This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at the Boston Massacre on its 250th anniversary. In particular, we learn about the stories of two of the five men killed in that famous clash, and why we know their names today.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the 1807 law that ended the US participation in the African slave trade, the controversial election of 1876, and the Bloody Sunday clash that occurred in Selma, Alabama 55 years ago. And birthdays, including
March 2, 1904 Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss
March 3, 1847 inventor Alexander Graham Bell
March 4, 1888 football legend Knute Rockne
Feature Story: The Boston Massacre at 250
On March 5, 1770 – 250 years ago this week – British troops stationed in Boston found themselves face to face with a jeering crowd of men. The soldiers had been sent to rescue one of their number who had been cornered by the crowd near the Customs House. Bostonians hurled epithets, as well as snow and ice, at the soldiers, but there was little about the incident to suggest that blood would soon flow. That changed when one of the soldiers fired his musket – likely by mistake. Immediately his fellow soldiers, thinking an order to fire had been given, opened fire on the crowd, killing five and wounding six more.
The Boston Massacre, as the incident became known, did not come out of nowhere. Tensions had been rising steadily in colonial cities like Boston at least as far back as 1765, the year the British government imposed the Stamp Act to compel the colonies to pay some of the costs of their defense by the British military during the recently concluded French and Indian War. The colonists, having grown accustomed to little British interference in their affairs for most of the eighteenth century, protested the act and the many more that followed. Although the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, Parliament followed it with the Townsend Acts of 1768 which also imposed taxes and fees. This act likewise touched off protests and acts of vandalism in Boston. It also led to a boycott of British goods that was organized by the Sons of Liberty. In response to these disturbances, the British government sent 2,000 troops to Boston to maintain order. For a city of just 16,000 residents, 2,000 soldiers represented a major show of force and intimidation by Parliament.
Not surprisingly, Bostonians treated the soldiers with scorn from the very start. Minor altercations on the streets between citizens – usually young tradesmen and dock workers – and soldiers occurred frequently. By early 1770, tensions were running high. In early March several brawls broke out between workers and soldiers, fueling rumors of an impending crackdown by the soldiers on Sons of Liberty activity and a plan to cut down the Liberty Tree in South Boston.
This was the essential background to what led to the events of March 5, 1770. The “Boston Massacre,” as the more zealous patriots termed this clash, enraged colonists from New Hampshire to Georgia. This fury was stoked by skilled propagandists who quickly wrote and distributed a pamphlet titled, “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.” As the title indicates, they framed the incident not as one marked by confusion and miscommunication, but rather one where the British soldiers acted with malice and intentionally murdered the five victims. Paul Revere then added the final touch – an engraving that purported to show what happened on the night of March 5, 1770. It shows a crowd of well-dressed and well-behaved Bostonians on the left being shot – as if by firing squad – by a tightly organized line of British soldiers on the right. Both the pamphlet and image circulated widely throughout the thirteen colonies.
In Boston, officials moved quickly to prosecute the soldiers. The commander of the British soldiers, Captain Thomas Preston, and eight of his men were arrested and charged with murder. Samuel Adams, a leading figure in the Sons of Liberty movement, led the prosecution. His cousin John Adams defended the soldiers – not because he sympathized with British rule, but rather because he believed the defendants deserved a fair trial. Despite raging public hostility toward the defendants, John Adams succeeded in demonstrating that all the conflicting eye-witness testimony meant that the defendants could not be found guilty. Preston and six soldiers were declared not guilty, while two others were convicted of manslaughter but were soon released.
And soon, despite all the fury and angry talk against “British oppression,” the city of Boston returned to calm, as did the rest of colonial America. The five victims were buried in the Granery cemetery and then kind of forgotten. And here’s where things got interesting. Many decades later – long after the American Revolution – two of the men became famous. Alright, one of them became famous and the other somewhat better known.
Let’s start with the case of the better known man, Crispus Attucks. Surely you’ve heard of him. He’s the African American man who was the first to die the night of the Boston Massacre. Little is known about Attucks’ life, except that he likely was a slave who had either earned his freedom or simply run off from his owner. In any case, he was living as a free man in Boston when things between locals and British soldiers got sticky. We know his name today because his story highlighted the contradiction at the heart of the American founding: a nation that professed to be dedicated to liberty was also the world’s largest slaveholding society. How ironic, many a historian and commentator has noted, that the first blood shed in the cause of liberty was that of a man born into slavery and whose enslaved brothers and sisters represented fully 20% of the American population.
But here’s the thing: this observation about the significance of Crispus Attuck’s death did not emerge until the 1840s and 1850s – 70 to 80 years later – when African American abolitionists began to celebrate Attucks as an original American patriot as a way to bolster their demand for an end to slavery and the inclusion of blacks as full citizens of the republic. And from that point forward, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the return of white supremacy under Jim Crow, and then into the 20th century, the legend of Crispus Attucks continued to grow, as African Americans pushed for civil rights and full membership in American life.
If you want the full story about the life and legend of Crispus Attucks, check out ITPL Episode 079 where I speak with historian Mitch Kachun about his book on the topic.
The less-well known victim of the Boston Massacre was Patrick Carr. He was born in Ireland and later emigrated to the colonies where he took up the trade of leather work.
The reason we know about Patrick Carr is that he was Irish. His name and story remained forgotten until the late-19th century when Irish Americans began digging into the historical record looking for colonial and Revolutionary heroes. Irish immigrants, of course, did not face anything like the oppression experienced by African Americans. Nonetheless, when they began to arrive in massive numbers in the 1840s and 1850s, they were confronted by seething anti-Irish and anti-Catholic nativism. The whole Know Nothing movement of this period was aimed at stopping the influx of Irish immigrants and making life very hard for those already here. The Irish were denounced for bringing crime, poverty, disease, election fraud, and godless popery to America. After a few decades, as an Irish American middle class emerged, the Irish began to enjoy rising levels of income, education, and political power. But the one thing they lacked was respectability.
Thus began the quest to find Irish heroes in the American past who would give the Irish a claim on American belonging. Irish American historians discovered that 3 of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were born in Ireland. They also touted Timothy Murphy as the hero sharpshooter whose helped win the pivotal Battle of Saratoga. They likewise wrote about George Washington’s favorite spy, Hercules Mulligan. And, of course, they celebrated Patrick Carr for his martyrdom at the Boston Massacre. Some writers even went so far as to claim – without any evidence – that as an Irishman and an American, Patrick Carr had TWO reasons for hating British tyranny.
These two stories from the Boston Massacre remind us that history has many uses. And one of them is as a tool for group advancement. African Americans and Irish Americans are hardly the only groups in America to seek acceptance by finding representative figures in the American past. German Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian Americans – you name it – have identified and celebrated people and moments in American history that reflect positively on them as early contributors to the American experiment.
If you live anywhere near Boston, lots of events commemorating the 250th
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Borrtex, “Perception” (Free Music Archive)
John Bartman, “African Bliss” (Free Music Archive)
Doc Turtle, “The Talons of Adventure, The Antlers of Romance” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Pat Dog” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer
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