This depiction of the Boston Massacre is a fantastic piece of colonial American propaganda. In reality, the British soldiers were never given the order to shoot, and no one fired from the Customs House (here nicknamed "Butcher's Hall"). No less an American revolutionary than John Adams defended the British soldiers, saying they were guilty of no more than self-defense against "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs." Adams later said, however, that the "foundation of American independence was laid" with the Boston Massacre.

Engraving by Paul Revere after an illustration by Henry Pellham, courtesy Library of Congress

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  • On March 5, 1770, a regiment of British Army soldiers fired on a group of American civilians in Boston, Massachusetts. Three Americans died immediately, and two others died from wounds sustained in the conflict. This event, the “Boston Massacre,” influenced colonial Americans seeking greater liberty from their British leaders and eventually led to the Revolutionary War.
    Merchants and politicians in Boston, capital of the prosperous and powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony, had for years been resisting new taxes imposed by the British government. These tensions could erupt in everyday conflict, which is how the “massacre” began.
    On the evening of March 5, a British soldier called for reinforcements after being harassed by a group of Americans led by African American dockworker Crispus Attucks. The Americans continued to harass the British, insulting them and throwing stones and snowballs. The British soldiers fired on the Americans, killing Attucks and two others, and wounding more than ten more. 
    The soldiers were brought to trial. They were defended by future U.S. President John Adams, who argued that they were merely defending themselves against an unruly mob. Adams later wrote, however, that the “foundation of American independence was laid” on March 5, 1770.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    army Noun

    military land forces.

    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    civilian Noun

    person who is not in the military.

    colony Noun

    people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

    erupt Verb

    to explode or suddenly eject material.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    harass Verb

    to disturb or torment.

    immediately Adverb

    at once or quickly.

    impose Verb

    to force or set out rules to be followed.

    influence Verb

    to encourage or persuade a person or organization to act a certain way.

    liberty Noun


    merchant Noun

    person who sells goods and services.

    politician Noun

    person who serves as a representative of the citizens of a geographic area to the local, state, or national government.

    prosperous Adjective

    financially successful.

    regiment Noun

    military group.

    reinforcement Noun

    supplies or personnel provided as support.

    resist Verb

    to oppose or confront.

    Revolutionary War Noun

    (1775-1783) conflict between Great Britain and the colonies that became the United States. Also called the American War of Independence.

    sustain Verb

    to support.

    tax Noun

    money or goods citizens provide to government in return for public services such as military protection.

    tension Noun

    uncomfortable relationship between two people or groups.

    unruly Adverb

    disobedient, lawless, or wild.