Boston Massacre: Pamphlets and Propaganda

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On the night of March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired their muskets into a violent crowd in Boston. Five towns-people died, and the Sons of Liberty, opposing the growth of royal authority, proclaimed the event a "massacre." Condemned in the American press, the Boston Massacre became a major colonial grievance against the London government.

The gunshots in Boston followed seventeen months of friction between locals and British troops deployed to protect royal customs officials. In "A Journal of These Times," a series of one-sided reports sent to other colonies' newspapers in 1768–1769, Bostonians complained about British "redcoats" starting fights, insulting women, and encouraging slaves to revolt. To Whiggish colonists, such episodes reinforced their conviction that "standing armies"—troops maintained by kings in peacetime—were potential oppressors. These disputes coincided with Boston merchants' efforts to enforce a boycott on imports from Britain and thus pressure Parliament into repealing

the Townshend duties (taxes) on glass, tea, and other goods.

More friction arose from workingmen and off-duty soldiers competing for jobs. On Friday, March 2, 1770, a ropemaker told a private that if he wanted work, he could clean an outhouse. That insult sparked two days of waterfront brawling between soldiers and ropemakers. Boston was quiet on Sunday, as Puritan tradition demanded, but fights resumed Monday evening.

What brought the violence to King Street was even more mundane. A barber's apprentice complained long and loud that an army captain was late in paying his bill. The private guarding the customs office whacked the youth's head with his musket. Soon apprentices were dashing around the center of town, yelling about this attack. Bostonians were quickly inflamed because only eleven days before a customs employee had shot into a mob around his house, killing an eleven-year-old.

A snowball-throwing crowd surrounded the sentry, who sent for reinforcements. Captain Thomas Preston brought a squad of seven grenadiers. Waterfront workers arrived, carrying clubs of cordwood, and backed the soldiers into an arc at the customs office door. Knocked down by a thrown stick, one grenadier shouted, "Damn you! Fire!" and pulled his trigger. His fellow privates responded with a ragged volley. Their seven shots hit eleven men. Three died immediately, two more over the next eight days.

Remarkably, that ended the night's violence. The crowd fell back. Captain Preston surrendered to civilian magistrates. The royal governor promised the townspeople justice and the next day, under immense public pressure, ordered all troops out of town. Wealthy Bostonians patrolled in their militia companies, determined to show that townspeople could keep the peace. The Sons of Liberty helped hire a special attorney to prosecute the soldiers but also, recognizing the value of a fair trial, encouraged two of their party (including future president John Adams) to join a Crown loyalist in defending the men.

Boston issued a report on the shootings titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, marshaling ninety-six sworn depositions to blame the army and customs officials. The town sent copies to London Whigs and other American colonies but refused to let the printers sell it locally, lest it prejudice a jury. (After a reprint arrived from London, Boston printers reproduced the London title page at the front of their copies and sold them as imports.)

Friends of the royal government collected their own depositions, some printed in London as A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston. Preston was quoted by both sides: Boston newspapers printed his statement that he had no complaints in jail, then London newspapers published a long letter blaming the crowd for the violence.

Propaganda also took visual form. The town's version of the shootings was illustrated by twenty-year-old Henry Pelham and then copied by activist Paul Revere when the young artist was slow to market his engraving. In this image, soldiers fire at their captain's command. Another shot comes from the customs office. Hand-colored prints were available, with blood added in red.

Preston came to trial in November 1770. His lawyers convinced the jury that he had never given an order to shoot. Then the same legal teams faced off over whether the soldiers had fired in self-defense. The second trial ended in a mixed verdict. Most of the soldiers were acquitted. The private who shouted "Fire!" and another seen brawling with ropemakers beforehand were convicted of manslaughter and punished by being branded on the thumb.

Ironically, on the same day as the massacre, Parliament moved to revoke all Townshend duties but the tea tax. When this news reached America, the boycott fizzled. The Sons of Liberty would have difficulty rousing most colonists until the crisis that led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Nevertheless, the propaganda continued. Frustrated Sons of Liberty filled newspapers with complaints about corrupt judges. From 1771 to 1782 Boston commissioned an annual oration in memory of the victims. Broadsides appeared each March. In 1776 the Declaration of Independence referred to the Boston Massacre when it blamed the king "For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us; [and] For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders they should commit."

When the Revolutionary War began, Massachusetts Sons of Liberty applied what they had learned from publicizing the Boston Massacre. Within days of the shots on Lexington Green, patriots collected depositions, printed those that blamed the redcoats, and sped them to other colonies and to England. Artists produced battlefield engravings that, like the massacre prints, showed a line of British soldiers firing at unthreatening Americans.

In the following centuries Americans continued to invoke the Boston Massacre as an exemplar of political violence. Some authors described its victims as the first men killed for America's independence, whereas others argued that the real victims were the soldiers, threatened by an anarchic mob. Abolitionists emphasized the part-African roots of massacre victim Crispus Attucks, making him a symbol of black patriotism. After the shootings of Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970, the demonstrators drew parallels to the Boston Massacre 200 years before.

During the years leading to the Revolutionary War, opponents of new British laws used what they called the "Boston Massacre" to arouse public hostility toward royal authorities. The use of the press to promote a political cause—playing up an event to inflame public opinion and portraying opponents as villainous—is a tactic that commonly appears before Americans enter a war and during wartime.


A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston. Reprint. Williamstown, MA: Corner House, 1973.

Davidson, Philip. Propaganda and the American Revolution, 1763–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.

Dickerson, Oliver M., ed. Boston under Military Rule, 1768–1769: As Revealed in a Journal of These Times. Boston: Mount Vernon Press, 1936.

Hoerder, Dirk. Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765–1780. New York: Academic Press, 1977.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776. New York: Knopf, 1958.

Wroth, L. Kinvin, and Zobel, Hiller B., eds. The Legal Papers of John Adams, vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: Norton, 1970.

J. L. Bell

See also:Boston Tea Party: Politicizing Ordinary People; Common Sense; Sons of Liberty.

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Boston Massacre: Pamphlets and Propaganda

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