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The Boston Massacre was a deadly confrontation which began on March 5th, 1770 when a British soldier was harassed by American colonists in Boston. The event strengthened anti-British sentiment in the colonies and paved the way for the Revolutionary War to begin.

March 5th, 1770

After the incident, Preston and the soldiers were arrested and jailed. Preston wrote his side of the story from jail, while the Sons of Liberty encouraged colonists to keep standing up to the British. British soldiers retreated to Fort William as tensions mounted.

Grave of the Boston Massacre victims

In early 1770, more than 2,000 British soldiers were occupying the city of Boston, trying to enforce Britain’s tax laws. Britain was in debt in the 1760s, so the British Parliament had imposed a series of taxes on American colonists. The Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a tax on all paper - newspapers, legal documents, licenses, even playing cards. The Townshend Acts of 1767 taxed goods such as paint, lead, glass, and tea. The British felt these taxes were fair, but the colonists were frustrated at being taxed when they had no representation in British Parliament. They believed it was wrong to have “taxation without representation” and called the acts unconstitutional. Patriots vandalized stores selling British goods, and confrontations between colonists and soldiers were common. In an incident on February 22nd, 1770, an officer tried to break up a mob of patriots attacking a store by firing towards the crowd, but accidentally killed an 11 year old boy.

On the night of March 5th, 1770, angry colonists began insulting and threatening Private Hugh White, the only British soldier guarding the King’s money inside the Custom House in Boston. After White fought back and struck one colonist with his bayonet, colonists began pelting him with snowballs, ice, and even stones. They continued attacking White, who eventually called for reinforcements. Captain Thomas Preston arrived with several British soldiers to prevent riots and protect the King’s money. Apparently some colonists begged the soldiers not to fire, but others dared them to shoot. The violence escalated; colonists hit the soldiers with sticks. It is unclear exactly what happened, but one soldier fired his gun. It is not known if the shot was intentional or not. However, after the first shot went off, other soldiers began firing, killing five colonists and wounding six.

When Preston and his soldiers were brought to trial, John Adams - colonist, lawyer, and future U.S. President - defended them in court. Adams did not support the British, but he wanted them to have a fair trial. This was because the death penalty was a possibility, and Adams feared that if they were killed unfairly, the British might try to “even the score” by doing something to the colonists.

Adams argued that the events were confusing. Witnesses gave contradictory evidence on whether or not Preston had ordered his men to fire at the colonists. However, after one witness who was standing next to Preston said he didn’t know who said to fire, Adams decided that enough reasonable doubt existed, so Preston was found not guilty. The remaining soldiers were found not guilty of murder because they claimed self defense. However, two were found guilty of manslaughter because of the casualties suffered. Thanks to Adams, the British received a fair trial despite the anti-British sentiment.

The Boston Massacre made colonists who were already tired of British rule and taxation even angrier - it inspired them to fight for independence. The colonists continued their rebellion over the next five years with the Boston Tea Party, the forming of the First Continental Congress, and then the Revolutionary War.

Site of the Boston Massacre

History.com Editors. “Boston Massacre.” History.com, A&E Television

Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-