J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 06, 2020

A Town Meeting for a Town in Turmoil

After the shooting on King Street on 5 Mar 1770, townspeople raced to take the wounded to doctors and to demand justice.

British army officers struggled to get from their lodgings to their companies’ barracks. They feared that locals would gather weapons and counterattack. There were rumors of a tar barrel being moved to Beacon Hill to summon militiamen from neighboring towns, though there’s little evidence those things actually happened.

At the Town House, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson assured the crowd that the civil government would investigate the event and pursue charges. Magistrates started to interview witnesses.

Whig leader William Molineux arrived and urged Hutchinson to order all the troops back to their barracks. Reluctant to be seen as controlling the army, the lieutenant governor merely asked Lt. Col. Maurice Carr to issue that order on his own authority.

In the early morning, Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf brought in Capt. Thomas Preston for questioning. About 3:00 A.M., the justices sent him to the town jail. The next morning, they visited the main guard, examined the eight soldiers’ firelocks (one bayonet still showing traces of blood), and arrested them as well.

At 11:00 on the morning of 6 March, 250 years ago today, hundreds of Bostonians thronged Faneuil Hall, demanding a special town meeting “occasioned by the Massacre made in King Street”—the event’s label was already being established. Only town clerk William Cooper was there, however. The selectmen were all over at the Town House, meeting with Hutchinson and his Council. So William Greenleaf, the sheriff’s brother and eventual successor, went to alert them.

Many townspeople wanted to testify about hostile encounters with soldiers. Eventually the meeting appointed a small committee to take that evidence. (I’ll address those testimonies in a separate posting.) The gathering then chose a larger committee filled with prominent men—Thomas Cushing, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, William Phillips, Molineux, and so on—to tell Lt. Gov. Hutchinson:
it is the unanimous Opinion of this Meeting, that the Inhabitants and Soldiery can no longer dwell together in safety; that nothing can be rationally expected to restore the peace of this Town, and prevent blood and Carnage, but the immediate removal of the Troops
That committee proceeded to the Council Chamber of the Town House, overlooking the site of the shooting. Hutchinson and Lt. Col. William Dalrymple were trying to balance the orders that Gen. Thomas Gage had issued on the authority of the Crown, the need to keep public order, and the need to calm the populace. But most of all, each man was trying to ensure that the other bore the main responsibility for whatever decision came out of the meeting.

Dalrymple suggested that since Gen. Gage has instructed him to station some troops at Castle William, he was willing to order the 29th Regiment there and await approval from New York. No soldiers of the 14th had been involved in the shooting, after all. Would that satisfy the people?

At 3:00 P.M. the town meeting resumed and immediately moved from Faneuil Hall to the larger Old South Meeting-House. That meant there had to be thousands of men attending. Cooper read Hutchinson’s message: “It is not in my power to countermand those Orders” from Gage, but Lt. Col. Dalrymple had offered to remove the 29th to the Castle.

The meeting voted to reject that compromise with “but one dissentient.” The people chose a smaller committee to return to the Town House. Back in the Council Chamber, Samuel Adams told Hutchinson and Dalrymple, “If you can remove the 29th regiment, you can also remove the 14th; and it is at your peril if you do not.” (That’s the wording from the Rev. William Gordon, writing just a few years later. Later accounts have other language.)

In 1771, Adams told James Warren about Hutchinson’s immediate reaction: “if Fancy deceived me not, I observ’d his Knees to tremble. I thought I saw his face grow pale (and I enjoyd the Sight) at the Appearance of the determined Citizens peremptorily demanding the Redress of Grievances.”

But Hutchinson still held out, asking his Council for support. Those gentlemen urged withdrawal. Councilor Royall Tyler went farther and warned:
The people will come in from the neighboring towns; there will be ten thousand men to effect the removal of the troops, who will probably be destroyed by the people, be it called a rebellion, or occasion the loss of our charter, or be the consequence what it may.
That was just the uprising the royal authorities feared.

Lt. Col. Dalrymple was already dangling another suggestion. The acting governor could “desire” him to remove both regiments, and he’d do so. Hutchinson could thus avoid giving orders to the army. Dalrymple could tell Gage that he was simply responding to the local civil authority.

The Council accepted that approach. The committee accepted it. Back in Faneuil Hall, the town meeting accepted it and then voted “to have a strong Watch of our own for the protection of the Inhabitants in the Night, untill the troops would remove.”

However, nobody had settled how soon the two regiments would actually leave Boston.

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