The Bugler

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The Boston Massacre

Many events led to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, many of which came to fruition and importance because of a single event that happened on March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre.

First, let's have a brief history lesson. On March 22, 1765 The Stamp Act was passed by Britain's Parliament. It was Britain's first serious attempt to assert governmental authority over the colonies. The Stamp Act, which you probably haven't read since seventh grade, is printed in its entirety on USHistory.org. The Act charged a stamp tax on literally every piece of paper that was exchanged for business or leisure. Just imagine if every time you signed on to the Internet for information a user tax was applied to your account. This is similar to what The Stamp Act did, because of course all information was written on paper. In June 1767, the British passed The Townshend Revenue Act to cover the approximately £40,000 of administration costs British incurred in managing the colonies in America. The act applied taxes on basic goods imported from Britain, specifically on glass, paint, oil, lead, paper and tea. The British government reacted to American discontent to the Townshend Act by sending 4000 soldiers to Boston, a growing town of only 20,000. The colonists resented the British government sending troops, not to defend them but to pacify them. The resentment would continue to grow.

Paul Revere's "Bloody Massacre in King Street."

By late 1769 it was not unusual for street skirmishes and arguments to break out between British soldiers and colonists. Although there are many different accounts of the events of that evening, according to The Boston Massacre Historical Society, "On March 5, 1770 the Twenty-Ninth Regiment came to the relief of the Eighth on duty at the Customs House on King (now State) Street. The soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston, were met by a large and taunting crowd of civilians. Captain Preston was unable to disperse the crowd and as they chanted, 'Fire and be damned,' he ordered his troops, 'Don't Fire!' With all the commotion the soldiers probably did not hear his orders and they opened fire on the crowd killing three men instantly and another two who died later."

Although these events may not seem relevant today it was actually the beginning of many policies that still hold in America today. One of course is the right to a fair trial. According to the Historical Society, "the jury assembled in the Boston Massacre trial did not have a single person from Boston. This was done on purpose as a measure to ensure a fair trial of the British. The trial was also delayed by several months to let the emotions cool down after the shooting. Both British authorities and the patriots were interested in fair proceedings." Captain Preston and his eight soldiers were to stand trial for murder. Prominent attorney Robert Treat Paine conducted the prosecution. He would later be a signer of the Declaration of Independence and serve as Massachusetts's first Attorney General and as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The defense counsel was the most prominent Boston attorney of the day, John Adams, who later became the first Vice President and the second President of the United States. Adams was considered by many to be a traitor to represent the British soldiers so historians have long wondered why he accepted. According to the website of the John Adams Historical Society, we can only speculate as to why he accepted this "unpopular assignment, one that could have adversely affected his reputation and future income. The reasons for Adam's acceptance of the case are difficult to assume. While he strongly believed that all men were entitled to a fair trial and that they deserved equal justice, he knew of the dangers to his practice and of the violence that the mob was capable therefore endangering his wife and young children. On the other hand, in the long term, he might be remembered as a man who put law above his personal beliefs. According to historian Hiller B. Zobel, Adams must have been encouraged to take the case in exchange for a seat in Boston's legislature as he was the town's first choice when a seat became available three months later."

Another interesting aspect of the trial was this was the first time a judge used the concept of "reasonable doubt." A full accounting of all the proceedings, including the transcripts of the trial, articles written by Samuel Adams for the Boston Gazette and other events connected to the Massacre can be found at BostonMassacre.com.

Power of the Press

Even in the early colonies the power of the press was not lost. Although the Patriots were outspoken in their opposition to the Crown, many colonists were loyal British subjects. An engraving, distributed by none other than Paul Revere, was titled the "Bloody Massacre in King Street" and according to the Historical Society, the print was "the first powerful influence in forming an outspoken anti-British public opinion, one in which the revolutionary leaders had almost lost hope of achieving." The interesting part of the engraving was that "documentation has come to light over the years indicating that Revere copied engraver Henry Pelham's drawings of the Massacre, produced his own engraving, and three weeks after the occurrence was advertising his prints for sale in Boston's newspapers." Revere greatly enhanced his print by hiring a colorist to show the vivid colors of the Red Coats' jackets and the blood on the ground in contrast to the blues and browns of the patriots. There were many inaccuracies in the print, primarily the facts that the massacre was more an unruly mob than a line of British soldiers firing into a crowd, there is no snow on the ground although the mob had been throwing snow balls at the British, and the man lying on the ground is shown to be white. The man is actually Crispus Attucks, a black man, who was the first casualty of the American Revolution. Despite the inaccuracies it is the most famous print that exists of the Boston Massacre.

It is always interesting to remember some of the events surrounding the history of our country. Many of these things seem to be minor details in history, where in reality, many of the founding principles of our country were formed as a direct result of these early events.

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