Sometimes service to the king doesn’t pay. That was the case on March 5, 1770 when Private Hugh White ran into trouble when trying to protect the local Custom House treasury funds on King Street in the colonial city of Boston. The story goes that a number of colonists began to antagonize and assault White without cause, after which he eventually called for backup while prostrate on the ground. When Captain Thomas Preston and some of his troops surrounded the Custom House, it seemed only a matter of time before blood would be spilled.
Such was the case.
Colonists physically assaulted the soldiers — according to various accounts, none of which seem to say the same thing — and one of the soldiers apparently fired his weapon either intentionally or unintentionally. We’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter. It was only the first shot, then followed by many more. Five colonists were killed in the resulting chaos. Six others were injured.
This event was one of the sparks that caused the American Revolution. Preston and those serving under his command were arrested shortly after the bloodshed. It would be future president John Adams who would actually argue in defense of Preston and his men — not because he had any love for the British, but because he believed anyone accused of a crime should have the right to a fair trial. Adams even convinced the judge overseeing the trial to find a jury of out-of-towners to make sure the eventual ruling was as impartial as possible.
Adams argued well.
He said that conflicting stories left reasonable doubt as to the men’s guilt, and that they should be found not guilty of murder. All were. Two of the soldiers were, however, found guilty on a lesser charge of manslaughter and penalized with branding.
Some time after the event, Preston commented on the chaotic nonsense that had led them astray: “None of them was a hero. The victims were troublemakers who got more than they deserved. The soldiers were professionals…who shouldn’t have panicked. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”
No one can argue against that.
Even so, events continued to escalate in Boston: the historic Boston Tea Party cemented the feelings of ill will between colonists and redcoats, which led to the First Continental Congress and even more skirmishes before all-out war finally broke out. The rest is history.