[On March 5th, 1770, the events that came to be known as the Boston Massacre took place on King Street. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that pivotal pre-Revolutionary moment, leading up to a special Guest Post from my sons based on their elementary school studies of the massacre.]
On two ways to contextualize the uneasy communal dynamic that precipitated the massacre.
As I understand it, English soldiers had been stationed in Boston for only two years as of the 1770 Incident on King Street (as the British still refer to the Massacre). Beginning in 1768, the Crown and Royal Governor had brought such a standing military presence to the city and colony, seeking both support for increasingly unpopular taxes and policies and to quell the incipient rebellious activities in which Samuel Adams and his peers had begun to partake. Needless to say, the city’s inhabitants did not take well to this infusion of soldiers onto their streets, into their day to day lives, and into many of their public buildings and spaces (and even occasionally their homes, although as the hyperlinked article notes that took place less often than is sometimes suggested), and tensions remained consistently high throughout the period. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before those tensions exploded into something more overt and violent; in any case, explode they did in early March, 1770, with a confrontation between a handful of soldiers and a group of aggrieved Bostonians developing into a full-scale pitched conflict that left five Bostonians killed (three instantly when the soldiers began firing into the rioting crowd, and two more due to wounds).
One way to contextualize and understand both those overall tensions and that moment of violent conflict is to consider the British soldiers as an occupying force. Of course as of 1770 they were part of the same overall nation and community as the Bostonians, but the same could technically be said of the American soldiers who occupied the Philippines in the early 20th century, and clearly many Filipinos felt that the US troops were an army of occupation nonetheless. Seen in that light, the events of the Boston Massacre could be described as a form of insurgency, of native resistance against such an army of occupation. Since much of the last century-plus of American history (or at least foreign policy) has involved insurgent campaigns against US occupying armies, from the Philippines to the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, Vietnam to Iraq, I can understand why it might be difficult for us to conceptualize our Revolutionary activists as themselves part of such an insurgency (or, to take it a step further and more controversially still, to see Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty as insurgent terrorists). But in many ways, the dynamic of occupation and insurgency seems to capture quite effectively the relationship between these intruding British soldiers and the Bostonians seeking to push back on their presence in their city and community.
Yet at the same time, there are various ways in which that dynamic doesn’t line up as well with the complex historical realities of the situation, and perhaps the most overt has to do with the sizable contingent of Bostonians (and Americans) who were and would remain Loyalists to the Crown. It’s not just that we need to remember that not all Bostonians saw the British soldiers as a hostile presence, although certainly there was likely a spectrum of opinions that reflect the breadth of American perspectives on the ongoing relationship with England overall. Instead, the importance of remembering the Loyalist Bostonians is that doing so reminds us that the move toward the Revolution was far from inevitable, and thus that individual moments like the Boston Massacre were not necessarily steps toward a definite endpoint as much as chaotic and uncertain encounters between various American contingencies and communities. The lead-up to any historical event can seem in hindsight like a foregone conclusion, just as the Revolution’s eventual outcome can make the Loyalist cause seem doomed from the outset. But neither of those things were the slightest bit true in 1770, a moment instead when various American and English communities met together on the streets of a city that was still very much all of theirs.
Next massacre studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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