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5. 1770: Violence—and Pause


The royal army had been brought thither [to Boston in 1768] with the avowed design of enforcing submission to the Mother Country. Speeches from the throne and addresses from both houses of Parliament had taught them [the British] to look upon the inhabitants as a factious turbulent people who aimed at throwing off all subordination to Great Britain. [The Americans] on the other hand were accustomed to look upon the soldiery as instruments of tyranny, sent on purpose to dragoon them out of their liberties. Reciprocal insults soured the tempers, and mutual injuries embittered the passions of the opposite parties . . .

David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 1789

Before 1768, British troops in the colonies were there to fight with Americans against a mutual enemy, usually the French and their Indian allies. But in 1768, for the first time, British troops were sent to enforce British authority against resisting Americans, specifically the Bostonians rioting against British customs officials. And they stayed. Violent confrontation was inevitable, it seemed, especially since harassment of the soldiers was encouraged by the Sons of Liberty. The inevitable arrived in early 1770 with three incidents that enflamed opinions on both sides of the Atlantic. The British condemned Americans as a "factious turbulent people," as David Ramsay pointed out, while the Americans reviled the soldiers as "instruments of tyranny." What caused the confrontations? How were they reported and memorialized? Why did tempers cool later in 1770?

    Colonists respond to the violent confrontations of 1770 PDF file
  • Colonists respond to the violent confrontations of 1770. This compilation, one of a series in this Theme CRISIS, provides a first-hand view of the three violent confrontations in early 1770. Included are newspaper accounts, poems, Paul Revere's engraving The Bloody Massacre, commentary by John Adams, and, as always, the retrospective views of the Patriot historian David Ramsay. The three incidents are:

    –January 1770: The Battle of Golden Hill, New York City. Liberty poles, a symbol of American resistance since the Stamp Act crisis, were routinely destroyed by British troops, an act guaranteed to rouse colonists' ire. On January 19, 1770, several days after British soldiers had blown up the Liberty Pole on Golden Hill (in present-day downtown Manhattan) and ransacked a resident's home, several Sons of Liberty intercepted soldiers posting a handbill condemning the "riotous disturbance" and wishing "famine and destruction pouring on [the] heads" of the Sons of Liberty. The resulting fracas escalated to street fighting in which the soldiers "fell on the Citizens with great Violence, cutting and slashing." Because the confrontation was the first with "blood spilt on both sides," it is often called the "first blood" incident of the Revolution. Here we read the account by "An Impartial Citizen" published in The New-York Gazette. In what ways is the account journalistic reporting? incendiary propaganda? How would a British account of the incident differ?

    –February 1770: The Shooting of Christopher Seider, Boston. A month after the New York incident, a second outbreak of violence occurred in Boston, this time between an American-born tax collector for the British, named Ebenezer Richardson, and a group of boys picketing the store of a merchant who refused to boycott British goods subject to Townshend duties. When the boys proceeded to Richardson's home, Richardson shot from his window and killed eleven-year-old Christopher Seider. This obscure boy was transformed into a hero so quickly and so effectively that his funeral was attended by hundreds of enraged Americans. This transformation was largely the work of Benjamin Edes and John Gill, the radical editors of the Boston Gazette, whose account of the shooting we read here. "This innocent Lad is the first whose LIFE has been a Victim to the Cruelty and Rage of Oppressors!" declared the Gazette. "Young as he was, he died in his Country's Cause, by the hand of an execrable Villain." How would a British account of the incident differ from the Gazette's? According to John Adams, what lesson was to be learned by British and Americans alike from the response to Seider's death?

    Seider's death, argues literary historian Robert Ferguson, was important to the Patriots because it enabled them to turn the policy of nonimportation into something far more dramatic and vivid than a mere act of saying "no." It transformed nonimportation into "the stuff of legend and communal glory."1 Drawing upon the work of Edes and Gill, poet Phillis Wheatley, a young enslaved black woman in Boston, captures that glory in her rendering of Seider's story. In her telling, his death reveals divine sanction for the Patriots' cause:

    In heavens eternal court it was decreed
    How the first martyr for the cause should bleed.

    Seider becomes an American Achilles, a "young champion" raised up by grieving patriarchs, and, even at the age of eleven, a "martial genius" who so threatened the "Tory chiefs" they could no longer ignore him. How do the Gazette account and Wheatley's poem differ in tone and message? What response is intended in each?

    –March 1770: The Boston Massacre. Six weeks after the Golden Hill incident and two weeks after Seider's death occurred the third eruption of violence—the confrontation immortalized as the "Boston Massacre." Like the shooting of Seider, it was precipitated by a group of American boys and young men harassing a representative of British authority, in this case a guard at the city's custom house. Soldiers arrived to back up the guard as more residents gathered at the volatile scene, hurling insults, throwing rocks, sticks, and pieces of ice, and some daring the soldiers to fire. Pleas for calm went unheeded as the soldiers became vastly outnumbered and grouped for defense. Someone allegedly yelled "fire" and the soldiers shot into the nighttime crowd, killing five and wounding six men. The uproar was immediate—Americans condemning the British as "fierce Barbarians" and British assailing the Bostonians as an "irresponsible mob." Each accused the other of purposely instigating the harassments and faceoffs that had escalated since the troops' arrival in 1768. Soon after, partly from the demands of Boston citizens led by Samuel Adams and others, British troops left the city for Castle William, a fortress in Boston harbor.

    Like Seider's burial, the funeral for four of the men was attended by "an immense Concourse of People . . . and a long Train of Carriages." Poems, broadsides, declarations, and engravings memorialized the event; examples are included in the compilation, including the well-known engraving by Paul Revere and the text of the poem beneath the illustration. What do David Ramsay and John Adams (who defended the soldiers in their trial a few months later) have to say about the Boston Massacre and its consequences? Its annual commemoration, Ramsay adds, "administered fuel to the fire of liberty and kept it burning with an incessant flame." Why does Adams fear actions that would "keep the Town boiling in a continual fermentation"? To what source do Adams and Ramsay ascribe the "continual fermentation"?

    As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and the Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (14 pp.)

  • Letters of Benjamin Franklin & Samuel Cooper PDF file
  • Letters of Benjamin Franklin & Samuel Cooper on the easing of British-American tensions, 1770-1771, selections. Why did fullscale rebellion not erupt in the colonies after the violent incidents of early 1770? The main reason: one month after the Boston Massacre, Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties except that on tea—not due to the violence, however. Coincidentally, Parliament had begun debating repeal on March 5, the day of the Boston Massacre. After the repeal, colonial merchants abandoned the non-importation agreements, and commerce with Britain returned to normal. In addition, the fairly conducted trial and acquittal of most of the British soldiers involved appeased the British (two were convicted of manslaughter). Here we read two letters between Benjamin Franklin, who was serving in London as the newly appointed agent for Massachusetts (and for other colonies), and his friend Rev. Samuel Cooper, a Boston clergyman, that represent the prevalent view of the time and of later historians of the Revolution. (2 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. From these documents, what impressions do you get of the violent confrontations of 1770 and their consequences?
  2. What casualties (injuries and deaths) occurred in the three events? What difference did this make in their consequences?
  3. What precipitated the events? How were they reported and memorialized?
  4. Create a chart to trace their similarities and differences. What patterns do you find?
Golden Hill_______
  1. In what ways is the account by "an impartial citizen" journalistic reporting? incendiary propaganda? How would a British account differ?
  2. How does the "impartial citizen" conclude his account? What demand does he make?
Christopher Seider____
  1. In what ways is the Gazette account journalistic reporting? incendiary propaganda? How would a British account differ?
  2. How do Edes and Gill make Seider a hero in the Patriot cause?
  3. What evidence in Wheatley's poem indicates that she took her inspiration from the article by Edes and Gill?
  4. How does Wheatley's poem transform Seider's death into "the stuff of legend and communal glory"?
Boston Massacre____
  1. In what ways is the Gazette account journalistic reporting? incendiary propaganda? How would a British account differ?
  2. How do Edes and Gill structure their account as one of American heroism vs. British tyranny?
  3. Compare the Gazette accounts by Edes and Gill of the Boston Massacre and of Seider's death. What did the editors hope to achieve with their newspaper coverage?
  4. Analyze the visual components of Revere's The Bloody Massacre. What is the effect of the tight framing? the division into right and left halves? the encirclement of the buildings?
  5. How does the engraving indicate the power imbalance between the civilians and the soldiers?
  6. Compare the two poems by Revere and an anonymous writer. Although similar in tone, how do they differ in message?
Franklin–Cooper letters____
  1. How do Franklin and Cooper explain the easing of British-American tensions after the 1770 violence?
  2. What concerns do they have about maintaining the calm? Why does Cooper call it a "pause in politics"?
  3. Create a dialogue among two to four persons represented in these readings. Guide your dialogue to a conclusion among the speakers, or an acknowledgment that no conclusion can be reached. The dialogue should reflect the provocations and consequences of the 1770 confrontations.

Framing Questions

  • Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
  • Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
  • How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
  • Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?


COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the violent incidents of 1770
Franklin & Cooper letters
14 pp.
 2 pp.
16 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Christopher Seider: shooting victim (Boston 1775; J. L. Bell)

Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre, enlargeable and high-resolution images (Library of Congress)
    Page One    Page Two

Boston Massacre: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Paul Revere's Most Famous Engraving (Archiving Early America)

Account of the Boston Massacre, Boston Gazette and Country Journal, 12 March 1770 (Archiving Early America)

George Hewes's Recollection of the Boston Massacre, 1773 (History Matters, George Mason University & the City University of New York)

The Boston Massacre Trials of 1770 (Douglas Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas Law School)

British captain's account of the Boston Massacre (From Revolution to Reconstruction, University of Groningen)

The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776 (Massachusetts Historical Society) The American Revolution, overviews and primary sources (American Memory, Library of Congress) "Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1 Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment: 1750-1820 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994; paperback ed., 1997), p. 12.

Images: Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5, 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt., engraving, Boston, 1770 (details). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-4913.

Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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