The Boston Tea Party and all the riots leading up to it didn’t exactly occur in a vacuum. To really contextualize that history, you gotta back up a few years …
After the end of the French and Indian War, Parliament began to taxes the colonies for the war they’d kinda dragged England into, and the colonists reacted by, well, kicking up a fuss. Particularly in Boston.
Concerned about the protests and political dissent in Boston, the King and his cabinet decided to send some of their soldiers to Boston to protect their newly appointed Customs Commissioners and just, y’know, keep peace in the streets. Law and order and whatnot. Nothing major.
The colonists REALLY hated this idea. Maintaining a standing army? In a time of peace? In the middle of a major city? Barbarous! They saw it as clear proof of the erosion of civil liberties by the heavy hand of a corrupt and over-militarized government.
It totally didn’t matter that their king, governors, and official bodies all assured them the soldiers were only here to keep the peace and maintain law and order. It didn’t matter that this was the army (and in some cases, the same soldiers) who’d fought for their lives and safety in the French and Indian war—now they were the oppressors.
You might say a modern equivalent would be the Americans protesting the militarization of community police–the existence of police officers who execute citizens without concern for due process; or storm homes and attack citizens with no fear of punishment; or the police raids of private property which are used to appropriate personal valuables for the profit and use of police.
Like modern Americans protesting police brutality and government overreach, the 1770 British colonists of Boston protested the redcoats sent by their government, and they made their outrage pretty freakin’ clear.
They started all peaceful and calm, just as modern critics did–just, like, Hey, this is a problem. We object. But that didn’t work, of course. No-one listened. The people in charge ignored them.
The citizens organized. Began to protest. Submitted petitions requesting the removal of the soldiers. They started harassing the soldiers, too–following them around the streets, and taunting them. Some shopkeepers would refuse to serve them. There’d be brawls, occasionally. Children were encouraged to throw rocks, sticks, and snowballs at them. At one point, Lt. Col. Maurice Carr even wrote the Governor complaining of the abuse his men were enduring at the hands of the colonists.
I guess the modern equivalent to #redcoatshavefeelingstoo is #bluelivesmatter, haha.
So it all came to a head in March, 1770. The British soldiers would sometimes augment their low wages through odd jobs, and a colonist asked a passing soldier if he was looking for work. The soldier was like, Yeah! and the colonist laughs and goes, Go clean my shithouse, then!
The soldier got all butthurt, went and collected some friends for a beat-down, and returned to confront the guy … who (with his friends) soundly kicked ass. Humiliated, the soldiers went back to their fort, and tensions escalated over the next two days as little skirmishes and fights continue to break out, while insults were traded across the streets. British soldiers began patrolling the streets, armed with muskets, bayonets, clubs, and other weapons.
Then, on March 5, an apprentice by the name of Ed Garrick approached the Main Guard sentry box and began harassing Pvt. White, who was stationed there. White responded by hitting Garrick on the head with the butt of his musket, so Garrick’s friends began to yell insults and pelt White with snowballs.
Meanwhile, some patrolling soldiers arrested a group of kids involved in a nighttime snowball fight and marched them right to the barracks, where they ordered the junior officers to confine them. Some Boston citizens arrived, objecting to this overreaction, and a local merchant (police apologist) defended the soldiers’ attempts to keep the peace and told everyone to just go home.
Others went to the Main Guard, where Pvt. White was stationed.
Meanwhile, about 200 angry protestors were gathering in Dock Square. They began marching toward the Main Guard, joined by more protestors from Boston’s North End. Some brought weapons with them—cudgels and knives—while others picked up whatever weapons they could find in the square.
At the Main Guard, faced by a seething mob of more than 300 colonists who were furious at the gall of British soldiers attempting to keep the King’s peace in their town, Pvt. White retreated from the sentry box to the steps of the Custom House. He began calling from assistance, and threatened the approaching crowd he would fire at them if they didn’t back off.
They responded with taunts and yells to fire.
A Cpt. Preston came to Pvt. White’s rescue … kinda. He led two columns of men from the 29th regiment through the mob, forcing a path with their bayonets to reach the Private. They got to him, but when they tried to retrace their route, found themselves penned in. So instead the men formed a defensive semicircle facing the crowd, and aimed their loaded muskets toward the mob.
More taunting. More daring the soldiers to fire.
Then someone in the mob threw a club, which hit one of the soldiers in the head and knocked him down. He clambered back to his feet, and as he did someone once again cried, Fire! and the soldier who’d been knocked down fired a shot.
By all accounts, a pause ensued—the two sides considered one another—and then the troops commenced firing on the citizens of Boston, in the event that would come to be known as the Boston Massacre.
They killed five total, including a 17 year old boy.
Governor Hutcheson promised the people of Boston a full inquiry into the events of the evening, saying, “The law shall have its course; I will live and die by the law.”
The inquiry followed an all-too-familiar template to those who call for justice and inquiries to police shootings in 2016. Basically, the captain and most of the soldiers were found not guilty by reason of self-defense, while the two soldiers who were found guilty of manslaughter were branded them on the thumbs.
Because, clearly, when armed and uniformed men face a mob of citizens irate at their decision to arrest children for a snowball fight, the only possible response is to shoot. Some things never change.