“The Boston Controversy”
March 5th, 1770 marks a day in American history where an event took place known as the “Boston Massacre”. This notable moment in American history was a spark in the colonies that eventually led to the American colonies taking up arms against England. The “Boston Massacre” was the iconic nickname of a riot in Boston that led to British soldiers firing upon of colonists on March 5th 1770. The major controversy debated is whether or not the British officer on duty at the time gave the order to fire on the crowd or not. There have been many different stances on the argument but the fact of the matter is that the British officer in command did not give the order to fire into the crowd. To better understand why this British officer did not give the command to fire on the crowd one must first look into the situations in Boston leading up to March 5th 1770.
Boston in 1770 was a very volatile place in regards to disdain between the colonists living in America and their British counterparts. Two years prior in 1768, two regiments of British regulars were quartered in Boston to assist in instilling British rule on Boston1. This, along with the Stamp Act and Townshend duties, which were more taxes the colonists had to pay, placed upon Boston which angered the people to the point of riots before set a tone for an anti-British sentiment in early 17702. The soldiers in Boston in many cases caught the brunt of this anger. Due to the Quartering Act of 1765 there were British regulars stationed in colonies that had to be housed and fed by the colonial authorities3. This meant that the colonies themselves were responsible for the billeting and feeding of these British regulars. This did not sit well with the colonists. These British soldiers were also seen as a lower class in the colonies and angered many workers because these soldiers would often work another job when not on duty at a lower wage than the typical colonial worker4. Quartering, instilling the harsh new British laws, and taking jobs placed British soldiers as enemies prior to the American Revolution in Boston. Prior to the “Boston Massacre” there was in fact a tipping point of aggression that did lead up to the loss of life on March 5th 1770.
Only two days prior on March 3rd a British soldier looking for work reached his limit with a colonist. Whilst trying to find a job an employee of John Gray’s Ropewalk ask a soldier if he wanted a job, when the British soldier replied that he did the employee then told him to “go and clean my shithouse”5. The British soldier did not take well to this comment and eventually returned with some of his soldier counterparts and a fight ensued6. This event shows that there we in fact certain key events that led up to the “Boston Massacre” just as the “Boston Massacre” was a key event that led up to the American revolution. The events that occurred prior to the “Boston Massacre” however, are not the events in question. What occurred on the night of March 5th 1770 is what is in question.
Though much is debated about the ‘Boston Massacre” it is agreed that there are some facts that are agreed upon without doubt. These facts are that 5 people did in fact die from gunshot wounds that came from British muskets7. The British officer in charge at the time was Thomas Preston. 81 depositions were made on the account of the “Boston Massacre” however only 15 witnesses were called to the trial8. Many of these depositions were thrown out due to the fact that they stated the British soldiers had planned the event in the hope to massacre more inhabitants of Boston9. All of these accounts were eye witness accounts but due to the confusion of the event many of these reports on the “Boston Massacre” conflict and there can is no clear answer one can infer just from these eye witness accounts.
The beginning of the “Boston Massacre” starts with a man named Edward Garrick a wigmaker talking about a British officer not making a payment on a wig10. A British sentry exclaimed that the British officer in a gentleman and that if this officer owes money than it will be paid11. Garrick then remarks “There are no gentlemen left in this regiment!” This leads to a confrontation between Garrick and the sentry and ends with the sentry striking Garrick with his musket12. Following, Garrick being a struck a group of people moved to assist Garrick. This small crowd was made up of young men mostly and they began throwing ice and snowballs at the British sentry13. The captain on duty at the time, Thomas Preston then orders a group of British soldiers to protect the sentry and attempt to maintain order in the street. The mob continued to grow due to the fact that someone rang out the city bell which usually signaled that people were needed to put out a fire. From here on the here say and controversy really begins. Throughout all of the eye witness accounts there is much debate of who ordered the British soldiers to shoot into the crowd, were they ordered?
To truly answer this question the eye witness accounts of both sides must be reviewed. On The prosecutions side the accounts taken into consideration must be that of William Wyat, John Cox, and Daniel Calef. The reason these three testimonies are so important is that all three of these testimonies agree that Captain Thomas Preston id din fact give the command to fire into the crowd. However, these three depositions also contradict themselves in the light that they all put Captain Thomas Preston in a different outfit during the “Boston Massacre”. William Wyat states that Preston was wearing a cloath colored surtout14, John cox says he was not wearing a surtout but a red coat with a rose on his shoulder15, and finally Calef exclaims that Preston was wearing red coat, yellow jacket, and silver laced hat16, clearly a trend of contradiction amongst these witnesses. Would it be paramount to remember the clothing a person was wearing during such a chaotic event? No it would not but if these men were not 100% sure of what he was wearing why did they in fact comment on it during their testimony. If somebody can be 100% sure of the words that came from a man’s mouth during a 100 plus person chaotic riot, they should be able to remember what in fact that person was wearing or if they are not sure they should not comment on it at all. The testimony that is also paramount in this case would be none other than that of Thomas Preston. This testimony did not serve any importance in the case because in the 1770s British courts did not allow for people to defend themselves. This was due to the fact that somebody defended themselves would undoubtedly lead them to perjure17. Preston’s testimony brings up some very good points and looking at the full case without his testimony would not fully answer the question of whether or not he gave the order to fire. Preston states in his testimony that the large crowd of people was armed and was harassing the British soldiers. When asked if the British soldiers weapons were charged he state that they in fact were, but when asked if he gave the order to fire he explained that he in fact did not18. Preston brings up two points here that prove his innocence. Preston explains that the weapons of his soldiers were at fix bayonets when the first shot was fired19. No officer would give an unorthodox command to fire from fixed bayonets especially at the rank of Captain. Secondly, and even more importantly the soldiers muskets were by order at half-cock at the time20. In order to fire the soldiers would have to move the hammer back to full cock on the rifle or the hammer would fall from half cock and not fire. Therefore, without the order to full cock from Captain Thomas Preston if he did in fact order the soldiers to fire the guns would not have gone off in the first place. Finally, the British tactics of volume firing, meaning all firing at once, is a well-known British Army tactic21. If given the full command to fire, all of the muskets would have fired at the same time; however, the shots did not in fact go off at the same time22, thus proving that Captain Thomas Preston did not in fact give the command to fire into the crowd. Lastly, the political cartoon depicted by Paul Revere of the “Boston Massacre” shows the true motive of the colonials in trial of Captain Thomas Preston. One can clearly see from the political carton that it looks as if it is a ready British column of soldiers firing a controlled shot into a group of innocent persons23. From deciphering the facts it is known that the British did not fire at the same time and that there was much more confusion and chaos going on than what is depicted in the political cartoon. This shows that the colonists wanted to use the “Boston Massacre” not as a means for justice in Boston but as a means for a rallying event to spark a revolution. The “Boston Massacre” went down in history as one of the key events that led up to the American Revolution. The controversy behind the “Boston Massacre” of whether or not British Captain Thomas Preston commanded to fire will be debated for many years to come by up and coming historians with their own theories. However, with the contradictory testimony of the prosecution and the sensible testimony given by that of captain Thomas Preston it is clear that Thomas Preston did not in fact give the order to fire on the Bostonian crowd.