James Bowdoin and the Boston Massacre

Governor James Bowdoin (1947.0005) 

In honor of the upcoming 247th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, our staff have placed a portrait of James Bowdoin (1726-1790) on view in Representatives Hall. The Society’s painting is by James Carpenter after an eighteenth-century portrait of Bowdoin by Robert Feke, which is in the collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Bowdoin's role was pivotal in shaping public reaction to the shootings on March 5, 1770, but his participation in the events surrounding the Massacre is often overlooked. Born to a wealthy family of French Huguenot extraction, he quickly established himself as a leading Boston merchant and entered provincial politics at a young age. At 30, he was elected to a seat on the Massachusetts Provincial Council (the upper house of the colony’s legislature), where he developed a reputation as a reliable ally to Governors William Shirley and Thomas Pownall. Bowdoin’s politics shifted during the 1760s, however. The passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the ministry’s decision to send two regiments of the regular army to Boston in 1768 shook his faith in royal authority and caused Bowdoin to ally himself with leading whigs in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, including James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. By 1770 Bowdoin had become an influential leader in the Council and a persistent thorn in the side of acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

It was thus not surprising that Boston’s town meeting chose Bowdoin, together with Joseph Warren and Samuel Pemberton, to author “a particular Account” of the events that led to “the Massacre in King-Street.” Bowdoin received his charge on March 12, just one week after the terrible events that had resulted in the deaths of five civilians. The committee set to work immediately, compiling a list of witnesses and deposing more than 100 of them in public during the ensuing week. Using these depositions, the committee produced a detailed written report on the events of March 5 and presented it the town meeting on March 19 as A short Narrative of the horrid Massacre in Boston ... with some Observations on the State of Things prior to that Catastrophe (Boston, 1770). The report portrayed the tragic events of March 5 as a premeditated “massacre” in which the King’s soldiers had “deliberately” gunned down civilians in the streets of Boston, but the evidence it produced was selective. When Bowdoin’s Short Narrative was printed a few days later, it included as an appendix the text of 96 depositions. Opponents immediately pointed out that the report excluded eyewitness accounts that might support an alternative conclusion about the motives of the soldiers.

But by then it was too late. Copies of the Short Narrative were quickly sent off to leading whigs in Britain and elsewhere, each covered by a letter from Bowdoin’s committee stating flatly that the tragedy was the work of soldiers who had plotted “to take vengeance on the town.” Although royal officials worked to publicize competing evidence, Bowdoin’s report proved decisive in coloring public reaction to the events of March 5, 1770, as a massacre rather than a terrible accident.

For more about James Bowdoin, see Gordon Kershaw's James Bowdoin II: Patriot and Man of the Enlightenment.