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New YoRK City
January 19, 2016
Having just finished writing another O’Reilly Factor script, I am thinking about the people who made my program possible: the American revolutionaries. This day the Factor is packed with opinion and robust debate that would be unthinkable on television in, say, China and many other countries.
Having lived in Boston for some years, I immersed myself in New England history. Back in the mid-eighteenth century, life was hard in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Few people had any luxuries at all—they lived week to week trying to feed their families and ward off fatal disease.
The climate was harsh and the labor hard.
Thus many British subjects living in the colonies were in no mood to share what little they had with a corrupt king thousands of miles away. As King George’s financial demands grew, so did rebellion and sedition against the Crown. It was almost all about money.
The leaders of the rebellion were a very mixed crew. Led by tough working-class guys, the Sons of Liberty roughed up the king’s men and eventually sent an unforgettable message by dumping English tea, the source of a hated tax, into the cold, murky waters of Boston Harbor. Others, like John Hancock, were patricians who had a lot to lose by defying London but did so anyway because they believed in freedom and fairness.
The actual American Revolution began soon after the Tea Party and is filled with thrilling stories of bravery and deceit, brilliance and stupidity.
This book will bring some of those stories to life while telling the reader the truth about Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John and Samuel Adams, and other American icons.
Along the way, we debunk some of the lies attached to the legends, which I always find fascinating. As a former high school history teacher, I am often shocked to find that some Americans know virtually nothing about the origins of the place where they currently live and therefore believe most anything.
How many of us know the story of the Francis Marion—the Swamp Fox? What a guy he was—a fearsome fighter who used the thickets of South Carolina to terrorize British forces. Marion’s guys were tough outdoorsmen who openly mocked the king’s men dressed in their elaborate “red coats.”
The Swamp Fox used guile and guerrilla tactics to hammer a much more powerful opponent. He exemplifies the true American spirit; self-sacrifice and goal oriented.
How much more opposite could Francis Marion be from, say, Benjamin Franklin, the crafty inventor turned diplomat who guided the Independence movement? Talk about two different worlds: Franklin at home in the salons of Paris; Marion camping out in desolate backwaters!
This book chronicles both men, demonstrating the diversity that was present in colonial America, even as it is today in modern times.
My life has been directly affected by those who forged rebellion against England and won freedom. I have made my living for over forty years by using my freedom of speech and working in a free press. No other country on earth has so many liberties in the marketplace of ideas in which I traffic every working day.
So I owe the original patriots a deep debt and hope to repay it by writing the truth about them and bringing their courageous deeds to millions of readers. It is a mission that is worthy and necessary in this age of declining knowledge about how America became the land of the free.
As always in my books of history, there is no political message other than stating the facts. The American revolutionaries were men and women of differing opinions, united against what they saw as an unbearable oppressor—King George.
But not every colonial was a rebel. About half the population, called Tories, did not want separation from the Crown. That caused a bitter divide that lasted for decades after independence was finally won. In fact, if you travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, today, you can visit Brattle Street and see some of the large homes that colonists loyal to the king inhabited. To this day, that neighborhood is called “Tory Row.”
So what side would you have taken? Most of us now would most likely say “the patriots!” But back in 1775, the decision was not an easy one. Few thought George Washington and his ill-equipped army could defeat the powerful, well-trained British regulars. And the Brits were vengeful—the lives of all rebels were definitely on the line, as they say.
Still, the allure of freedom intoxicated many colonists. But it was the extraordinary leadership provided by the subjects of this book that made our present freedoms possible.
Their stories demand to be told accurately. We don’t need false legends or propaganda. The truth is simply too compelling.
Hopefully, you will enjoy the following pages and visualize the intense struggle that gave all contemporary Americans a chance at living a free and worthwhile life. Reading this book will be educational and enjoyable; my favorite formula. We write for you, the reader, in a fast-paced, action-packed way. But please don’t forget how important these stories really are as you get caught up in the drama.
So let’s go, and thanks for taking the time to learn about the patriots.
It took slightly more than four decades from the first rumblings of discontent for the thirteen loosely aligned colonies comprising New England to be transformed into one of the largest and most prosperous nations on earth. It started with a simple idea, that all men deserve to be treated equally, and became the great experiment that would change the world.
The American Revolution was born in the town meetings of Massachusetts, when ordinary people stood up and spoke passionately to their neighbors about their common interests. It did not begin as a quest for freedom but rather as citizens’ simple desire to have their rights respected. It was a war of ideas as much as a fight over economics.
When the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, it is probable that the British believed this was more of a nuisance than a war. Would the colonies really dare fight the greatest military power ever assembled? The British army was well equipped, well trained, and highly professional. The British navy controlled the oceans. The colonials had no army and no navy, just poorly equipped and untrained local militias.
At first the British tried to contain the revolt within Massachusetts, believing they might end it by occupying Boston. That strategy failed at Bunker Hill, when the redcoats were stunned by the ferocity of the colonists’ defense. When the cannons Washington had retrieved from abandoned Fort Ticonderoga put the British troops in jeopardy, the British withdrew to Canada to reinforce their army. It was time to take this uprising seriously.
In 1776 the largest military offensive in history captured New York, forcing Washington to retreat. The colonial army had been reduced to only six thousand men when Washington launched an extraordinary Christmas Night attack on the Hessians in Trenton, providing the colonies with a great military victory—and hope.
A year later the strategy changed once more; this time the British intended to isolate the northern colonies. To accomplish this, they split their army in half—and were stunned when five thousand troops were captured at the Battle of Saratoga. The war had become incredibly costly, causing many people in England—and Parliament—to question the value of continuing the fight.
Everything changed when France entered the war on the colonial side in 1778, forcing the British to protect their possessions scattered around the world. Once again the British objectives had changed, and they launched an invasion of the American south, where they expected to be supported by Loyalists. At the beginning of 1780 there were more than sixty thousand British and German troops fighting Washington’s twelve-thousand-man army. While at first the southern strategy worked and the British successfully captured South Carolina, the attempt to move north was defeated by small, highly mobile guerrilla bands using hit-and-run tactics. The result was that Lord Cornwallis’s army was trapped at Yorktown, Virginia, by American and French forces and ultimately surrendered, effectively ending the fighting in America.
The colonies won the war. The question became: What kind of nation would emerge from the victory? The founding fathers battled over lofty ideals and harsh realities, and slowly a new form of government was carefully molded. It was tested in numerous and unexpected ways, but, with the Louisiana Purchase, a vast new democratic nation was born.
What follows is not a complete retelling of the war and its aftermath but rather an investigation into the truth behind many of the legendary stories from the time, the stories of the heroes and the traitors, the leaders and the ordinary soldiers, who together forged one of the most exciting narratives in all of history.
Samuel Adams AND Paul Revere
THE REBELLION BEGINS
The flame that would ignite the American Revolution was lit on a Thursday morning, February 22, 1770, when, according to the Boston Gazette, “a barbarous murder . . . was committed on the body of a young lad of about eleven years of age.”
Earlier that morning Christopher Seider and a crowd of young men had marched defiantly through Boston’s cobblestone streets to the merchant Theophilus Lillie’s shop. In addition to a cart overflowing with rotten fruit, they carried painted papier-mâché figures of Lillie and three other importers who refused to respect the colonists’ boycott on all British goods. As the protesters stained the shop windows with rubbish, the greatly despised customs collector Ebenezer Richardson tried to stop them. Richardson, described by the Gazette as “a person of a most abandoned character,” had been forced to leave the Massachusetts town of Woburn after impregnating his sister-in-law and blaming the local minister. Richardson tried to knock down the rioters’ papier-mâché figures. When his attempt was thwarted, he threatened to “blow a lane through this mob” until finally retreating the hundred paces to his own home.
The growing crowd, numbering as many as sixty boys, turned its whole attention to him. The morning was dark. More nasty words were exchanged. “By the eternal God,” Richardson swore, “I will make it too hot for some of you before night.” At first only rubbish was thrown into Richardson’s yard and was thrown back by Richardson and his wife, Kezia, but soon rocks were being hurled and the Richardsons retreated into their secure home. Windows were shattered as the barrage grew in intensity. Seconds after an egg or a stone struck his wife, Ebenezer Richardson appeared defiantly at a second-story window, holding high a musket loaded with swan shot.
He fired once. It was intended to be a warning, he later swore, but two boys were struck. Sammy Gore was wounded in both thighs and his hand but would survive. Christopher Seider was hit in his breast and abdomen by eleven pieces of shot “the bigness of large peas.”
“The child fell,” reported the Boston Evening-Post, “but was taken up and carried into a neighboring house, where all the surgeons within call were assembled, and speedily determined the wounds mortal, as they indeed proved about 9 o’clock that evening.”
Richardson and his alleged accomplice, George Wilmot, were taken to Faneuil Hall. As more than a thousand people stood watching, they told their story to three magistrates. Richardson was charged with murder. The crowd pressed forward, its intentions clear, and, as the newspapers reported, “had not gentlemen of influence interposed, they would never have reached the prison.” There is reason to believe one of those gentlemen may well have been Samuel Adams, who by then was well established as a leader of the protests.
The whole of Boston was invited to attend the boy’s funeral, “when all the friends of Liberty may have an opportunity of paying their last respects to the remains of this little hero and first martyr to the noble cause.” More than two thousand of the city’s approximately twenty thousand citizens marched in an extraordinary procession, which caused John Adams to write in amazement, “My eyes never beheld such a funeral. The procession extended further than can be well imagined.”
The fervor in the city continued to grow until a few days later it finally exploded in battle between the colonists and British soldiers. To the English this was called the Incident on King Street, but Americans have always known it simply as the Boston Massacre.
The names and events of the American Revolution are the foundation on which this great nation is built. But contrary to what is often believed, it did not begin as a quest for freedom but rather as a protest to ensure that colonists enjoyed their rights as citizens of the British Empire. How had relations between Great Britain and the colonists come to this kind of violence? Until the early 1760s, the estimated two million free white men and women living in America—or “the best poor man’s country,” as it was known to Europeans—enjoyed a mostly peaceful and prosperous relationship with Great Britain. While each of the thirteen colonies was mostly self-governed by elected assemblies that made and enforced laws, controlled land ownership, and levied taxes, the cultural, economic, and political ties to the empire remained strong. While some colonists had risked their lives crossing the ocean for personal or religious freedom, many more of them had come for the economic opportunity; the colonies were known as a place where a hardworking man could eventually lay claim to his own piece of land or establish a business.
While colonists proudly called themselves Americans, even those people born in North America remained loyal to the Crown. Their goal was not to become an independent nation. The first sign of trouble came on November 16, 1742, when riots erupted in the streets of Boston after Royal Navy sailors impressed, or kidnapped, forty-six men, intending to force them to serve aboard British naval ships in the long war against France. While impressment was common in other parts of the world, until that night both tradition and the law had protected Massachusetts’s men. The riots lasted three days; the city was paralyzed and colonists took several British naval officers hostage, then attempted to storm the State House.
The commodore of the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor ordered his ships to load twenty-four cannons and threatened to bombard the city. He never had to make good on his threat, as Governor William Shirley soon arranged a trade of the impressed men for hostages held by the rioters. A day later the fleet sailed.
But the seeds of discontent had taken root. A pamphlet signed by “Amicus Patriae,” an anonymous American patriot, was distributed during the crisis. This “Address of the Inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts” defended the “natural right” of the people to be free in the streets and band together for defense against impressment if necessary. Evidence suggests that the author of that pamphlet was a young brewer named Samuel Adams.
By that point in his life, Samuel Adams had proved to be a remarkably unsuccessful businessman. After being dismissed from his first job at a countinghouse, he borrowed a small fortune from his father to open his own merchant business, which failed. He then began working in the family’s successful malt business, becoming known somewhat derisively as “Sam the maltster.” His problem, according to historian Pauline Maier, was that he was “a man utterly uninterested in either making or possessing money.” His true passion was politics, and that perhaps was his greatest inheritance: his father, Samuel Adams Sr., was a wealthy merchant, church deacon, and a leader in Boston politics, eventually being elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Samuel Adams Jr. entered politics in 1747, being elected to the post of clerk in the Boston market. He also served as the local tax collector—and failed miserably at that job, too. According to British law, he was personally responsible for taxes he failed to collect. To settle that debt, the sheriff announced an auction of Adams’s property, including the family brewery. Adams’s reputation, and perhaps the fact that he threatened to sue any purchaser, allowed him to keep his property. In 1748 Adams joined several men to found a newspaper, the Independent Advertiser, and wrote in its first issue, “Liberty can never exist without equality.” It was an attack on both the wealthy mercantile class and the growing threats on individual freedom from England.
By 1760, 130 years after being founded by the Puritans, Boston was a thriving, growing seaport. While in theory its commerce was regulated by British navigation and trade laws called the Navigation Acts, in fact those laws were rarely strictly enforced. Instead, a system of common laws had developed based on the local practices that had served to encourage business. That changed in 1761, when London ordered its customs officials in Boston to begin aggressively cracking down on smugglers who were depriving the government of taxes needed to finance the Seven Years’ War or, as it was known in America, the French and Indian War. Suddenly the Navigation Acts, so long ignored, were to be enforced. It seemed only fair that the Americans should help pay for the ten thousand British troops who were protecting them from the French. But rather than reducing the flow of smuggled goods, these duties had the opposite effect, enticing more people to take risks.
To assist the tax collectors, the newly appointed chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, Thomas Hutchinson, issued writs of assistance, warrants that allowed the taxmen to enter any premises in the city without cause in order to search for smuggled goods and seize whatever they found. Years later Samuel Adams would write that it was in Hutchinson’s courtroom that “the child independence was then and there born” as the men of Boston were “ready to take up arms against writs of assistance.”
Behind the power of these laws, English customs agents ransacked homes and businesses searching for smuggled goods. Angry colonists joined together and formed raucous political parties to fight these new laws. They didn’t demand independence from Great Britain; the colonists simply wanted to be treated with respect and have a voice in their own government. As Samuel Adams wrote, “If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation . . . are we not reduced . . . to the miserable state of tributary slaves? . . . We claim British rights, not by charter only; we are born to them.”
Several leaders emerged from this turmoil, among them John Adams and John Hancock. John Adams was the wealthy second cousin of Samuel Adams, who had drawn him into the cause. He and his cousin were said to be a curious sight when walking together, the wealthy John Adams turned out as a proper gentleman while his admittedly poorer cousin reflecting the manners of a lesser class. By all accounts John was arrogant and cantankerous; he was also respected for his powerful intellect and was happy to lecture at length about his opinions. A fifth-generation descendant of Puritans who had settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632, he was the first member of his family not to join the militia, instead becoming a lawyer. Under the pseudonym Humphrey Ploughjogger, in 1763 he began publishing essays supporting the legal rights of Americans.
John Hancock was only seven years old when his father died and he was sent to live with his wealthy uncle, the revered shipping tycoon Thomas Hancock. John was raised a child of great privilege, and after graduating from Harvard he traveled to Britain to attend the coronation of twenty-two-year-old King George III. When his uncle died, the then twenty-six-year-old Hancock took control of his import-export empire and became the second-richest man in the colonies. He was known as a generous man who gave easily and often to causes and friends, among them Samuel Adams—and would eventually become one of the primary financiers of the freedom movement. But he also was impossibly vain with the expected arrogance of the very wealthy, and at times his ambition seemed to extend farther than his capabilities. But like the other towering figures who would join with him to found the United States of America, he also had the extraordinary courage to risk his life and his fortune for a cause in which he deeply believed.
These men were brought into the fight in the early 1760s, when the British Parliament began passing new and more onerous trade laws. The British victory in the Seven Years’ War had been costly; England’s national debt had almost doubled to 145 million pounds, and the government was desperate for increased revenue. In 1764, the Sugar Act modified an existing but rarely enforced law and added new goods—including sugar, certain wines, coffee, and calico—to the growing list of taxable items, as well as limiting exports of lumber and iron. The Currency Act completely banned the New England colonies from issuing their own paper currency. These new restrictions crippled the colonial economies. But it was the widely vilified Stamp Act that finally led to rebellion.
The Stamp Act imposed a duty on all legal and commercial documents, newspapers, almanacs, liquor licenses, college diplomas, playing cards, and even pairs of dice. Essentially every printed document, except books, was taxed. Harsh penalties were in store for those who defied this act; in addition to large fines, people caught counterfeiting stamps “shall be adjudged a felon, and shall suffer death as in cases of felony without the benefit of clergy.” This was the first attempt by Parliament to impose a direct tax on all of the colonies. And it was not at all prepared for the reaction.
For the first time, colonists began actively resisting British rule. In Boston the group that eventually became known as the Sons of Liberty was formed. Led by shoemaker Ebenezer McIntosh, it consisted of shopkeepers, workingmen, students, and artisans, including the noted silversmith Paul Revere—every one of them affected by this tax—and eventually numbered as many as two thousand people.
It was not long before their peaceful protests erupted into violence. Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson had arranged for his brother-in-law, Andrew Oliver, to be appointed to the lucrative post of stamp tax collector. On the morning of August 14, 1765, these Sons of Liberty hung an effigy of Oliver from “the Liberty Tree,” a large elm tree at the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, steps from the Boston Common. Hutchinson ordered the sheriff to cut it down, but a crowd gathered in front of the tree to prevent him from doing so. This was among the very first public acts of defiance against the king. The day grew into a celebration as the colonists felt the first surge of their power. When night fell, the mob cut down the effigy and marched with it to the South End wharves, where they destroyed a brick building that had been built to distribute the stamps. They marched with timbers from that building to Oliver’s grand home. In a bonfire fueled by those timbers they beheaded Oliver’s effigy, then ransacked his home and stable house. The next day Oliver resigned his post.
Twelve days later a group of emboldened colonists attacked Hutchinson’s home, venting years of frustration at being casually dismissed by the wealthy classes as “rabble,” and within hours they had reduced the mansion to rubble. Hutchinson offered a $300 reward, several years’ income for many of these people, to anyone providing information that would help convict the leaders of the attack. Although their identities were well known, no one stepped forward to claim that reward. McIntosh and several other rioters were indicted and jailed, but they were quickly released when angry crowds gathered in front of the jail.
The spirit of protest spread rapidly to the other colonies, from Newport, Rhode Island, to “Charlestown,” South Carolina (as it was then spelled). A rudimentary communications network developed, creating new, stronger links among the colonies. Crowds marched through cities along the Eastern Seaboard shouting, “Liberty and no stamps!” In Virginia’s House of Burgesses Patrick Henry introduced seven resolutions demanding repeal of the Stamp Act. Sons of Liberty groups were formed; the specter of what happened in Boston caused stamp agents to resign, convinced local tradesmen to ignore the Stamp Act, and led to an effective boycott of British goods. Four days after Hutchinson’s house was destroyed, New York City’s stamp distributor, merchant James McEvers, also resigned, fearing his “house would have been pillaged, my person abused and His Majesty’s revenue impaired.”
Smugglers flourished throughout the colonies; among those men accused of that crime was the New Haven merchant Benedict Arnold, who was accused by a hired deckhand of failing to pay duty on goods brought in from the West Indies. There was little sympathy for informers. Arnold responded by organizing a mob that tied his accuser to a whipping post and gave him forty lashes. After being fined 40 shillings for disturbing the peace, Arnold hanged the judge in effigy! Parliament, caught off guard, did not know how to respond. But something had to be done—the colonial boycott of imported English goods had rippled through the British economy, causing considerable unemployment and unrest. British citizens were demanding an end to this disruption. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania sailed to London and warned the House of Commons that any attempt to use troops to enforce the Stamp Act would lead to a violent rebellion. England saw no sense in sending troops across the Atlantic, as the act had been passed to pay for the troops already there. Repealing the act seemingly would reward the protesters and encourage increased defiance in the future. But there was little alternative. In March 1766 Parliament repealed the Stamp Act.
An unintended movement had been born from the protests. “The people have become more attentive to their liberties,” wrote John Adams in his diary, “. . . and more determined to defend them. Our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our legislatures have resolved, our towns have voted; the crown officers have everywhere trembled.”
Speaking to Parliament in 1767, the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke acknowledged that a movement had been started and no one might predict the eventual outcome, saying ruefully, “The Americans have made a discovery that we mean to oppress them; we have made a discovery that they intend to raise a rebellion against us. We know not how to advance; they know not how to retreat.”
Parliament failed to pay heed to Burke’s warnings, instead passing new duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea. They believed that these Townshend Acts—as they were known because they were proposed by the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend—would be acceptable because they were indirect taxes. This time they were not going to allow mob actions to force their hand; instead British commander in chief Lieutenant General Thomas Gage ordered many of the soldiers who had been fighting the French in rural outposts to the coastal cities, and with additional troops now sent from England, eventually two regiments of redcoats were posted in Boston to maintain order.
Townshend was wrong. The colonists were fighting not only against the cost of these new laws but even more so against the principle that the government in England had the right to levy taxes on them without their consent. Boston, the main port of entry for British goods, remained the center of this growing resistance to British rule. Samuel Adams, now forty-six years old and clerk of the Massachusetts House, emerged as the leader of the opposition. It was becoming increasingly obvious to him that the colonists, if they didn’t want to be treated as second-class British citizens, would eventually have to strike out on the incredibly risky and seemingly impossible path to independence.
The taxes devastated the local economy. Silversmith Paul Revere, for example, turned to performing dental work to make up for some of the losses he had suffered. Among his patients was the highly respected and debonair physician Joseph Warren, who had become well known in the city for bravely opening an inoculation hospital during the smallpox epidemic of 1763. Both men had joined the Sons of Liberty, and their relationship would prove to be vital in the ensuing years. Among Revere’s accomplishments was the creation of a younger generation of patriots called the Liberty Boys, several of whom conveniently served as apprentices in his shop.
As the situation deteriorated, the colonies looked at the bonds that had tied them to “Mother England” for so long and now only saw chains. In the early spring of 1768 Lord Hillsborough, the brusque cabinet officer responsible for the colonies, ordered the colonial assemblies to be dissolved. Once again the American people took to the streets, attacking customs agents. Parliament responded by ordering additional troops to Boston. Even more ominous, their officers were granted permission to take whatever actions deemed necessary.
Under the protection of these soldiers, previously cowed customs agents began strictly enforcing the Townshend laws. In June, John Hancock’s small sloop, the Liberty, arrived in port carrying a cargo of Madeira wine. Traditionally, shipowners and customs agents negotiated an accommodation, resulting in only part of a cargo being declared and taxed. It was mutually beneficial: the owner profited from the untaxed portion and the agent received some remuneration for his goodwill. But this time, the customs agent insisted that duty be paid on every bottle aboard the Liberty. The sloop’s captain responded by locking the customs agent Samuel Adams in the brig while the entire cargo was unloaded. The next day the British navy seized the ship. As it was being towed out of Boston Harbor by the fifty-gun warship HMS Romney, a mob gathered on the dock; colonists beat two customs agents badly and vandalized their homes. When John Hancock was accused of smuggling, he hired lawyer John Adams to defend him; the charges were dropped but Hancock was not able to recover his sloop.
While Adams had attempted to raise a force to meet the arriving redcoats, there was still no appetite for direct, organized conflict. The reasons were not just sentimental—few colonists were foolish enough to believe that an untrained and poorly armed militia could resist the powerful British army.
The 1765 Quartering Act forced colonists to shelter British troops in both public buildings and unoccupied houses and barns—but not private homes, although the Colonial government was required to pay for all food and drink. The British army was no longer in America to protect the colonists; it had become an occupying force. Eventually it proved impossible to find appropriate housing for all of the troops that been marched into the city, and tents were set up in the very heart of the city, on the Boston Common.
The presence of a thousand redcoats in the city made an impression. In 1768, alarmed Boston merchants voted to boycott British goods. To their surprise, other colonies did not immediately join them. Only after Boston merchants voted to suspend trading with colonies that refused to participate did New York, Philadelphia, and others reluctantly join the boycott. A popular ditty titled “The Mother Country. A Song,” which is often attributed to Ben Franklin and was written at some point during this period, explained the colonists’ stance:
We have an old Mother that peevish is grown,
She snubs us like Children that scarce walk alone;
She forgets we’re grown up and have sense of our own;
Which nobody can deny deny; Which nobody can deny.
If we don’t obey orders, whatever the case;
She frowns, and she chides, and she loses all patience,
and sometimes she hits us a slap in the face,
Which nobody can deny deny; Which nobody can deny.
Her orders so odd are, we often suspect
That age has impaired her sound intellect:
But still an old Mother should have due respect,
Which nobody can deny deny; Which nobody can deny.
But should any nation question the colonists’ loyalty to the Crown, Franklin concluded:
Know too, ye bad neighbours, who aim to divide
The sons from the Mother, that still she’s our Pride;
And if ye attack her we’re all of her side,
Which nobody can deny deny; Which nobody can deny.
The boycott was sustained with some difficulty for almost two years; while patriots were expected to avoid British-made goods, merchants needed the trade in British products to survive. But those merchants—men like Theophilus Lillie, who refused to honor the boycott—were publicly ridiculed and, in a few cases, physically attacked. Meanwhile, the women of the city organized into a group called the Daughters of Liberty. To reduce the demand for British textiles, they threw spinning and weaving parties and wore homespun clothing as a symbol of their devotion to the growing protest movement.
Members of Parliament were divided on how to handle this dissent among the colonists. Some demanded harsh penalties for Americans who defied the legal authority of the Crown and wanted to bring their leaders to England for trial, while others pushed to reestablish the traditional relationship that had long benefited both sides. “There is the most urgent reason to do what is right, and immediately,” wrote Secretary of War Lord Barrington in 1767, “but what is right and who is to do it?”
The uneasy peace, enforced by the redcoats when necessary, lasted until 1770. The boycott agreement among the colonies was set to expire that January. Many merchants, whose storehouses were overstocked with British-made goods, were pleased to see it end. But when they finally offered those goods for sale, many colonists organized protests and began threatening them.
Those protests turned deadly on the twenty-second of February when Ebenezer Richardson shot eleven-year-old Christopher Seider. The boy’s funeral became a great political event in which leaders of the Sons of Liberty attempted to rally the people of Boston to their cause. The coffin was inscribed with phrases in Latin: “The serpent is lurking in the grass” and “innocence itself is nowhere safe.” As the increasingly bitter lieutenant governor wrote, “If it had been in their power to have brought him to life again, [they] would not have done it but would have chosen the grand funeral, which brought many thousands together, and the solemn procession from Liberty Tree.”
During the days following the funeral, numerous fights broke out between soldiers and bands of Liberty Boys. As one British officer later stated, “The insolence as well as utter hatred of the inhabitants to the troops increased daily.” On March 2 an employee of rope maker John Gray asked an off-duty soldier if he wanted work; when the soldier said he did, the workman replied, “Well then go and clean my shithouse!” That soldier came back later with about a dozen men and a great brawl ensued. The next day, a British sergeant disappeared and was believed to have been murdered. The soldiers spread word that many of the colonists “carried weapons concealed under their clothes” and would use them with little provocation. A handbill warned that soldiers would defend themselves when attacked, and the wife of a grenadier was heard to say that soon the soldiers “would wet their swords or bayonets in New England people’s blood.”
Rumors spread like wildfire across the city, among them the warning that the British intended to cut down the Liberty Tree. On the night of March 5, less than two weeks after Seider had been buried, an angry, boisterous mob roamed through the streets taunting soldiers and pelting them with snowballs. Some of them may have enjoyed at least one merry pint. Men broke into two meetinghouses and began ringing the alarm bells usually rung to alert the citizenry of a fire. This time it was a call to assemble. The city was alive with danger. At eight o’clock that evening two British soldiers were attacked and beaten. A small group of colonists descended on the 29th Regiment barracks but was repulsed without bloodshed. A larger crowd, as many as two hundred strong and armed with clubs, gathered in Dock Square. Slightly more than an hour later the Boston Massacre began with the exchange of a few nasty words.
As with so many historic confrontations, the Boston Massacre is remembered quite differently from both sides. Americans view it as a cold-blooded slaughter; the English consider it a terrible accident that escalated into a tragedy, an accident they had taken great steps to avoid.
What is agreed is that it began on King Street when a wig maker’s apprentice named Edward Garrick publicly accused a British officer named John Goldfinch of failing to pay a bill. Captain Goldfinch did not respond, but a lone sentry guarding the customhouse named Hugh White spoke up and said, “He is a gentleman, and if he owes you anything he will pay it.” Garrick replied that there were no gentlemen left in the regiment, causing White to leave his post to stand up for the honor of the troops. White struck Garrick with the butt of his musket, knocking him to the ground. A crowd quickly gathered, “mostly lads,” the newspapers reported, and some of them started hurling pieces of ice at the guard. White retreated to the safety of the customhouse.
British captain Thomas Preston led twelve men and a noncommissioned officer to the customhouse “to protect both the sentry and the King’s money.” About a hundred colonists armed with clubs and other weapons had gathered in front of the customhouse, Preston later testified at trial, and were threatening “to execute their vengeance” on White. A townsman had told him that the mob intended to carry White off and murder him. Preston claimed he had been desperate to avoid conflict, testifying that “so far was I from intending the death of any person that I suffered the troops to go to the spot where the unhappy affair took place without any loading in their pieces; nor did I ever give orders for loading them.”
According to eyewitness reports, Preston lined his men by twos in a column and, with empty muskets but fixed bayonets, moved smartly across King Street to rescue the beleaguered sentry. After White fell into the ranks, Preston attempted to march the men back to the barracks, but the mob that now numbered as many as three hundred blocked their way. The soldiers formed a rough skirmish line, standing in a semicircle about a body length apart. The crowd continued screaming threats and bombarding the troops with snowballs, pieces of coal, ice, oyster shells, rocks, and sticks.
But the patriots’ account was very different. As the Boston Gazette reported a week later, “Capt. Preston with a party of men with charged bayonets, came from the main guard to the commissioner’s house, the soldiers pushing their bayonets, crying, make way! They took place by the custom house and, continuing to push to drive the people off, pricked some in several places, on which they were clamorous and, it is said, threw snow balls.”
As Preston claimed, “The mob still increased and were more outrageous, striking their clubs or bludgeons one against another and calling out, ‘Come on you rascals, you bloody backs . . . fire if you dare, G-d damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not.’ At this time I was between the soldiers and the mob, endeavoring all in my power to persuade them to retire peacefully, but to no purpose. They advanced to the points of the bayonets, struck some of them and even the muzzles of the pieces, and seemed to be endeavoring to close with the soldiers.” One of the crowd asked Preston if he intended to order his men to fire. No, he replied, pointing out that he was at that moment standing in front of his men’s muskets and “must fall a sacrifice if they fired.”
What happened next changed the course of history, but we’ll never know the exact chain of events. As the crowd pressed closer, according to the Boston Gazette, “the Captain commanded them to fire; and as more snow and ice balls were thrown he again said, ‘Damn you, fire, be the consequences what it will.’ One soldier then fired, and a townsman with a cudgel struck him over the hands with such force that he dropped his firelock; and, rushing forward aimed a blow at the captain’s head. . . . However, the soldiers continued to fire successively till seven or eight or, as some say, eleven guns were discharged.”
Captain Preston’s version of events was different. “One of the soldiers having received a severe blow with a stick, stepped a little on one side and instantly fired, and on turning to and asking him why he fired without orders, I was struck with a club on my arm. . . . A general attack was made on the men by a great number of heavy clubs . . . 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. On my asking the soldiers why they fired without orders, they said they heard the word fire and supposed it came from me. This might be the case as many of the mob called out fire, fire.”
According to several accounts, a forty-seven-year-old mulatto sailor named Crispus Attucks, who may have been an escaped slave who had found freedom working on the oceans, grabbed the musket held by a soldier and knocked the man to the ground. The soldier, Hugh Montgomery, scrambled to his feet and shouted, “Damn you, fire!” and triggered a blast into the crowd. Seconds later the other soldiers began firing. Other reports claim Montgomery was “jostled” and, in panic, fired his musket aimlessly but other troops, hearing that shot and thinking they heard a command to fire, began shooting.
What slim chance there might have been of preserving the peace between England and the colonies disappeared in those few seconds. Crispus Attucks was struck by two bullets in his chest and thus became the first casualty of battle in the Revolutionary War. By the time the shooting ended, three colonists were dead. Two others would die later that night, and another six men were injured. In addition to Attucks, among the dead were Samuel Gray, “killed on the spot, the ball entering his head and beating off a large portion of his skull,” James Caldwell, shot in the back, and two other seventeen-year-olds.
The entire confrontation lasted no more than twenty minutes, but it resonated throughout the colonies and the British Empire. No one knows for certain which leaders of the Sons of Liberty were in that crowd that night. There has long been speculation that Samuel Adams and Paul Revere were among them, but this was a mob beyond the powers of any leader to control.
Adams and Revere, and certainly Dr. Warren, were on the scene immediately, as was Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson, who ordered Preston and his men to return to their barracks. In an effort to prevent further violence, Hutchinson then went to the Old State House to meet with Boston Council leaders, assuring them that he would see justice done. Finally, stepping out onto a balcony overlooking the still-bloody streets, the lieutenant governor asked for calm, promising, “Let the law have its course. I will live and die by the law.”
Within hours a warrant was issued for the arrest of Captain Preston. Two justices interrogated him for more than an hour about the shooting, then removed him to jail, probably as much for his own security as for punishment regarding the events.
Under most circumstances, the deaths of these five men barely would have been noted, but the patriot leaders understood that they could be used to further their political aims. A massive funeral was held for the five men; an estimated twelve thousand Bostonians turned out for the solemn procession. They were buried in a large vault in the same burying ground on Tremont Street as Christopher Seider. Samuel Adams erected a marker with the words “as a memento to posterity to that horrid massacre,” thereby giving it the name that has lived in history.
According to Adams, in the days following the funeral John Hancock called on patriots to tell the story of the massacre to their children until “tears of pity glisten in their eyes, and boiling passion shakes their tender frame.”
Many of the events leading to revolution were celebrated in art by Paul Revere, who was among the leading engravers and silversmiths of the time. In 1767, for example, to honor the ninety-two legislators who defied King George and Parliament by refusing to rescind a letter sent to the other colonies protesting the Townshend Acts, he created the beautiful Sons of Liberty or Rescinders’ Bowl. Decorated with symbols of liberty, the classic silver bowl became a symbol of freedom to the colonists. When General Gage marched his newly arrived troops in a show of force in 1768, Revere’s engraving depicting this occupying army, titled The Insolent Parade, was widely distributed.And within three weeks of the Boston Massacre Paul Revere also created and sold an engraving titled The Bloody Massacre in King Street, March 5, 1770, an effective propaganda piece that contributed significantly to the rising fervor for independence.
The storied engraving, which relied heavily on a drawing done by the uncredited artist Henry Pelham, bears little resemblance to the actual facts of the event. Rather than a chaotic scene on a snowy winter’s night, Revere portrayed an orderly, taut line of redcoats firing in unison into an unarmed crowd on a bright blue-sky-lit afternoon, apparently responding to orders from an officer standing behind them. The blood of the patriots spurts from their bodies; the sign butcher’s hall is affixed to the building behind the troops and a puff of gun smoke makes it appear as if a sniper is firing from that building. Below the engraving is a poem apparently written by Revere, which includes the lines: “While faithless P—n and his savage bands, / With murd’rous rancor stretch their bloody hands; / Like fierce barbarians grinning o’er their prey, / approve the carnage and enjoy the day.”
The journey to independence had begun.
Copyright © 2016 by Bill O'Reilly and David Fisher