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, July 13, 2020

Capt. Preston and the Boston Committee

At 3:00 P.M. on Friday, 13 July 1770—250 years ago today—the white men of Boston resumed their town meeting in Faneuil Hall.

There was only one item of real business: approving a town committee’s response to what was being published in London about the Boston Massacre.

People knew the acting governor, army officers, and other royal officials had sent reports on that March shooting. But they had been surprised by one document in the Public Advertiser. As the town meeting’s committee said:
We have observed in the English papers the most notorious falshoods, published with an apparent design to give the world a prejudice against this town, as the aggressors in the unhappy transaction of the 5th of March, but no account has been more repugnant to the truth, than a paper printed in the Public Advertiser, of the 28th of April, which is called The Case of Captain Preston.
Writing for the committee, Samuel Adams continued: “we thought ourselves bound in faithfulness to wait on Captain [Thomas] Preston, to enquire of him, whether he was the author.” After all, he had sent a letter with a very different tone to Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette.

Receiving the town committee in the town jail, Preston replied “that he had drawn a state of his case, but that it had passed through different hands, and was altered at different times; and, finally, the publication in the Advertiser was varied from that which he sent home as his own.”

The committee asked Preston about parts “to which we took exception,” inviting him to say he hadn’t written them.

Preston declined, “saying, that the alterations were made by persons, who, he supposed, might aim at serving him, though he feared they might have a contrary effect, and that his discriminating to us the parts of it, which were his own, from those which had been altered by others, might displease his friends, at a time when he might stand in need of their essential service.”

In fact, the only big alteration to Preston’s “Case” was that the newspaper left off the last part, where he pleaded for a royal pardon before the colony could hang him. The officials who released the document to the London press might have thought that raising that possibility was premature and could backfire in the worst way.

Resolutely clinging (at least openly) to the idea that Preston was being misrepresented, the committee concluded:
we cannot think that the Paper, called The Case of Captain Thomas Preston, or any other Paper of the like import, can be deemed, in the opinion of the sensible and impartial part of mankind, as sufficient in the least degree to prejudice the character of the Town. It is therefore altogether needless for us to point out the many falsehoods contained in this paper, nor indeed would there be time for it at present…
As for Preston’s fear of being lynched, the committee blamed whoever published his “Case” for stirring up resentment against him.
so glaring a falsehood would raise the indignation of the people to such a pitch as to prompt them to some attempts that would be dangerous to him, and he accordingly applied to Mr. Sheriff [Stephen] Greenleaf for special protection on that account. But the sheriff assuring him there was no such disposition appearing among the people, (which is an undoubted truth) Capt. Preston’s fears at length subsided; and be still remains in safe custody, to be tried by the superior court of judicature, at the next term in August, unless the judges shall think proper further to postpone the trial, as they have done for one whole term, since he was indicted by the Grand Jury.
I wonder if the town put the sheriff’s younger brother, William Greenleaf, on this committee to get inside information or credibility.

Under a regular schedule, Preston and the soldiers of the 29th would already have gone on trial for murder. Judicial maneuvers, illnesses, and injuries had put off the trial, keeping everyone on edge.

Earlier in July, furthermore, the Customs Commissioners had sent some dispatches to London with Capt. Joseph Hood on the Lydia. Since Hood worked for John Hancock, that news quickly got back to the town. Locals rightly assumed the Commissioners were complaining about attacks on their employees and their homes.

Thus, Boston was under a lot of pressure to represent itself well to the people in London.

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