It is a testament to the power of propaganda that the events of March 5, 1770 were widely accepted as a massacre which remained the very symbol of British tyranny for 200 years. The skillful manipulation of facts is a hallmark of propaganda, and the men who exploited the circumstances surrounding the killing of five Americans created an atrocity that has resonated throughout American history down to the present day. As the hotbed of revolutionary fervor in the colonies, Boston was perhaps the only place where such propaganda could have taken hold; the only city from which it could have spread so rapidly and with such force. By 1770, the mindset in Boston was pre-disposed to the kind of rabble-rousing that John and Samuel Adams, James Otis, James Warren and other anti-British firebrands perpetrated in the wake of the killings. If these men were the true visionaries of revolution it was a largely invented vision, one manufactured specifically to vilify the Crown and stir public fears of British tyranny, a charge that had little basis in fact in March 1770.
Creating an image –
The facts of March 5, 1770 leave little room for doubt that what happened in Boston was a matter of provocative baiting. After Hugh White, one of the soldiers on duty at the time, knocked over young Edward Garrick, a barber’s apprentice, it gave the mob that quickly
assembled all it needed. The fact that Garrick had been taunting the soldiers was virtually meaningless in light of what ensued. After the young man pointed White out, the crowd’s anger intensified and it was not long before stones, chunks of ice and other projectiles were hurled at the six British soldiers. Such a situation was certain to escalate, and when a handful of citizens brandished swords and clubs, it was enough to make the soldiers fear for their well-being. Shots rang out and five Americans fell dead. While it is unavoidably true that citizens were killed by British regulars, the label “massacre” is clearly misplaced. “It was by no means a massacre, but the name that it came to be known as is indicative of the propaganda, used by rebels to incite anger against the British” (Barclay, 2010).
Many key figures in Boston had been working diligently for years to stir up anger against the British. Before the killings, efforts to demonize Great Britain and British rule in America had largely been an intellectual exercise, a campaign carried on by a highly vocal and intelligent group but one that had not hit home. It took an effusion of blood to mobilize the public behind the faction led by the Adamses and their cohorts. In effect, the deaths of the five colonists at the hands of British soldiers provided the anti-British propagandists with exactly what they needed, an evidently overt and violent example of British oppression. In 1770, the leading voice in the subversive Boston group belonged to Samuel Adams. In fact, it was Adams’ 1768 open letter calling for non-cooperation with British authorities that occasioned the occupation of Boston by British troops. The posting of troops gave Adams fodder for his invective: the 1770 shootings made it possible for him to invent a tragedy for which the British were not responsible for fomenting, and which made him the leading revolutionary voice in the
colonies. “Adams’s ability to invent the significant event arguably made the Adams propaganda the most powerful lever in drawing popular support to the American Revolution” (Bradley, 58).
The world “lever” is entirely appropriate to the subject. The Sons of Liberty in Boston had been seeking a lever it could use to begin attacking the British authority on multiple fronts, thus turning up the pressure in the court of public opinion. By labeling the killings a massacre, it became possible to inflame the anti-British rhetoric and take the issue onto philosophical ground that citizens could not only understand but could claim to have experienced personally. “As Adams and his organizers were able to move the Stamp Act beyond an unpopular revenue-raising issue into a discussion of parliamentary law and natural rights, Adams’s arsenal turned the events of the Boston Massacre into proof that the Mother Country cared so little for her American colonies that her own soldiers would shoot without cause” (Bradley 58).
Without cause, of course, being the operative phrase. They certainly had had cause, or were threatened sufficiently that they believed they had no recourse but to fire. Samuel Adams may have stirred up public opinion, but in the courts the incident did not play out as he had hoped. In fact, his cousin, John Adams, was called upon to defend the British soldiers in a trial that would see the soldiers’ acquittal, a verdict that John Adams would call, even after the Revolutionary War, a proper outcome in which justice prevailed (MHS, 2008). Here was proof indeed that the demonizing of British troops and, by extension, Britain’s authority in the colonies, was sheer propaganda. John Adams, who proved as fiercely anti-British as any, saw the events of March 5, 1770 through his lawyer’s eyes. Consequently, as a matter of justice, what happened that day was not a massacre at all but the justifiable acts of a small group of men
who had been attacked by an angry mob. These, as an attorney might say, were the facts of the case, and the facts were irrefutable.
In England, the incident as reported in the late-April edition of the London Chronicle, reflected the general opinion that what happened was the latest example of malcontent and of a mob mentality among the colonists, particularly in Boston. “This party was also attacked, and insulted by the mob, and one of them, receiving a blow, fired his piece, after which six of seven others fired, by which three of the townspeople were killed upon the spot and several others wounded; one of which is dead of his wounds” (London Chronicle, 1770). The article was actually quite restrained under the circumstances, though subsequent opinions in the London media would begin the call for more stringent measures to be taken. In 2010, the New York Times published an article in which a historian revisited the incident, claiming that the individuals who died in the melee provide evidence that the soldiers’ actions were intentional. Professor Richard Archer argues that the shooting deaths of Cripus Attucks and Samuel Gray, who had “scuffled” with the troopers only days earlier, indicate that the soldiers had murder in mind. “Both stood within 15 feet of the soldiers, and they would have been recognized by the soldiers with whom they had fought” (NYT, 2010).
And yet others claim that even if this were true it would still amount to little more than legal hair-splitting. The fact is (and which the British authorities and public firmly believed) that a small contingent of soldiers were attacked – no other way to put it – by an angry mob that felt provoked. In his testimony, Captain Preston, the commanding officer, said that he himself had been struck on the arm prior to the shooting and that he would certainly have been killed
had the blow hit him on the head. Preston described in detail what happened after he was struck: “On this a general attack was made on the men by a great number of heavy clubs and snowballs being thrown at them, by which all our lives were in imminent danger, some persons at the same time from behind calling out, ‘damn your bloods-why don’t you fire.’ Instantly three or four of the soldiers fired, one after another, and directly after three more in the same confusion and hurry” (Univ. of Groningen, 2012). It is significant that at the soldiers’ trial, despite calls for the defendants’ blood, this account held up to scrutiny.
Clearly, tensions had peaked, resulting in the tragic deaths of five colonists. To this day, many Americans still believe that this event caused the outbreak of hostilities and the military confrontation that led to the American Revolution. And yet the British, perhaps in recognition of the volatile situation in the colonies, adopted a more conciliatory posture after the Boston tragedy. “The rebellious attitude that had spread throughout the colonies was somewhat defused when knowledge of Great Britain’s conciliatory actions prompted by Lord North became known. Therefore, in 1770 Boston’s merchants lifted the trade boycott on British imports” (Gaines, 46). But the damage had been done, not just by the shootings in Boston but by the propaganda disseminated in their wake by the likes of Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty. For Adams, the Crown had proven itself duplicitous and unworthy of the right to rule and of the loyalty of its subjects in America. Consequently, everything was fair game, meaning that it was Adams’ intent to manipulate every tax, every tariff, every act and, in particular, any perceived attempt to assert military power on behalf of the Crown. The Boston Massacre provided him with the means to propagandize the perceived levying of British authority.
Of all the Sons of Liberty, none was more infuriated by the military occupation of Boston than Samuel Adams. He and his cousin, John, both were convinced that this move proved beyond question that Britain was determined to secure the obedience of the colonies by whatever means proved necessary. Perhaps it was because of his letter from 1768, which led to the British occupation, but it was at this point that Samuel Adams became a true radical. “John Adams dated Sam’s determination to make America independent of Great Britain from the period of the military occupation of Boston” (Miller, 169). After the massacre in Boston, Samuel Adams continued to press his point under the pen name “Vindex.” Adams seemed to think that it was more important than ever to keep up his campaign of propaganda after the verdict in the soldiers’ trial was handed down. As such, he stepped up his rhetoric in print. “Sam Adams’s ‘Vindex’ articles contributed to stamp the fray of March 5, 1770, as the ‘horred Massacre’ in the minds of nearly all New Englanders in spite of the jury’s verdict and the weight of evidence” (Miller, 190).
As previously discussed, the British sought to disarm the likes of Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty by introducing trade policies that seemed to represent a softening of Lord North’s position concerning the colonies. The hardening of Samuel Adams’ position made it impossible for him to accord with what doubtless seemed an equivocation by a government that had no other interest than to keep the American colonies tied to the Crown by whatever means. Adams countered attempts at “buying off” the Americans’ position by helping to establish a day of commemoration on which, every March 5, the horrors of the Boston killings would be remembered. “This annual observance gave Whig orators an opportunity to vent their wrath
against the mother country and keep the memory fresh of the ‘bloody work in King Street’, ‘The wan tenants of the grave,’ shrilled one patriot, ‘still shriek for vengeance on their remorseless butchers’” (Miller, 190). These were designed to be emotional experiences, during which Bostonians would be reminded that vengeance was due the British for daring to oppress the colonists in direct contravention of the rights guaranteed all subjects of the English crown. This was a truly affecting experience, as bells would toll in honor of those killed on that fateful day, while citizens would prominently display pictures of notable patriots in the windows of their homes (Miller, 190). It was as much a day to commemorate the depredations of oppressors, such as colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson, as it was an opportunity to honor the contributions of American patriots who died in the face of British oppression on March 5, 1770. As such, Adams and his compatriots countered attempts made by representatives of the Crown to salve the wounds opened that day, wounds that the Sons of Liberty would not allow to heal.
Samuel Adams is often labeled as a politically oriented instigator, a man determined to bring about a confrontation that would resolve, once and for all, the dispute between Great Britain and its American colonies. But history has proven Adams to be a much more strategic thinker than this concept will allow. Adams’ thinking extended far beyond that of a one-dimensional pamphleteer, or propagandist (Webking, 61). He was clearly thinking of what would happen when the inevitable conflict between the Crown and the colonists arose. The events of March 5, 1770 were essential to that end. “Sam Adams used the Boston Massacre not only to embitter Americans toward Great Britain but to prove the necessity of fighting British
troops before they had the opportunity to gain a foothold in the country” (Miller, 191). Clearly, Samuel Adams believed that the Crown’s attempts at conciliation were merely window dressing and that if the colonists hoped to gain their independence, it was essential that he make certain that the authorities continue to be pressured for their transgressions on the rights of Americans to seek what Aristotle considered “the good life” (O’Toole, 2005).
Ultimately, the idea of independence for the colonists was more than just a concept among Samuel Adams and his fellow agitators. For example, when Paul Revere published his famous image of the Boston Massacre, it was propaganda pure and simple, aimed at nothing less than eroding the idea that Americans should remain in thrall to the English Crown. The imposition of the Townshend Duties, which led to rioting in Boston, forced the Crown to act in order to preserve its authority in Boston. Of course, the mere presence of British regulars in the first city of pre-revolutionary America was more than enough to ensure that the locals would express their unhappiness through physical displays, and the violence of March 5, 1770 was the result. The resultant casualties came a time when bloodshed was certain to cause widespread dissension. Samuel Adams and other agitators sought to cynically capitalize on the state of affairs in Boston, using propaganda to whip up anti-British sentiment in order to further a concept of independence for the colonists that led to outright rebellion at Bunker Hill in 1975.
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