers. Only then did Private Montgomery admit that he was the one who yelled "Fire!"

For a time, at least, Boston was peaceful. But hostilities would rise again. In five years, the 13 Colonies would be in open revolt--and the vow to remember the Boston Massacre would become a rallying cry for the American Revolution.


John Adams's role in the Boston Massacre trials made him unpopular at first with some Bostonians. Certainly, his cousin Samuel was not happy about it. But Adams's dedication to independence from Britain remained steadfast. He became one of the Founders of the new American nation--and its second President. He never apologized for defending the legal rights of the British soldiers. Instead, he called it "one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered [gave] my country."


* Jonathan Austin, law clerk for John Adams

William Green, rope maker

Private Patrick Walker, British soldier

Edward Garrick, wig maker's apprentice

Private Hugh White, British soldier

Crowd of Bostonians Henry Knox, Boston bookseller

* Captain Thomas Preston, commander of British troops

Richard Palmes, Boston merchant

James Forrest, friend of Captain Preston

* John Adams, lawyer for the defense Andrew, witness for the defense Josiah Quincy, lawyer for the defense Patrick Keaton, witness for the defense

* Indicates major character
Your Turn


1. Tory A. make angry
2. massacre B. give
3. ruffian C. loyal to the King
4. provoke D. the killing of
many people
5. render E. bully


1. Why did John Adams believe that Captain Preston's trial was "as important as any that has ever been tried"?

2. Have you ever taken a stand in support of an unpopular individual or cause? Explain your answer.

Word Match

1. C; 2. D; 3. E; 4. A; 5. B.



Students should understand

* The Boston Massacre was a street clash between colonists and British soldiers that occurred on March 5, 1770.


Ask students: "Do you think historical events are sometimes deliberately misrepresented? What can be gained by this? And is such misrepresentation ever for a good reason?"


There were 4,000 British troops in Boston, a city of 16,000, at the time of the shooting. These soldiers competed for work with resentful Bostonians. As many as 10,000 people marched in the funeral procession for the shooting's victims. After the tragedy, British troops were withdrawn from Boston.


FINDING CAUSES: Why did the British tax the American Colonies so heavily? (Facing huge debts resulting from the French and Indian 'War, Britain wanted the colonists to help recoup those losses.)

MAKING COMPARISONS: How did Samuel Adams and John Adams react differently to the events of March 5, 1770? (Samuel Adams, a fiery politician who constantly denounced the British presence in Boston, called the shooting a "massacre." John Adams, his second cousin, also wanted to see the British go. However, he agreed to defend the soldiers, believing that the rioting crowd was partially responsible for the tragedy, and that the soldiers deserved a fair trial.)


PATRIOT & TORY NEWS: Instruct students to write and perform television news reports about the Boston Massacre from the Tory or patriot viewpoint. This activity should explore how political bias can influence the reporting of a news event.



* Power, authority, and governance: How taxation of the 13 Colonies by the British led to the American Revolution.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How the Boston Massacre was used by propagandists to foment further resentment against British rule, and was one of the key events leading up to the American Revolution.



* Millender, Dharathula, Crispus Attucks: Black Leader of Colonial Patriots (Simon & Schuster, 1982). Grades 6-8.

* Ready, Dee, Boston Massacre (Capstone, 2001). Grades 5-8.


* American Revolution


* The Boston Massacre



* Decide whether each sentence is true, false, or an opinion.

-- 21. In the 1760s, Britain imposed a series of taxes on the Colonies to help pay for the colonists' defense against Indian attacks.

-- 22. The Quartering Act of 1765 required colonists to provide housing for Spanish soldiers.

-- 23. The colonists of Boston were responsible for causing British troops to fire.

-- 24. Only two of the soldiers were convicted of shooting colonists.

-- 25. John Adams's political career suffered permanent damage after he agreed to defend the British soldiers during their trial.

21. True

22. False

23. Opinion

24. True

25. False
COPYRIGHT 2004 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:American History Play
Author:Olson, Tod
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Play
Date:Nov 15, 2004
Previous Article:How Judaism began: this ancient religion gave rise to Christianity and Islam. How did it begin?
Next Article:Ask Mapman[TM].

Related Articles
The massacres of history.
Father of the American Revolution: pious, principled, and passionate for liberty, Samuel Adams championed the cause of independence with his unique...
The father of the revolution. (American History Play).
Rise to Rebellion.
Bradley, Michael R. It happened in the Revolutionary War.
Shaara, Jeff. Rise to rebellion.
Fact and fiction.
The march to independence.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters