This was, of course, the military conflict by which the 13 British colonies in North America became a new and (initially) very loosely confederated nation, the United States of America.
The date we usually associate with the founding of the nation is July 4, 1776, the date celebrated as that of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The conflict between British imperial power and American colonists had, however, been unfolding for some years before that.
One of the most important early flashpoints was the Boston Massacre (1770), which many regard as one of the two galvanizing events that made revolution possible (the other being the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense in 1776). It is worth noting that blood was shed in only one of these nation-sparking events. The blood was that of Crispus Attucks, a colored man who was probably either an escaped or a freed slave who came to be regarded as the first American martyr, and ten other colonists. A total of five people died in the event that came to be known as the Massacre, a conflict that is best understood as an example of poor crowd control by the British—and superior propagandizing by the colonists.
Little is known of Attucks's life or his precise role in the chaotic events that took place in front of the custom-house in Boston, then a British-occupied city, on March 5, 1770. An advertisement offering a reward for the return of a slave named “Crispus” appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1750; this has led to speculation that he escaped from captivity and eventually came to work in the port of Boston.
Relegation to Outer Darkness
After each war—of 1776, of 1812, of 1861—history repeats itself in the absolute effacement of remembrance of the gallant deeds done for the country by its brave black defenders and in their relegation to outer darkness. History further repeats itself in the fact that in every war so far known to this country, the first blood, and, in some cases, the last also, has been shed by the faithful Negro, and this in spite of all the years of bondage and oppression, and wrongs unspeakable.
—Christian Fleetwood, nineteenth-century essayist
Attucks appears to have been one of a group of wharf-workers who resented British tax initiatives (and the fact that British soldiers had recently appropriated their jobs). The disgruntled colonists pelted a single British soldier with snowballs; the captain on duty decided that the situation warranted an escalation of force. The crowd evidently came to the same conclusion, and the snowballs were quickly replaced by rocks. The British opened fire.
What happened to the British soldiers who fired on Crispus Attucks and other colonists during the Boston Massacre? Six were acquitted; two were punished and discharged from the British army. The defense lawyer for the soldiers was none other than John Adams, a future president of the United States.
Contemporary reports suggest that Attucks was the first of the five people killed in the attack. In the weeks and months following the shootings, all five of those who died in the Boston Massacre were hailed as martyrs in sympathetic, and highly influential, colonial newspaper coverage. As the years passed, however, Attucks came more and more to the forefront. Despite his essential ambiguity, Attucks is today the only figure who has assumed heroic—and even legendary—status as the result of the bloody events in Boston.
Thanks to growing discontent with the high-handed military and tax policies of the British (and the feverish propagandizing of the anti-British press), something like ten thousand people participated in the funeral services for Attucks and the other victims of the Boston Massacre. To get an understanding of the impact of that number, understand that in the year 1770, the population of Boston, Massachusetts was 16,000!
In the face of such overwhelming displays of grief, anger, and focused political opposition, the British decided to withdraw from Boston for a time. If their aim was to wait out a brief surge of popular outrage, however, that hope was to be frustrated.