Historians sometimes frown on counterfactuals and questions posed in the negative, but they can be a useful way to examine an event or enhance our understanding of the past. One of the things that has always struck me is why the Boston Massacre did not become a flashpoint for the Revolution. Today, as you may know, is the anniversary of “that horrid massacre.” On the evening of March 5, 1770, a group of Boston men skirmished with British troops garrisoned in Boston, throwing ice and stones at the soldiers. In the confusion, some of the troops opened fire, killing five. (For more on the contours of the crisis and its remembrance, see the great work of J.L. Bell over at Boston 1775.)
The news circulated widely through the channels of the printing trade over the next few weeks, appearing in numerous newspapers, as did accounts of the trials of the soldiers and their commander, Captain Thomas Preston, later that summer. Printers published several different pamphlet accounts of the massacre and the trial. And of course Paul Revere published the print seen above. But the Massacre was not nearly the same impetus for collective protest as the Stamp Act in 1765, the Townshend Acts in 1767-68, or the Tea Act in 1773. In collective memory, it is usually seen as part of the Pantheon of Revolutionary Events, a crystallizing moment that revealed the righteousness of the American cause and the tyrannical aggression of the British.
Outside of Boston, which commemorated the event annually for years afterward, it had much less resonance. In fact, the Massacre preceded a period of relative calm that lasted several years. I think there are a few reasons why:
- Boston was the only city in the colonies under unwelcome British occupation. There were troops in many towns, to be sure, but most colonists did not feel the everyday presence of the British military in the same way that Bostonians did. One of the keys to each of the other protests, as nearly every Revolutionary historian has argued in one way or another, was that they produced a sense of common feeling with fellow colonists, a sense of “we’re all in this together.” That couldn’t be replicated here because the presence elsewhere was metaphorical rather than physical.
- The facts on the ground were messy. As many know from watching the John Adams miniseries, the soldiers had a strong legal defense that defused some of the ideological ramifications of the killings. Once the initial uproar had passed, newspapers published Captain Preston’s report to his superiors, complicating accounts of the evening.
- “Opinion leaders” did not support crowd action uncritically. In several cases, most notably the second of two Stamp riots in Boston in August 1765, Boston’s elite Patriots moved to squelch popular dissent because it had gone too far. The young Boston men who sparred with the British that night were from groups that did not pass social muster: apprentices and journeymen, dock workers, sailors. Crispus Attucks, who was of African descent, was possibly a runaway slave. The narrative, in other words, wasn’t particularly clean as far as demonstrating British oppression.
The massacre thus held little for others to work with rhetorically because it was too much a Boston story and because those in positions to encourage its use, whether Boston’s political leaders or printers around the colonies, chose not to do so. That’s certainly no reason not to commemorate the event, but it’s important to remember that it was not nearly the catalyst it might otherwise seem.