by William B. Warner
The Boston Massacre provoked a political crisis of enormous significance, explored in detail in Patrick Gabridge’s new play.
The presence of soldiers had been an irritant [in Boston’s politics] since 1768, when they were first dispatched to the town in order to quell public unrest. Approximately 1100 men belonging to two regiments remained in Boston on March 5, 1770. What was to be done with these men?
This urgent question linked acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson, the Provincial Council, and Boston’s town meeting in a tense debate that unfolded on March 6. The issue was given its initial shape by the “Vote,” or resolution, passed by the town meeting at Faneuil Hall and carried by a committee of 15 appointed citizens to the Governor in Council. Although the vote was framed in the form of a petition to the Governor, it had the tone and style of a demand: “nothing less will satisfy, than a total and immediate removal of all the Troops.”
In both the morning and afternoon meetings of the Council, the Governor explicitly and repeatedly replied: “It is not in my power; . . . the authority to remove the troops lies with General Gage in New York.” The Councilors, however, supported the resolutions of the town so that deliberation reached an impasse. In the morning meeting, the senior commander of the two regiments in Boston, Lieutenant-Colonel Dalrymple, proposed a compromise that finessed the issue of the Governor’s authority to command the troops: if “desired” by the Governor, he would remove the 29th Regiment, to which the soldiers responsible for firing on the inhabitants belonged; the 14th Regiment would remain in the town. When the afternoon committee of the town meeting presented its second resolution rejecting this compromise, one member of the committee, Samuel Adams, seized upon the morning’s precedent by addressing Lieutenant-Colonel Dalrymple: “if he could remove the 29th Regiment he could also remove the 14th, and that it was at his peril if he did not.” This is the moment captured, but also distorted, by the famous 1772 portrait of Samuel Adams painted by John Singleton Copley.
The impasse between the town meeting, which called for the complete removal of the troops, and the Governor, who claimed to lack the power to remove them, was finally overcome with the shocking speech of Councilor Royall Tyler. Tyler warned “that the people would come in from the neighboring towns, and that there would be ten thousand men to effect the removal of the troops, and that they would properly be destroyed by the people, should it be called rebellion, should it incur the loss of our charter, or be the consequences what it would.”
These words introduced a third group into the ongoing negotiations between the Governor and the town’s representatives: the people. “The people” were in motion; they were not a mob but “people of the best characters among us,” who would “effect the removal of the troops” by force. The people asserted their equal right to be heard by streaming into Boston to support the town, by their aroused participation in the meetings, and by putting their militia in motion to come to the aid of Boston.
With all the Councilors supporting Tyler’s warnings, with all three military officers present recommending withdrawal, with even his closest ally—his brother-in-law Secretary Andrew Oliver—acquiescing to removal, it is not surprising that Governor Hutchinson felt cornered. As he reported to General Gage, “I did not see how I could avoid complying with this unanimous advice of the Council under the circumstance of the town and province.”
Somehow in the vortex of crisis, the tools of imperial authority had come to have an influence precisely the opposite of their original purpose. The instruments of military force—the muskets, cannon, and ships visible in Boston’s streets and harbor—were meant “to hold the people in awe” and thereby bolster British authority in Boston. The design and furnishing of the Council Chamber were meant to express the Royal prerogative within the province. The Council was meant to support the Governor in executing the Privy Council’s explicit instructions to station Royal troops in Boston. But in the crisis-politics precipitated by the Massacre these things, places, and people became so entangled that their effects were reversed: the instruments of British force were not “peace-makers” but obstacles to the peace of the town; the Council Chamber reverberated with the counsel of the Council, which now advocated doing precisely what the town meeting requested. It proved difficult for the Governor to make his opinion count in the “Governor’s Council.” Rather than firmly leading, he followed the current of the advice he was given and ultimately lent his authority to those who spoke in the name of “the people.”
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William B. Warner is Professor of English at University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) and serves as a humanities adviser to the Bostonian Society for Blood on the Snow. A longer version of this article is published as William B. Warner, “The Astonishing Outcome of the Day after the Boston Massacre,” Proceedings of the Bostonian Society (Fall 2014), pp. 12-17.