March 5 is the 250th anniversary of one of most famous and least understood events in America’s revolutionary history — the Boston Massacre, 1770. But a little-known murder 11 days before that calamity set the stage for that regrettable confrontation between Boston citizens and occupying British soldiers.
The onerous Townshend Acts, replacing the rescinded Stamp Act, called for taxes on lead, glass, paper, paint and tea imported to the American colonies. Encouraged by the Sons of Liberty, outraged Bostonians called for boycotts of those taxed items. Merchants defiantly selling boycotted items were harassed by unruly gatherings of citizens. Protesters placed signs at the establishments declaring “Importer.”
On the afternoon of Feb. 22, one such mob was harassing shopkeeper Theophilus Lillie and his customers. His loyalist neighbor, a thuggish fellow with an unsavory reputation, Ebenezer Richardson, came to remove the “Importer” sign and to help chase away the rowdies. Young protesters threw rocks at him. One struck his head as the mob chased Richardson back to his house. Richardson grabbed his musket and fired out one of his windows, already broken by thrown rocks. He wounded one fellow, but he killed 11-year-old Christopher Seider (Snyder). The mob then dragged Richardson to jail. Assured that he would be tried for murder, they relented on immediate revenge, instead carrying the body of young Seider to Faneuil Hall. Four days later, Seider’s funeral procession was a spectacle recounted by John Adams: “A vast number of boys walked before the coffin; a vast number of women and men after it, and a number of carriages.” Thousands of mourners processed.
Since fall 1768, British soldiers had become numerous and conspicuous in Boston, there to control unrest over the new taxes. The colonists regarded them as occupiers — greedy, surly and brutal. On the evening of March 5, Boston citizens confronted a lone guard at the Customs House on King Street. An irresponsible mob of young men and boys surrounded the guard and began to harass him after he had struck a lad who had insulted him. Alerted to the situation, Capt. Thomas Preston marched seven soldiers with bayonets fixed through the mob to rescue the guard. The 50-60 rowdies pressed in, taunting the soldiers and daring them to fire, knowing they had not read out the Riot Act. As one anxious soldier was jostled, his musket discharged; the others inferred the command and fired into the crowd before them. Eleven men were hit. Three died immediately, two others mortally wounded — Gray, Maverick, Caldwell, Attucks and Carr. Paul Revere en-graved the scene based on an inaccurate illustration by Henry Pelham. Revere portrayed them as white although one killed, Crispus Attucks, was a black sailor, possibly formerly enslaved.
Capt. Preston and all but two soldiers were acquitted, defended by John Adams. The two convicted were branded on their thumbs for manslaughter. Nevertheless, the incident became potent propaganda for the Revolution, alarming the colonists to the dangers of a standing army (today, perhaps “gun culture”). Boston decreed an annual oration would commemorate the tragedy. The early speeches expressed rational arguments, declaring that colonists need not obey Parliament and calling for peaceful resistance. At the fifth anniversary in 1775, the oration was spirited and emotional. The easily persuadable in the audience applauded raucously while the conservatives groaned at the exaggerations, knowing, as they did, the facts of the event as brought out at trial. So, when the speaker, firebrand Joseph Warren, called the event a “massacre,” one protested from the gallery, “Oh, fie!” Amidst heightened emotions, some in the gallery heard, “fire.” Panic ensued, some jumping out the windows to escape. They spilled headlong into a procession of sol-diers then marching under fife and drum. Some inside thought another massacre was about to be perpetrated.
First, nobody — children especially — is safer when frightened and easily angered people have quick access to firearms.
Second, elected officials appearing to be intimidated into passing unnecessary laws by a rowdy, boisterous gathering of constituents feeding off their own narrow groupthink is not a good look; they are not serving themselves or the community who elected them. Sober judgment — and its appearance — is called for. The biblical story of Esau and Jacob cautions us against making important decisions when we are hungry. We can add angry, lonely, tired or afraid from our own experiences.
But as long as the decision has been made, remember that “well-regulated” is part of the Second Amendment, too. Protect that! Christopher Seider would thank you.
A Second Amendment sanctuary?