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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Monday, March 30, 2020

Capt. Preston and the Town of Boston

On Monday, 12 Mar 1770, one week after the Boston Massacre, the Boston Gazette ran this letter:
Boston-Goal, Monday, 12th March, 1770.

Messieurs Edes & Gill,

PERMIT me thro’ the Channel of your paper, to return my Thanks in the most publick Manner to the Inhabitants in general of this Town—who throwing aside all Party and Prejudice, have with the utmost Humanity and Freedom stept forth Advocates for Truth, in Defence of my injured Innocence, in the late unhappy Affair that happened on Monday Night last: And to assure them, that I shall ever have the highest Sense of the Justice they have done me, which will be ever gratefully remembered, by

Their most obliged and most obedient humble Servant,

Preston was of course the army captain jailed after the Massacre.

In the initial coroners’ inquests and newspaper reports, some witnesses declared that they hadn’t seen Preston give a clear order to his men to fire, or that many other people in the crush on King Street were yelling the word “Fire!” Some added that Preston definitely stopped the soldiers from firing a second time by knocking their muskets up.

Other witnesses, to be sure, said that they had heard and seen Preston give the order to fire. The prints soon to be published by Henry Pelham and Paul Revere depict that. The legal case against Preston was based on that testimony.

By writing this letter, Preston sought to keep the first group of witnesses on his side, to ensure the populace understood his guilt was not clear, and perhaps to break down the stark division between army and civilians. By running the letter, printers Edes and Gill were pleased to show how Preston recognized Boston as a fair-minded town.

Hovering over Preston’s head was the historical memory of John Porteous, a captain of the Edinburgh City Guard who was convicted in 1736 of ordering soldiers to fire at a riotous crowd, killing several people. When it became clear that the royal government planned to reprieve him, a local mob broke into the jail and lynched Porteous, as depicted above.

Preston of course didn’t want that to happen to him. The Boston Whigs didn’t want that to happen, either. They wanted to show the rest of the British Empire that their town was peaceful and law-abiding when not flooded with troops. Providing Preston with a fair trial was the way to do that. The captain’s public thanks to “the Inhabitants in general of this Town” seemed to endorse their position.

The Whigs didn’t know that two days later Preston completed a much longer piece of writing, eventually published under the title of the “CASE of Capt. Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment.”

It portrayed Boston in a very different light:
IT is Matter of too great Notoriety to need any Proofs, that the Arrival of his Majesty’s Troops in Boston was extremely obnoxious to it’s Inhabitants. They have ever used all Means in their Power to weaken the Regiments, and to bring them into Contempt, by promoting and aiding Desertions, and with Impunity, even where there has been the clearest Evidence of the Fact, and by grossly and falsly propagating Untruths concerning them.

On the Arrival of the 64th & 65th, their Ardour seemingly began to abate; it being too expensive to buy off so many; and Attempts of that Kind rendered too dangerous from the Numbers.—But the same Spirit revived immediately on it’s being known that those Regiments were ordered for Halifax, and hath ever since their Departure been breaking out with greater Violence.

After their Embarkation, one of their Justices, not thoroughly acquainted with the People and their Intentions, on the Trial of the 14th Regiment, openly and publicly, in the Hearing of great Numbers of People, and from the Seat of Justice, declared, “that the Soldiers must now take Care of themselves, nor trust too much to their Arms, for they were but a Handful; that the Inhabitants carried Weapons concealed under their Cloaths, and would destroy them in a Moment if they pleased.”
Lt. Alexander Ross reported hearing justice of the peace Richard Dana give such a warning.
This, considering the malicious Temper of the People, was an alarming Circumstance to the Soldiery. Since which several Disputes have happened between the Towns-People and Soldiers of both Regiments, the former being encouraged thereto by the Countenance of even some of the Magistrates, and by the Protection of all the Party against Government. . . .

The Insolence, as well as utter Hatred of the Inhabitants to the Troops, increased daily; insomuch, that Monday and Tuesday, the 5th and 6th instant, were privately agreed on for a general Engagement; in Consequence of which several of the Militia came from the Country, armed to join their Friends, menacing to destroy any who should oppose them. This Plan has since been discovered.
Preston thus suggested a conspiracy theory to rival the Whigs’ suspicions about the Customs Commissioners with a whiff of treason stirred in.

The “Case” the captain was making appears to be for a royal pardon to rescue him and his men from an unjust death sentence in a hostile province:
And this must be the fate of all the unhappy Soldiers confined with me. In short with such Jurors and Witnesses we have nothing better to expect than to be sacrifyc’d as a terror to all others who would oppose the people, however wrong. . . . The Commanding Officer with the Officers of both the two Corps and every other dispassionate man here have approved of my conduct and hope it will also deserve the attention of His Majesty.
Capt. Preston’s essay was one of the documents that Customs Commissioner John Robinson was carrying to Britain in late March 1770, 250 years ago. Convinced by Preston’s letter that he felt locals were treating him fairly, the Boston Whigs had no idea of his range of feelings about their town.

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