At this moment that feels like a hinge in history—when America will swing either toward authoritarianism or toward a more just and liberal democracy—the ghosts of history rise up and speak to us. Five of those ghosts lay in the snowy gutters of King Street, Boston, nearly two and a half centuries ago, and their dying gasps resounded into revolution.
On the snowy night of March 5, 1770, a band of citizens allied as Patriots taunted and harassed a lone British sentry, Private Hugh White, who was standing guard over the Custom House, the repository of the funds General Thomas Gage needed to pay and operate the two regiments of troops occupying the city.
Some of his senior staff had counseled him to station the troops outside the city at Castle William in the harbor to avoid provoking violence and stiffening resistance to the occupation, but Gage intended to stun the self-proclaimed Patriots with a demonstration of overwhelming force. Thus he “quartered the soldiers” in the city—a military way of saying he ordered them to take over private homes—a move that enraged even those among the population who professed loyalty to the king. It’s useful to remember what seemingly innocuous phrases really mean.
The troublesome Bostonians were refusing to pay the taxes imposed on them by a Parliament across the ocean to pay off the debt incurred fighting the Seven Years War against the French. Patriot gangs routinely blacked their faces and accosted Customs collectors in the nighttime streets. One of their most troublesome leaders was reputed to be a silversmith named Paul Revere. Gage wanted to teach them all a lesson.
The lone sentry at the Custom House belonged to the 29th Foot—an unruly and unreliable regiment, hardly the nimble, disciplined force needed to project power and yet avoid violence. At some point during the altercation, in which he was knocked to the ground, he cut one of the civilians with his bayonet. Suddenly the injured man’s cohorts raised a great hue and cry, and a mob formed. Captain Thomas Preston arrived with eight reinforcements, also from the 29th.
The mob pelted the soldiers with snowballs—some of them probably cored with stones—some men daring the soldiers to fire, others pleading with them not to. Someone at last did shout “Fire!”—or, according to later court testimony, it may have been Preston ordering “Hold your fire!” In any event, the first Brown Bess musket went off—then others followed.
The Brown Bess, so sweetly named, was a formidable and reliable weapon, in use since 1722. It would remain the standard British Army firearm, with modifications, for more than a hundred years. It fired a one-ounce .71 caliber ball—gigantic by modern standards—that could, it was claimed, penetrate five inches of solid oak.
Three men died instantly, two others died later of their wounds, and six additional civilians were hit.
It’s fitting to remember the names of the dead: Samuel Gray, a rope maker; James Caldwell, a seaman; Samuel Maverick; and Patrick Carr. The fifth fatality is often described as a dockworker of mixed race, or “mulatto”: Crispus Attucks. Like Caldwell, he was hit twice. The autopsy, performed by Dr. Benjamin Church, a prominent Patriot who would later betray the cause and be exiled into oblivion by George Washington, records horrific wounds. The first ball broke the second rib an inch from his breastbone, blasted downward through his diaphragm, blew his liver and gallbladder to pieces, severed the aorta descendens just above the iliacs, then exited through his spine. The trajectory would suggest that he was already on his knees when he was shot. He was likely dead before the second shot punched him in the ribs.
If you’ve ever fired such a musket, as soon as it socks your shoulder hard, and the powder flames out in a long sheet—a delayed and startling instant after you’ve pulled the trigger—you realize it is not a quaint museum piece but a killing instrument of awesome power.
Just so, peaceful protesters today are learning with (literal) physical shock that so-called “non-lethal” “rubber bullets” and “beanbag rounds” are hard, brutal projectiles that can horribly maim and even kill. Again, it matters what words we use to describe things in the world of conflict.
As Preston writes later, “None of them was a hero. The victims were troublemakers who got more than they deserved. The soldiers were professionals…who shouldn’t have panicked. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”
The soldiers were arrested and jailed—their actions were clearly a matter for the bar of justice. The trial, winding up seven months later, was thorough—John Adams for the defense. Paul Revere—notorious to the British occupiers as an instigator and rabble-rouser—provided key evidence: a pen and ink diagram of the kind familiar to contemporary juries. It located each of the shooters and victims on King Street with clarity and precision.
That was Revere’s second and far less famous pictorial representation of the event. The first was rushed into circulation when the blood was hardly dry on the frozen ground: an engraving of a Henry Pelham drawing titled, “Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street.” Thus the event was publicly and for all time named a “massacre.” The engraving removed any ambiguity about who was at fault in the episode, depicting a line of soldiers volley-firing into an unarmed crowd on the order of an officer with raised sword, as a little dog watches the horror. It became the ubiquitous graphic account of the violence of March 5, 1770.
The Boston Massacre was just the most prominent flashpoint so far. Gage belatedly removed his troops from the city. There were others, not as infamous from our historical remove, but equally inflammatory—and they began to add up
On February 22, 1770, just weeks before the massacre, a hated customs informer named Ebenezer Richardson retreated into his home after being harassed by a gang of boys throwing dirt clods and waving sticks. He grabbed a musket and fired through a broken window into the crowd outside, killing an eleven-year-old boy named Christopher Seider. Four days later, some 2,000 Patriots staged a public funeral procession that began at the Liberty Tree, symbol of resistance to the King of England.
Among the inscriptions on the boy’s casket was a motto that could serve for Black Lives Matter: Innocentia nusquam tuta—“Innocence is nowhere safe.”
Seider continued to inspire resistance. On the one-year anniversary of the massacre, Patriots gathered for a silent memorial—and it was no accident that the site chosen for the demonstration was the home of Paul Revere, an acknowledged leader of the Patriot movement. Once again, he understood the power of the visual. He created a triptych of iconic—and lurid—images that filled three windows, calculated to appeal to the smoldering resentment and fervent patriotism of the crowd. As the Boston Gazette reported:
“In the Evening, there was a striking Exhibition at the Dwelling House of Mr. PAUL REVERE, fronting the Old North Square. At one of the Chamber Windows was the Appearance of the Ghost of the unfortunate young Seider, with one of his Fingers in the Wound, endeavoring the stop the Blood issuing therefrom.”
The portrait bore an incendiary caption:
Seider’s pale Ghost fresh-bleeding stands,
And Vengeance for his Death demands.
The Pelham-inspired print of the Boston Massacre filled the next window: “. . . the Soldiers drawn up, firing at the People assembled before them—the Dead on the Ground—and the Wounded falling, with the Blood running in Streams from their Wounds: Over which was wrote Foul Play.”
Revere understood how to fashion narrative through unifying the images: “In the third Window was the Figure of a Woman, representing America, sitting on the Stump of a Tree. With a Staff in her Hand, and the Cap of Liberty on the Top thereof—one Foot on the head of a Grenadier lying prostrate grasping a Serpent.—Her Finger pointing to the Tragedy.”
The exhibition worked its emotional magic, striking the thousands of assembled citizens to “solemn Silence” and ”melancholy Gloom.”
Two years after the massacre on King Street, Gen. Gage advised the Secretary of War, Viscount William Wildman Barrington, “Democracy is too prevalent in America, and claims the greatest attention to prevent its increase.”
Gage’s lament seems to be the current mantra of the Republican Party, as it seeks to suppress voting and clear the streets of peaceful citizens assembled to petition the government for redress of grievances, a right explicitly—if inconveniently for those in power—enshrined in the Constitution.
As for Captain Preston and his grenadiers, a jury of non-Bostonians (chosen for their presumed lack of bias) took just three hours to acquit them of murder. Two were found guilty of manslaughter, but did not suffer the usual sentence of death. Instead, their thumbs branded: should they ever commit another crime, the consequences would be dire indeed.
So what do the ghosts of that bloody history whisper to us now?
First, that language matters. The words with which we describe a thing can be accurate or misleading, are often fraught, and hardly ever are neutral. As soon as the event on King Street was popularly labeled a “massacre,” the Patriots had a rallying cry as potent as “Remember the Alamo!” It turned an event into a story with a clear moral, removed ambiguity, assigned fatal blame, and demanded justice.
Likewise, it matters whether we describe a peaceful assembly as a “demonstration,” a “protest”— or a “riot.” The terms escalate in their degree of danger and violence. The first requires official forbearance, the second forbearance with caution against possible escalation, and the third warrants heavily armed police with shields and the apparatus of violence.
The people assembled on June 1, 2020, in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, stood firmly in the first category. The police and National Guard were the rioters, instigating violence in a previously peaceful arena using tear gas—which is banned as inhumane by the Geneva Conventions. “Tear gas” sounds relatively benign, the kind of thing that will make your eyes water for awhile. But it can damage the lungs, cause respiratory distress, and in this era of pandemic, fatally compromise the health of its victims.
“Batons,” so genteelly named to conjure images of drum majorettes, are actually clubs with which to beat people into submission. So-called “beanbag rounds,” fired from shotguns, have broken a man’s head open. “Stun grenades” or “flashbangs” routinely cause temporary hearing loss, have started fires, and have triggered heart attacks.
Second, whatever you bring to the event will get used. If Ebenezer Richardson, the Customs man, had not had a musket handy, an eleven-year-old boy would have lived to see another day. The gang of boys would likely have gotten bored and left.
The grenadiers on King Street—and grenadiers were recruited for their size and strength to serve as shock troops, not to finesse their way out of confrontation—had their own muskets, and sooner or later they were bound to be fired. When police march onto the scene of a demonstration geared up with heavy firepower and protective vests and shields, they will likely find the riot they are equipped for and use their arsenal.
Third, frame the situation accurately. Enlightened military planners do this routinely: What are we facing? What are the facts on the ground? What outcome do we want, and how best can we achieve it?
I wonder, for instance, what Captain Preston hoped to achieve on that snowy night? Why didn’t he just pull the lone sentry indoors and let the weather eventually disperse the crowd before it became a “mob”? For that matter, what did General Gage expect to happen when his 2,000 troops invaded the homes of ordinary Bostonians, most of them not part of the firebrand Patriot movement? His own officers warned him that such a provocation could only have a bad outcome, in fact might accomplish the opposite of his purpose by uniting the city against him and his troops.
Because fourth, the mindset of those in authority—and those they send to do their armed bidding—matters. Soldiers, like police, are trained to stand their ground. In the words of our own Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, they must “dominate the battle space.” But crowds are not armies, and there is no battle space until it is created by confrontation with an opposing military force. Lexington and Concord were just peaceful farming towns until two armed forces determined to make them battlegrounds. Boston was just an unruly city, still part of a British colony.
And let’s be clear: American citizens protesting in American cities inhabit civic space—not battle space. There is no earthly need for a civic space to be cleared simply for the sake of clearing it and asserting dominance. Yet again and again, we see it happening exactly that way, because of the way an increasingly militarized police force is trained. From “To Serve and Protect” we seem to have evolved to a place of “Occupy and Dominate,” as if citizens were not the clients of police but their enemies in an occupied zone.
And as bad as the police mindset has too often become, the military is even worse as the guarantor of civic order—as many prominent military leaders have made clear. Troops are trained to subdue the enemy with force, and they are granted the extraordinary license to kill the enemy to make this happen—not the ideal recipe for guarding Americans’ constitutional right to petition for redress of grievances in the streets.
Fifth, real-life violence always comes as a shock to its victims. The eleven-year-old boy throwing dirt clods at the custom’s informer’s house surely never expected to be torn apart by a lead musket ball. Crispus Attucks and the others on King Street were probably used to brawling—but they hardly expected to be ripped apart by volleyed musketfire in their own hometown.
They should not have been so surprised, because organizations behave according to their training and habits and use whatever tools or weapons they bring to the situation. When we witness the extraordinary and unprovoked violence unleashed on unarmed citizens by police and soldiers on the streets of America, we are shocked to discover the violence of their habits and training. Yet it was always there, like the tear gas and stun grenades in their lockers, waiting to be used. Previously it was used on a select vulnerable population, off-camera. Now it is center stage, happening on a grand scale in broad daylight to citizens of all races, ages, and backgrounds. It is happening to journalists even as their cameras are rolling on live TV.
Finally, the ghosts tell us, images are forever. Paul Revere’s print, made from his engraving of Pelham’s depiction, survives today as the definitive visual, of that event. What we are witnessing in the streets of America today is also a reaction to a horrific image—in this case a video of a slow-motion murder that plays out for almost nine agonizing minutes. That galvanizing image will forever haunt our nation. And like the Paul Revere triptych, its is woven into a narrative, connected to a train of other images, all of them frames in a dark movie about an America whose existence we have denied for far too long: the postcards of picnickers at lynching sites; Emmett Till’s ruined face in his casket; Rodney King beaten and beaten forever by the side of a freeway; and now the myriad new images of police beating and shooting and tear-gassing our neighbors.
When the grenadiers on King Street were taunted and hit by snowballs, they defaulted to their basic training and showed their true colors: they were indeed willing to shoot and kill their American cousins—to treat them as the enemy.
Even as the worst of our leaders repeat the blundering, provocative, divisive policies of General Gage, far too many of our police and National Guard have shown us their true colors. They are indeed willing to treat their fellow Americans as the enemy.
They have become the redcoats.
- The Boston “Massacre,” Historical Scene Investigation (H.S.I.), College of William and Mary. https://hsi.wm.edu/cases/boston/boston_documents.html#doc2. See also David Hackett Fisher’s vivid account in Paul Revere’s Ride, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 23-25.
- Quotes from The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, March 11, 1771. https://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/3/sequence/458.
- Gage to Barrington, Aug,. 5, 1772, cited in Fisher, p. 379.