Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – The Boston Tea Party

Nov 12, 2015 by

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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – The Boston Tea Party

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) For many years, there was tension between the 13 colonies and England. What were some of the main concerns?

Discord between the 13 colonies and England had indeed been brewing long before hostilities began between the two sides in April of 1775. In retrospect, it appears that the rift started because of an incident that had happened as part of a conflict known in American history as King George’s War. Starting in 1689, England had fought a series of wars against France, and King George’s War was the third of these conflicts. As it had during the first two wars, England asked its North American subjects to provide aid by attacking French possessions in Canada. Accordingly, seven northern colonies pooled money and manpower in 1745 to conduct a campaign against the key French strategic post of Louisburg.

In a brilliant feat of arms, the colonists succeeded in this endeavor, and still occupied the fort when the war ended in 1748. Much to their chagrin, the colonists learned that one of the terms of the peace treaty mandated the return of Louisburg to French control. This outraged the colonists, because the English government had not even consulted them before giving the fruits of their efforts back to their enemy. Making things worse, the colonists learned that Louisburg was being given back to the French so that the Indian city of Madras (captured by the French during the war) could be returned to England. It thus seemed to many colonists that England cared more about its colonial possessions in India than it did about its subjects in North America. Fifteen years later, colonial dissatisfaction with England grew even greater because of another war.

After three inconclusive conflicts, the English had finally achieved a decisive victory over the French as a result of a struggle known in American history as The French and Indian War. England’s triumph, however, had come at a high cost. Troubled by the massive debt it had accumulated, England sought to: (a) avoid accruing any additional expenses; and (b) pay off its financial obligations as quickly as possible.

To accomplish these goals, England adopted measure that would prove highly unpopular to the colonists. First, England tried to insure that it would not have to fight another war in North America by forbidding English subjects from moving into territories claimed by Native Americans. This angered many colonists, who felt that the war had been fought to settle the question of whether the French or the English would be able to expand into the frontier regions. And second, to lower its debt, England began for the first time to directly tax its subjects in North America. Since the colonists had no representation in Parliament, they believed that the imposition of these taxes was unjust. These two issues would within a decade create such unhappiness in the thirteen colonies that they would take up arms against their Mother Country.

2) Apparently these tensions came to a head in Boston Massachusetts, on March 5, 1770. What was going on?

After a number of attempts to tax the colonists had failed, in 1767 the English government began to levy a tax on five items: paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea. These taxes (called the Townshend Duties) proved extremely unpopular with the colonists, and provoked an almost immediate reaction. To show their displeasure, the colonists decided to boycott all English products. This economic pressure paid dividends, as English merchants soon saw their profits dramatically decrease due to diminished business with the colonists. Accordingly, they called upon Parliament to repeal the taxes. Parliament acquiesced, revoking four of the Townshend Duties in January of 1770.

Due to the difficulty involved in sailing westward across the Atlantic at that time of year, however, news of this development did not reach North America for months. In the interim, violence had taken place in Boston. In that community, anger at England had been festering for quite some time. Part of their ire stemmed from a general unhappiness with the Townshend Duties, but some of it came from the fact that English soldiers were prominently stationed in Boston. Because English soldiers were paid poorly, many of them sought to supplement their income by taking part-time jobs. Willing to labor for less money than Bostonians, they often took work away from the colonists.

A number of confrontations between soldiers and Bostonians then took place. It was against this backdrop of hostility that the incident known as the Boston Massacre happened on March 5, 1770. That night, a verbal confrontation between an English soldier and a young Bostonian resulted in the colonist being struck in the head. Soon, an angry crowd began to gather to confront the soldier. Alarmed by this, the soldier called for help, and he was soon joined by a handful of his comrades. One of these men was jostled by a colonist, and he responded by firing his musket. Shortly thereafter (accounts varied regarding the exact amount of time that transpired), more English soldiers began to fire into the crowd. When the shooting stopped, five colonists were dead or dying, and six were wounded.

3) Crispus Attucks was apparently killed and was the first to die in this event. What do we know about this martyr who was slain?

Crispus Attucks was one of the five colonists who were killed by English soldiers, and appears to have been a person of color. By all accounts he was the first to die. Beyond that, nothing is known for certain. It is assumed that he was born in 1723 to an African-American father and a Native American mother. Circumstantial evidence—largely an advertisement in a Boston newspaper asking for help in capturing a run-away slave he owned named Crispus—suggests that he was not a free person. Most historians believe that he was a sailor by avocation. While many believe that he was actively engaged in the incident that night, no proof of that exists. In spite of this uncertainty, however, Crispus Attucks became a martyred hero to those colonists opposed to English tyranny.

He was also embraced as a symbol by African-Americans. Boston honored him in 1888 with a monument that still stands on the Boston Commons.

4) What was the reaction in the 13 colonies to this heinous event?

The reaction by the colonists to this occurrence may seem surprising, as no acts of retaliation took place against the English. Indeed, the only action taken by the colonists was to charge the English soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre with murder. Interestingly, these trials resulted in acquittals for all but two of the English soldiers, largely due to the legal acumen of their defense lawyer—John Adams, the future American president. This seemingly tepid response can perhaps best be explained by two facts. First, the English quickly moved their soldiers to a fort on an island located in Boston Harbor, thereby eliminating the chance for another armed confrontation. And second, many colonists were not yet convinced that an irreparable break needed to take place between themselves and England. Rather than viewing armed resistance as necessary at that time, most colonists saw it instead as an impediment to a satisfactory resolution of their grievances.

They were therefore unwilling to embrace the violence involved in the Boston Massacre, choosing instead to take a less confrontational path of resistance (especially after they soon learned that England had ended most of the Townshend Duties). But the memory of the massacre would linger, and the enduring anger over the incident undoubtedly influenced the colonists when they chose five years later to take up arms against the Crown.

5) What was the response from Great Britain?

For Great Britain, the Boston Massacre was also looked upon as a cautionary tale. One the one hand, the English government now had definite proof of colonial unhappiness with its economic policies, but the fair trials given the soldiers demonstrated mob rule was not in control in Massachusetts. King George III and his advisors therefore decided to take no official action at the time, assuming that tensions would die down in the wake of the decision to repeal the onerous Townshend Duties. They were correct in this assumption, as only minor incidents would take place until the English government made the fateful decision in 1773 to enforce the collection of a tax on tea.

6) Apparently, Paul Revere actually drew a painting or engraving of the scene. What do we know about that and where might it be located?

Paul Revere was one of the best-known residents of Boston at that time. A skilled craftsman, he was both an exceptional silversmith and engraver. He put this latter skill to use when he made an engraving of the Boston Massacre that is today the most enduring image that we have of the incident. Rather than a completely accurate picture of the Boston Massacre, however, Revere’s composition is clearly a piece of propaganda. In the engraving, for example, the lone officer on the scene is clearly giving an order to fire.

Accounts of those at the incident, however, make no mention of such instructions being given. In addition, it is evident in the engraving that someone is shooting at the colonists from inside the Boston Customs House, but the trial exonerated those individuals inside that building. Revere’s mistakes may have been due to the fact that he based his engraving on a drawing that had been made by an artist named Henry Pelham, but most historians believe that the discrepancies actually resulted from the fact that Revere was adamantly opposed to the English attempts to impose unjust taxes on the English colonies in North America.

Indeed, as a member of an opposition group known as The Sons of Liberty, he undoubtedly saw this incident as an opportunity to make political capital out of the incident. Paul Revere’s engraving can be viewed to this day, as it is displayed at the Commonwealth Museum in Boston.

7) What have I neglected about the event?

The Boston Massacre bear eerie similarities to the shootings that took place at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio in 1970. There, a crowd composed primarily of young adults had staged a campus-wide protest to denounce a recent decision by President Nixon to send U.S. forces into Cambodia. A contingent of soldiers from the Ohio National Guard was sent to the school to keep the peace, but their presence only added to the students’ anger. Feeling threatened by the hostile crowd, the Guardsmen—apparently without orders—fired on the protesters, killing four of them. Taking place precisely 200 years after the Boston Massacre and with almost exactly the same death toll, these incidents remind us that armed confrontations between civilians and soldiers have unfortunately been a part of our historical record.

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