The Boston Massacre

Te Whenua Waaka-O’Keefe, Dickson College, 2013

The following essay was written under exam conditions for the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2013. The essay was written in response to the following question: 'Explain and assess the role of colonial radicals in influencing opinion and co-ordinating opposition and resistance to the British. In your answer, refer to the portrayal of the Boston Massacre and any other relevant events and activities.'

The ‘Boston Massacre’ is an example of how colonial radicals created conflict between the Britain and America. Radical Bostonians had been attacking and harassing the British troops and merchants prior to the Massacre, creating fear and hostility. The riot and killings on March 4 1770 were organised by radicals whose intention was to drive the Redcoats out of Boston. Finally, radicals such as Paul Revere and the authors of sympathetic newspapers exploited the situation, skewing facts in order to foster hatred towards the British. The ‘Boston Massacre’ was a masterpiece of political mobilisation orchestrated by colonial radicals.

In the months before the ‘Boston Massacre’ Bostonians had been harassing both British troops and sympathetic merchants in order to create tension. Merchants had suffered at the hands of radicals; when they tried to break from the non-importation movement they were threatened and sometimes attacked. This was done in order to keep the tension between the British and the Colonies going (Brogan p 152) (Freeman). The soldiers were also harassed as Captain Preston recounts: “They have ever used all means in their power to weaken the regiments and to bring them into contempt by promoting and aiding desertions… and by grossly and falsely propagating untruths concerning them...”. Preston’s account tells us that radical elements within Boston were actively trying to encourage conflict. Preston tells us also that the soldiers were worried that the Bostonians would “…destroy them in a moment if they pleased,” (Preston’s Statement Reguarding the Boston Massacre). The actions of the radical Bostonians in the months leading up to the ‘Boston Massacre’ illustrate their role in creating tension in order to sustain ‘resistance to the British’.

The specific events of 5 March 1770 were begun by American radicals hoping to provoke the Redcoats and in turn a backlash against the British. Rather than let tensions remain as they were the radicals initiated conflict (Brogan 152). Newton Prince a witness to the events revealed the pre-meditated nature of the rioters in his statement: “Was told there was no fire but something better, there was going to be a fight. Some [of them]… had clubs” (Statement of Newton Prince). Prince’s account reveals two things; firstly, the town bells had been used to mobilise the Bostonians and secondly, the presence of weapons revealed what the intention of the organised rioters was. The aim of instigators was to “…force the authorities to withdraw the troops…” (Brogan 152) which they succeeded in doing. This shows that the radicals were not adverse to creating conflict in order to get their way. The ‘Boston Massacre’ was planned and executed by Bostonian radicals in order to provoke the British and ultimately remove them from the town, demonstrating the provocative methods they used.

The radicals also used propaganda in order to create anti-British sentiment, After the ‘Boston Massacre’ radicals began to dramatise and politicise the events in order to create outrage towards the British. Paul Revere’s ‘Massacre on King Street’ depicted unarmed civilians being killed by an organised line of British troops. This was a brazen falsification as numerous accounts had the Americans armed and the British were not organised during the attack, rather they were brawling with the Americans (Prince) (Brogan) (Boston Massacre Historical Society). As the Boston Massacre Historical Society put it “…Revere’s historic engraving is long on political propaganda and short on accuracy”. This once again shows the role of the Boston radicals in trying to stir up conflict (Brogan 152). Newspapers and anti-British literature also attempted to create outrage such as this article from the Boston Gazette and Country Journal which said; “…he met the ten or twelve soldiers aforesaid rushing down the alley towards the square and asked them if they intended to murder people? They answered yes, by God, root and Branch!” This quote shows how the radicals tried to insinuate that this was an act of aggression on the part of the British while it was in fact “… self-defence” (Brogan 152). The propaganda which emerged after the ‘Boston Massacre’ shows that the radicals were willing to falsify and politicise the events in the media in order to help their cause.

The ‘Boston Massacre’ demonstrates the different methods the colonial radicals used in order to sustain tensions with Britain. They used intimidation, subversion and violence in order to enforce the divide between sympathetic merchants and soldiers, and the American people. They undertook conspiracies in order to force the British to react, in order to achieve their political objectives. And the radicals exploited the events of the massacre in the media in order to generate anti-British sentiment. The ‘Boston Massacre’ provides examples of the American radicals’ actions to undermine the British.


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Brogan, H. (2001), The Penguin History of the USA (New Edition), London: Penguin

Freeman, J. (2010), HIST 116: The American Revolution, Open Yale Courses. Accessed January 11, 2013,

Captain Preston's account of the Boston Massacre March 5 1770

Statement of Newton Prince, Boston Massacre Historical Society

The Boston Massacre, Boston Gazette and Country Journal, March 12, 1770.