The British Open Fire


An exaggerated version of events by silversmith and Boston resident Paul Revere of the events of March 5, 1770, better known as the Boston Massacre.

By 1768, tensions between American colonists and the British reached dangerous levels.  In Boston, colonists became increasingly agitated over new taxes imposed on them from London without any American representation in the British Parliament.  In response to the increased hostility, the British sent about 4,000 soldiers to Boston.  This only increased the resentment among the colonists.  With so many British soldiers, it was a matter to time before violence erupted.  It did on a cold night in March 1770, as British soldiers opened fire on a group of colonists.  This event became known as the “Boston Massacre.”

On March 5, 1770 a group of British soldiers were guarding the royal Customs House in Boston when a group of colonists began to taunt them.  Some in the crowd brandished clubs and other colonists began to throw snowball and other items including trash and oyster shells.  The British soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets in response.  A snowball hit a young private in the British army named Hugh Montgomery who discharged his weapon in response.  Montgomery stated he heard the word “fire” but the evidence was unclear.  There was no evidence the command to fire came from the British officers.  In response to a weapon being fired, the other British soldiers immediately did the same.  After the shots, five colonists were dead and several others injured.  Some historians consider these the first casualties of the Revolutionary War.

The second part of the story is what happened after the deaths.  News quickly spread and American patriots such as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams used the deaths as a cry for American independence.  Three weeks later, Revere, a silversmith by training, engraved a print that depicted the killings as a slaughter.  The colonists wanted the British soldiers punished severely.

But that did not happen.  Rather, it was the beginning of the tenants of the American justice system, principally the right to a fair trial that emerged.  The colonists had their own judicial system, based on the British system.  A mob mentality would damage the credibility of colonial justice so a fair trial was important.  Nobody would defend the British soldiers until a lawyer named John Adams agreed to do it.  The same John Adams who was a leading figure in the fight for American independence and the second President of the United States.

john adams

John Adams

Adams argued that the British soldiers were provoked by the actions of the colonists and had acted in self-defense.   After all the arguments were made, the jury found six of the eight soldiers on trial not-guilty.  Private Montgomery and one other solider were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded with an “M” for murder on their thumbs.

The trial of the British soldiers when public emotions were high helped establish that the colonies and later the United States would be a nation of laws, not of mobs.  Later, Adams claimed his role in the trial was “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”

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