Thomas Simes, in his Military Guide for Young Officers (published in London in 1772), declared that military discipline “is the soul of all armies; and unless it be established amongst them with great prudence, and supported with unshaken resolution, they are no better than so many contemptible heaps of rabble, which are more dangerous to the very state that maintains them, than even its declared enemies.” As he penned these words, Simes might have been thinking of a bloody day in Boston, two years before on Monday, March 5, 1770, when eight British soldiers fired into an unarmed (albeit belligerent) crowd of about 125, killing five and wounding six.
What became known as the Boston Massacre was the culmination of years of tension between the citizens of Boston and the British authorities in the wake of the Seven Year’s War (the American theatre of which was called the French & Indian War). Richard Archer, emeritus professor of history at Whittier College, traces in coherent and comprehensive detail the events of those years, with a precision which would not be out of place on an episode of CSI.
The tensions began when Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764, a tax bill thinly disguised as a trade bill that was enacted without going through the colonial legislatures. “For the first time,” Archer states, “the British government (Crown and all) prepared to tax colonists directly, with no pretense of representation.” Because of its duties on foreign molasses, Boston was hit harder than any other colonial town, since a large portion of its economy depended on distilling molasses (produced in the West Indies) into rum.
The occupation of Boston by British troops, some 1,200 of which marched ashore on October 1, 1768, created a new array of tensions. Troops had to be billeted, and they also often took on extra work, which depressed wages and reduced opportunities for the locals. The composition of the soldiers was another source of worry. “The presence of British troops as a standing army was alarming enough for the residents of Boston,” Archer states, “but having armed Irishmen [more than 50% of the troops] and Afro-Caribbean’s [several dozen, recruited as drummers] in their midst was a nightmare.”
As time passed, the “townspeople could not escape checkpoints, drills, thrust bayonets, angry and profane words, whippings on the Common, scuffles, competing laborers, assaults by drunken officers and men, redcoats with their wives, children, camp followers, and hangers-on cluttering the streets, and ultimately musket balls and death.” Archer does a superb job of mapping these events and the personalities who drove them—from George Grenville, the Prime Minister who initiated the Sugar Act, to John Adams, who consented to represent Captain Thomas Preston (who allegedly gave the order to fire on the crowd). Archer makes a convincing case that this period was the crucible in which a separate American political identity was created, thereby giving birth to the Revolution.