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America: 1763-1776

To the Brink: The Boston Massacre and the Committees of Correspondence

Customs Racketeering and the Repeal of the Townshend Duties

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Summary

As a consequence of continued violence in Massachusetts, 1700 British troops landed in Boston during the six weeks following October 1, 1768. Relations between the soldiers and civilians were not friendly, but 1769 passed without excessive conflict. However, passions were stirred when on February 22, 1770 a customs informer fired birdshot at a group of children pelting his house with stones, killing an eleven year-old German boy. Although the troops were not involved in the death, they were the natural target for aggression directed toward British authority, and were increasingly harassed.

One week after the German boy's funeral, on March 5, 1770, violence erupted outside the Boston customs office. A crowd led by sailor Crispus Attucks formed to demonstrate against the customs agents, and when a British officer tried to disperse the crowd, his men were bombarded with rocks and dared to shoot by the unruly mob. After being knocked to the ground one soldier finally did shoot, and others followed. In the end, five colonists died, including Attucks, who is often considered the first casualty of the Revolutionary War. The event quickly came to be known as the Boston Massacre, and marked the peak of colonial opposition to the Townshend duties, which were soon repealed. In trial, John Adams, a colonial leader and defender of colonial self-government, volunteered to defend the soldiers, and all but two of them were acquitted. Those convicted merely received brandings on their thumbs.

From 1770 to 1772, the British basically ignored the colonies, choosing to pursue less controversial policy initiatives in other areas. Tensions, which had reached a peak after the Boston Massacre, had cooled. However, the hiatus ended on June 9, 1772 when the customs schooner Gaspee ran aground near Providence, Rhode Island. The Gaspee was known to have been very much involved in customs racketeering, and the crew was known for its thievery and condescension toward the colonists. That night, helpless in the mud, the Gaspee was burnt to the water line by a crowd of over a hundred disguised men. This signaled the reopening of conflict between the colonists and British government.

In the fall of 1772, Lord North was preparing to begin paying royal governors out of customs revenue. In response to this threat, Samuel Adams convinced Boston's town meeting to request that every Massachusetts community appoint a group of individuals responsible for coordinating colony-wide measures to protect colonial rights. Within the year, Massachusetts had approximately 250 of these committees of correspondence, and the idea spread throughout New England.

In July 1773, Adams published letters of Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson that had been obtained by Benjamin Franklin. In these letters, Hutchinson advocated "an abridgement of what are called British liberties," and "a great restraint of natural liberty" in the colonies. The publication of these letters convinced Americans of a British plot to destroy their political freedom. Meanwhile, in March 1773, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee had proposed that Virginia establish a committee of correspondence for the entire colony. By late 1773, nearly every colony had followed suit, and the political leaders of every colony were linked in resistance to the British. It was this situation that allowed the colonies to mobilize fully for rebellion over the coming years.

Commentary

Bostonians regarded the troops stationed there as a standing army, and a clear violation of their rights as British subjects. Their presence was further resented by Bostonians because many of the soldiers were Irish Catholics, and a number were black. Most of the enlisted men were free to seek employment during the day after their duties were performed in the morning muster. They often agreed to work for much less than local laborers, and in so doing provoked outrage in a city with consistently high unemployment. As anti-British sentiment grew, the troops, as the physical manifestation of British authority, became more than ever a symbol of oppression. When the Boston Massacre occurred, many Bostonians, and other colonists, took it as proof that the troops had been sent to the colonies to suppress political opposition by force.

John Adams' defense of the seven soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre is a well-known story of the pre-Revolutionary period. Adams was an opponent of crowd actions, preferring instead non-violent protest by elite businessmen and political bodies. His intent in defending the soldiers was to demonstrate the colonists' commitment to impartial justice and to "lay before [the people of Boston] the Law as it stood, that they might be apprized of the Dangers ... which must arise from intemperate heats and irregular commotions." In effect, he was appealing to the masses to await a higher level of political organization.

The committees of correspondence provided this organization. The first large- scale attempt at close and continuous pan-colonial political cooperation over a large area, the committees linked all of the colonies as one political force. In Massachusetts the committees worked especially well. Linked to all of the interior communities, Samuel Adams was able to spread his message of political education, advancing the principles of colonial rights. The committees convinced local citizens that their rights were in danger and encouraged voting. The colony-wide committees provided a method through which colonial leaders could communicate, and established the framework of the colonies' early attempts at independent government.

The reaction to the Townshend duties spawned a gradual, drawn-out worsening of Anglo-American relations. Colonial allegiance was broken down substantially between 1767 and 1773, and the colonists grew increasingly defensive against the impositions of the mother country, eventually forming the committees of correspondence to coordinate a pan-colonial defense mechanism. With the colonies on guard and fed up with British meddling, the stage was set for the descent into rebellion, if the British did not back down. In late 1773, that descent began, and the American Revolution began.

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