What most Americans know about their own country’s history is scarily nescient — although, to be fair, the fault for this lies at the feet of dismally educated teachers who offer their students the pablum of historical reinvention — and citizens who are too lazy to find out for themselves the truth of actual events.
Some texts suggest that the problems between American colonists and the British government began in the 1770s, surrounded by a popular refrain, “no taxation without representation.” The facts tell us another story. American colonists were represented in parliament — through colonial legislatures and governors. The facts also tell us that the “trouble” began in the early 1760s, following the French and Indian Wars when the British government began taxing the colonists to help pay a fair share of the war debt in the colonies.
We can say without fear of contradiction that the British were very poor parents. Through their salutary neglect, British policy toward the American colonies (from early to mid-18th century) under which trade regulations for the colonies were laxly enforced and colonial affairs largely ignored — and remained so for as long as the colonies remained loyal to the British government and contributed to the economic profitability of the homeland. But when the British began to exert a tighter grasp on the colonies out of economic necessity, their petulant children started “acting out.”
The disloyal opposition
These spoiled children began dressing up as if they were anti-heroes from Marvel Comics and calling themselves The Sons of Liberty. It is only partly true, though. Actually, the first dissidents of British tax policy referred to themselves as The Loyal Nine. This group of men included John Avery, Henry Bass (cousin of Sam Adams), Thomas Chase, Steven Cleverly, Thomas Crafts, Benjamin Edes, Joseph Field, John Smith, and George Trott. These men were business owners and tradesmen. Joseph Field was a ship’s captain.
The Loyal Nine periodically met with other (unaffiliated) Boston citizens such as Samuel Adams, John Adams, Chase Avery, Benjamin Church (a British spy), William Cooper, John Hancock, James Otis, Paul Revere, and Henry Wells. Since none of these men were clever enough to devise a name for their treasonous organization, Isaac Barré (an accomplished military officer, a member of parliament, and a staunch supporter of the American colonists) did it for them. But whether Barré was pro-colonist or someone who derived great pleasure from tweaking the nose of Prime Minister William Pitt (the younger), we cannot say. We know that Barré first coined the term Sons of Liberty, and in time, chapters developed throughout the northeast — in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
Parliament had little direct involvement in the American colonies because most of the colonies had royal origins, either through chartered trading companies (i.e., the Virginia Company) or direct royal control. But the colonies had legislative assemblies, governors, courts, and through these three entities, a conduit to the Parliament in England. Granted, it may not have been an ideal arrangement, but the interests of British colonists were nevertheless adequately represented. One begins to suspect that the issue of British taxation without representation was little more than a convenient excuse for revolutionary thuggery — designed more to protect a robust smuggling syndicate than to achieve the blessings of liberty. Some have suggested that if these men were seeking freedom, it was the liberty to commit crimes against lawful authority.
The irony of this situation is that when the United States government was fully formed, it established laws, policies, and enforcement mechanisms nearly identical to those imposed by British parliamentary tradition. Paradoxically, Americans found no better representation in Congress than they did in Parliament.
Patriots or Psychopaths
The Boston chapter of The Sons of Liberty met under cover of darkness — as all thieves must do, often beneath that auguste Liberty Tree — the stately Elm in Hanover Square. On the night of 14 January 1766, John Adams unobtrusively stepped into a tiny room in a Boston distillery to meet several members of a radical secret society. He recorded the event in his own hand: Spent the evening with the sons of liberty at their apartment in Hanover Square near the tree of liberty.
Scholars say that John Adams and The Sons of Liberty shared punch and biscuits with cheese and some tobacco as they discussed their opposition to The Stamp Act. The colonists were furious about the tax — even though they benefitted most from the protections afforded them by the British Army against the French and their heathen allies. The legal scholar Adams resisted the tax by circulating petitions, offering speeches, and writing essays.
The Sons of Liberty had no hesitation in threatening the life of the King’s stamp man — threats of violence seconded only by actual violence is the ultimate denial of a man’s liberty. No doubt, the Sons of Liberty were only interested in their freedom, not to be confused with their neighbor’s rights. John Adams reconciled himself to a combination of high-minded arguments and threats of intimidation, even threats of death or serious injury, to achieve the aims of those sons. Adams gave us his written assurances — he … heard no plots, no machinations from The Loyal Nine. “Just gentlemanly chat.”
Long before any armed revolt, the Liberty Tree became Massachusetts’ most potent symbol of revolutionary esprit. Of course, in those days, christening trees as liberty trees became quite fashionable in the colonies. But as for the original, no one has seen it lately. British soldiers chopped it down in 1775.
The American Revolution, however, was a building process. It took time to transform colonial America into a battleground, but The Loyal Nine and The Sons of Liberty were dedicated to that task. The self-described patriots would war with Parliamentarians, they would war with their enforcers (the Red Coats), and they would war against those whose loyalty to the British crown remained true. Skirmishes between colonists and soldiers — and between patriots and loyal colonists — were increasingly common. Some claim that the revolution was the first time, but not the last time that Americans went to war with one another. Others argue that Americans have always been at war with each other.
In 1770, the city of Boston was the capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay — a vital shipping town and the center of resistance to unpopular acts of taxation by the British Parliament. It had been going on since the 1760s, with the colonists claiming that acts of Parliament violated their natural rights, their charter, and the constitutional rights of British subjects in the foreign colonies. In 1768, the Massachusetts House of Representatives began a campaign against the British acts. They did this by sending a petition to King George III asking for the repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. The House also sent The Massachusetts Circular Letter to other colonial assemblies asking them to join the resistance movement, calling for a boycott of any merchant importing affected goods.
Massachusetts’ Colonial Secretary, Lord Hillsborough, was thunderstruck by the assembly’s actions. He dispatched a communiqué to all other colonial governors instructing them, for their own good, to dissolve any colonial assemblies responding to the circular. He also directed the Governor of Massachusetts, Francis Bernard, to order the Massachusetts House to rescind their letter. The House refused.
Boston’s chief customs officer, Charles Paxton, wrote to Hillsborough asking for military support; he had much to fear because the gangsters calling themselves The Sons of Liberty would not hesitate to kill him if they thought they could get away with it. Hillsborough dispatched Commodore Samuel Hood with a 50-gun warship, HMS Romney. On 10 June, customs officials seized the merchant ship Liberty (owned by John Hancock), alleging that the ship was heavily involved in smuggling operations. This was undoubtedly true, but it didn’t stop Bostonians from rioting. There were other grievances, as well. Customs officials wisely fled to Castle William (later, Fort Independence). Then, Lord Hillsborough instructed General Thomas Gage, Commander-in-Chief of North America, to “send such forces as you think necessary to Boston.” The first of four regiments came ashore on 1 October 1768.
Physical altercations between colonists and Boston customs officials were frequent. Customs officials were only doing their jobs — local citizens hated them for it — and created opportunities at every turn for more clashes. One such opportunity occurred on 22 February 1770 when The Sons of Liberty arranged a demonstration outside a store owned by Theophilus Lillie, a loyalist. The store was next to the home of Customs Official Ebenezer Richardson (in Boston’s north end). One young lad, Christopher Seider (b. 1758), went to watch the demonstration. The crowd began throwing rocks, one or more of which broke a window of Richardson’s house and struck and injured Mrs. Richardson. This was when Ebenezer fired his weapon into the crowd, the munition striking Christopher Seider in the chest and arm. Christopher, 11 years old, died that night.
Sam Adams, who had arranged for the demonstration, further arranged for Christopher’s funeral, ensuring that more than 2,000 people in Boston attended the interment. Seider’s death roused the local population, and it was timed perfectly in advance of the Boston Massacre eleven days later.
On the snowy and frigid evening of 5 March 1770, British Private Hugh White was detailed to guard the Custom House on King’s Street. He was a lone soldier, standing guard outside a building on a cold night. White was a veteran of eleven years of service. He was thirty years old. Around 8 p.m., a crowd gathered outside the Customs House and began harassing Private White. They insulted him and threatened him with violence.
At some point, when these civilians invaded Private White’s space, the soldier swung his heavy rifle, striking Edward Garrick on the side of his head. The crowd claimed that the soldier had attacked a peaceful civilian without provocation; the mob was immediately energized. Word spread through the streets like wildfire. More people appeared to join in harassing and insulting Private White. With people gathering and voices growing louder, the soldier climbed the steps toward the front entrance of the Customs House and loaded his weapon. Private White warned the crowd he would fire if attacked. The mob responded by throwing snowballs and chunks of ice at the soldier. White called out for assistance. Bells ringing throughout the town — usually a warning of fire — sent male citizens into the streets.
In response to White’s plea and fearing mass riots and the loss of the King’s money, the Guard Officer, Captain Thomas Preston, arrived on the scene with several soldiers and took a defensive position in front of the Custom House. Worried that bloodshed was inevitable, some colonists reportedly pleaded with the soldiers to hold their fire as others dared them to shoot. Preston later reported that a colonist warned him that the protestors planned to “carry off [White] from his post and probably murder him.”
The violence escalated when colonists began striking the soldiers with clubs and sticks. Reports of what happened differ, but after someone supposedly shouted the word “fire,” a soldier fired his gun. It was (and remains) unclear whether the discharge was intentional — I suspect it was not.
Once the first shot rang out, other soldiers fired, killing five colonists — including Crispus Attucks, a mixed-race dock worker — and wounding six others. British officials placed Captain Preston and his guard force under arrest within a few hours. By then, the colonial propaganda machine was in full swing. John Hancock and Samuel Adams wasted no time publishing their version of “what happened.” As tensions rose, British officers demonstrated restraint by withdrawing British troops from the city to Castle William.
It took seven months to arraign Captain Preston and his guard for the murder and injury of townspeople. The problem was that no attorney in Boston was interested in defending the soldiers — save one. Under British law, the soldiers were entitled to the presumption of innocence and legal representation. American patriot John Adams was the one attorney who decided to risk his reputation by providing that defense.
Adams’s first strategy was to convince the judge that the soldiers could never receive a fair trial with Bostonians on the jury. The judge agreed. Non-Bostonians would hear the case. During Captain Preston’s trial, Adams argued that confusion was rampant on the night of 5 March. He proved that eyewitnesses provided contradictory evidence on whether Captain Preston had ordered his men to open fire. Conflicting testimony means reasonable doubt, and the jury acquitted Preston of all charges. As to the remaining soldiers, all claimed the right of “self-defense” and were acquitted of murder, but two soldiers — Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy—were found guilty of manslaughter. Officials branded their thumbs as first offenders per English law. To Adams and the jury’s credit, the British soldiers received a fair trial despite the vitriol felt towards them and their country.
The Boston Massacre significantly impacted relations between the United Kingdom and its American colonies. The British government was beginning to tire of the kerfuffle, and the colonists were growing weary of British rule. At some point in the chain of circumstances, taxation without representation was no longer a significant issue.
Captain Preston later wrote about the incident: “None of them was a hero. The victims were troublemakers who got more than they deserved. The soldiers were professionals who shouldn’t have panicked. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”
- Allison, R.J. The Boston Massacre. Applewood Books, 2006.
- Archer, R. As if an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Middlekauff, R. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Thompson, B. Guts & Glory: The American Revolution. Little, Brown & Company, 2017.
 Barré later became an adherent of Pitt’s policies but maintained close friendships with colonial merchants and shippers because they were the money-makers.
 All such events were duly reported throughout the colonies in the Journal of Occurrences. The authors may have been Sam Adams (then serving as Clerk of the House of Representatives) and William Cooper, Boston City’s clerk.
 Some scholars claim that eleven-year-old Christopher Seider was the first casualty of the American Revolution.
You miss a lot of the philosophical argument for divorcing from the king.
Arguments for freedoms and the rights of man that had been developing, even in England, for a hundred years prior to the Revolution..
Arguments given from the pulpits.
A revulsion to a monarchy and it’s arbitrary tyranny.
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Thanks, Ed. Feel free to elaborate. I hope you’re feeling better.
Interesting and well-written, but I still have little sympathy for the British occupying a country so far from their homeland far past the time they should have departed.
Thanks. But in 1774, the colonies were in “their country.” I guess my point is that the means of securing that conflict wasn’t quite as honorable as our classrooms seem to suggest.
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Interesting post covering details we seldom read about.
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Thank you. In matters of history, I much prefer truth over fiction. We can take the truth if it is presented objectively.
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