This is the start of a new series on the blog called “What I learned in history.” Basically, these will be short blog posts about interesting, and little know, historical figures and events that I am learning through my Liberty Classroom membership and other studies as well.
You are probably wondering why a homesteader and nutritionist would write about history. It’s a good and valid question. The Chosen Weeds is a site dedicated to the ideas, principles, and practices that cultivate a deeper sense of wholeness, confidence, self-reliance, and individual liberty; and part of that journey involves understanding who I am as an individual, who we are as culture, and how we came to this place in history. We must take an honest look to our past if we are ever to truly live out the principles of self-reliance, freedom, and liberty that we claim to hold so dear. So I feel compelled to share the things I have learned along the way.
The series in Liberty Classroom which I am studying right now is called “The American Revolution, a Constitutional Conflict.” It is taught by Kevin Gutzman PhD, a professor of history and a best-selling author. He also holds advanced degrees in law and American History. Here are some things that I learned about the Boston Massacre that I didn’t know previously. It has lead me to question the narrative that I was taught growing up and is a good example of perspectives in history coloring events. To understand what happened at the Boston Massacre, a bit of background information is necessary, especially since much of this information is missing from the typical public school text book.
To begin with, the British called this event, the “King Street Riot.” The word massacre was dubbed by Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and their allies and disseminated to the newspapers where Adams would write that a premeditated crime had been committed, the soldiers had gone looking for a confrontation, and a massacre was committed. He had written several anti-British articles aimed at propagandizing the colonist (Gutzman has a lecture devoted to Samuel Adams in this series) prior to this event. So consider the word massacre versus the word riot and why Adams would want to use this word. Both words convey very different images. This was something new to me because I had been taught that the British were solely to blame for this incident. But were they? What about the blame for prominent individuals within the colonies that were trying to incite violence with the British?
The soldiers were not a welcome sight in Boston, and understandably so. Everyone knew that they had been sent by parliament with the sole purpose of heading off resistance to parliamentary reforms. However, the citizens did not have clean hands either and would often use force to get their point across. There had been frequent mob activity in Boston, and the common solider was often beaten up at night on their way home from taverns or mistreated in other ways. Speaking of the common solider, this was something I did not know, there were basically two levels of British military men. The soldiers were from a lower class in England. They could be orphans, laborers, and/or convicted felons [either you were hung for your crime(s) or you joined the military, and most chose the latter], or from other impoverished circumstances. To increase their pay, and decrease boredom, they would often take side jobs. This did not bode well with colonists. Officers were from nobility had paid for the positions they held.
Tensions were very high at this time, and really it was just a matter of time before an eruption occurred. The American colonies actually had it “easier” than some of the other British colonies like India and China. The enjoyed a relatively high standard of living compared to some and up to this point were mostly left alone. Because of this, each colony had developed their own system of government that went along with customs, religious beliefs, and their specific form of “Britishness.” By this time the French and Indian War was over and Britain was in deeply in debt and desperately needed to “pay the bills,” so to speak. The British Parliament believed that they, not the King, were right in endeavoring to enforce policies that had been legislated. It was stated that Parliament had supreme constitutional authority as prescribed by Sir William Blackstone in “Commentary on Laws of England” (1765). They believed that since the colonies were part of the British Empire, they could, as the Declaratory Act stated, legislate for America “In All Cases Whatsoever.” As far as representation was concerned, the British government believed that the colonist did have representation, and regardless of the representation, they did have a right to tax colonies. After all, the long standing tradition of representatives in Parliament and the House of Commons was that those individuals spoke for the British people and they were being extended all the rights and privileges that everyone else enjoyed. It is worth noting the British constitution was not a written document, but rather is one that exists in an abstract sense, comprising a host of diverse laws, practices, conventions, and traditions that have evolved over a long period of time.
Moreover, the introduction of troops was necessary, according to British officials, because of frequent mob activity that had not been put down by local officials. Their position was that Boston had a long history of insurrection and violence against his Majesty’s army and their continued call for other colonies to join them was unconstitutional and dangerous.
Massachusetts, on the other hand (as well as the other colonies), claimed that either they were British citizens or they were not. If they were, then they, under the British constitution, had all the rights and privileges that came along with that. They really took no issue with Parliament regulating trade, but it was it unconstitutional, they claimed, to have a standing army at a time of peace and use the army to enforce laws (something that would absolutely not be tolerated in England). It was also unconstitutional for them to be taxed by Parliament. It wasn’t that the colonist were unwilling to pay taxes, after all, Samuel Adams was himself a tax collector. They believed that Massachusetts only had the right to tax those in Massachusetts. On top of that, England was sending people to North America to collect those taxes. This was contrary to what Massachusetts had long been doing.
It is also important to note, and this is something that I was never taught in school, that many of the colonist up to and even after the war, did not wish to rescind British rule. The colonist of Massachusetts’s were of no exception. They claimed that colonial charters that were established when the colonies were made had not been voided, and even though legal precedence in England had changed, their relationship with the monarchy had not been effected. They were loyal to the king and would call upon him to intercede on their behalf to Parliament.
Please understand, this is by no means and exhaustive list of grievances from either side. This conflict, I am finding, is not as simple and straight forward as one has been lead to believe, and I’m still understanding the complexities of the relationship between England and the colonies. At times, positions are ambiguous and contradictory. The colonist were, by no means, of a single mind, “but rather a kaleidoscope of British political parties, religious denominations, and ethnicities who had all fled from whichever bully was currently in power back in Britain.” Not only was there conflict between England the colonies but there was also conflict among themselves. The more I learn, the more questions are raised. What did self-governance mean to colonists? Did they consider themselves loyal British subjects? How different was the American colonies to other British colonies around the world? Did they believe that the form of British government was wrong and thus had to create a whole new system? Is the system we have now really that different from what they were fighting against? What role did corporations play I all this? What were the men we consider the heroes of the Revolution really like?
But I digress……So what happened on March 5, 1750? According to the Boston Gazette, the soldiers that were there to stifle Massachusetts’s liberty, were marching around town looking for civilians to attack and bully. In response, a throng of people began to gather on King’s street. The soldiers, twelve of them along with their captain (Captain Preston), started pricking the people with their bayonets and the people responded by throwing snowballs. At this point Captain Preston yelled, “Damn you, Fire, let the consequence be what it will!” Then all hell broke loose. The Gazette further reported that “One soldier then fired, and a townsman with a cudgel struck him over the hands with such force that he dropt his flintlock.” Three died and two were mortally wounded but here was also blood up and down the streets.
On the other hand, Governor Gage (commander of the forces in Massachusetts) reported that the civilians had set upon the soldiers first by attacking a sentry who was on guard outside of the barracks. They then attacked the men that were sent to relieve him. By Preston’s own testimony the shouting to fire was from voices in the crowd, egging the soldiers on, not from him. One man slipped and fired accidentally and then others fired as well.
Not only had I never heard the British side of the account, but I did not know that twenty seven civilian depositions were taken at the time that echoed Gage’s version of the events.
So who is to be believed? It’s hard to say. As a child I learned that this event was a significant precursor to the Revolutionary War, and indeed it was. Of course, both sides have their own agenda and it is hard to know who is closer to the truth. Since none of us alive today were there, we have to go back to firsthand accounts and original documents to piece things together (or at least as close to them as we can get). We have to get to know the people involved as best we can and read not only what they wrote but also study their actions and understand their motives. The truth is always the truth, and I am continually searching to get as close to the truth as possible. If something doesn’t match up, I am compelled to dig deeper, examine my perspective and the lens through which I view the world. In turn, I must question my own narrative.
So what do you think?
Wanna learn more? Click on the link below