Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taxes, a Snowball, Oyster Shells and a Massacre

In 1767 Great Britain passed the Townsend Acts, designed to collect taxes on imported goods to fund administering, governing and protecting the Colonies and in September 1768 British troops were quartered in Boston to insure taxes were collected.  The colonists led by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty began pressuring representatives to repeal the taxes and called for a boycott of imported British goods.  Relationships between the soldiers and the citizens, never good, deteriorated further and on March 5, 1770 a group of Bostonians began insulting and taunting the soldier on guard duty at the customs house.  As tension grew the watch commander, Captain Thomas Preston ordered six privates and a non-commissioned officer to the scene.  Warning his troops not to fire he urged the crowd to return home.  By this time Church bells had rung, usually used for a fire, and the crowd had grown to more than fifty.  Soon snowballs and other objects were thrown at the soldiers, one knocking Private Hugh Montgomery down.  When he regained his feet and recovered his musket he fired. A few minutes later other soldiers fired and eleven men in the crowd were hit.  Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson began an immediate investigation and arrested Captain Preston and the eight soldiers. Determined to hold a fair trial Governor Hutchinson asked John Adams to act for the defense.  Adams agreed and was assisted by Josiah Quincy II.  Acting for the prosecution was Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine. In defense of the soldiers Adams argued  “ I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you.-Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defense; if it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snow-balls, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind; this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offence of killing, down to manslaughter, in consideration of those passions in our nature, which cannot be eradicated. To your candour and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause." Two of the soldiers were found guilty of firing into the crowd and condemned to death but invoked Benefit of Clergy and had their thumbs branded in court. (In English law the benefit of clergy was originally a provision by which clergymen could claim that they were outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts and instead be tried in an ecclesiastical court under canon law. It eventually became a method by which first-time offenders could receive a more lenient sentence for some lesser crimes.) The Captain was exonerated.
Three years later John Adams would write “The Part I took in Defense of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.”

The tombstone for the five men who died in the Boston Massacre: Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, Crispus Attucks and Patrick Carr.

 JOHN ADAMS, farmer, lawyer, patriot, President

Posted by Diane Price
Lineage Research Chair
DAR Brunswick Town Chapter

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