By 1768, one out of every ten people in Boston was a redcoat, a lobsterback … a British soldier. These soldiers took American colonists’ jobs at the docks, pressed them into service in the British Navy, and had the power to send them back to Britain for trial. Although the colonists were also British, it no longer felt like the soldiers were their countrymen. The soldiers didn’t like being there either. Colonists would openly insult and even assault them, and the soldiers, aware that they could be punished for doing so, did not use force to defend themselves against unarmed civilians. Until.
On a snowy night in March 1770, some kids started throwing snowballs at some redcoats. When one of them poked a redcoat, the soldier hit him with the butt of his gun. This looked like police brutality, and the soldiers quickly found themselves surrounded by an angry mob of adult colonists. Henry Knox, a bookseller who would later be in charge of munitions in the Continental Army, was there and tried to calm the mob down. He also warned the British captain not to let his men fire. The captain was saying “hold your fire” and yelling at the mob to disperse. The mob, meanwhile, was yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire if you dare!” When the captain got hit in the face with a brick, he also yelled “fire.” Five colonists were killed (those that were standing toe to toe with the soldiers). Three died on the spot, and two died later.
As far as Samuel Adams was concerned, British soldiers had deliberately shot down innocent people in the streets. He wanted them hung. He went to silversmith Paul Revere and had him make an engraving of what he called “The Boston Massacre.” Here is copy of the engraving. As you can see, it shows the British soldiers lined up in formation, firing at the civilians (who, in the picture, are just standing there) as if on a field of battle. That is not the way things went down, but this image was circulated to stir up outrage against the British. It was an early political meme, and it was successful. The event is called The Boston Massacre to this day.
John Adams, second cousin to Samuel, believed in due process. “You know, Sam, facts are stubborn things. Regardless of our wishes, we cannot change the facts or the evidence. The law commands what is good and punishes what is evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low. We dare not bend it to suit our opinions or the demands of the people.”
John Adams agree to serve as defense attorney for the redcoats who had been at the “massacre.” Two of them, charged with manslaughter, had their thumbs branded, but none were hung. John Adams was aware that defending the soldiers would make him unpopular, but he thought it was the right thing to do. This despite the fact that a few years later, in his measured way, he would conclude that the colonies needed to break away from Britain. Perhaps it was the presence of people like John Adams that kept our revolution from going the way that revolutions usually do, descending into purges and mob rule.
Description of the details of the Boston Massacre and the statistic about redcoats in Boston are taken from the children’s graphic novel Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy, Amulet Books 2012, pp. 120 – 127, where it is narrated by Crispus Attucks, who was shot directly in the chest at the massacre.
Material about Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, and the image of the engraving, is taken from George Washington’s World by Genevieve Foster, expanded edition 1997, Beautiful Feet Books, pp. 169 – 170.
Material about John Adams, including quotations, is taken from In God We Trust: Stories of Faith in American History by Timothy Crater and Ranelda Hunsicker, My Father’s World, 1997, pp. 64 – 65.