By Hugh Evans
Regulars of the British army occupied Boston in 1768 ostensibly to enforce the Townshend Acts, passed the previous year by Parliament, and to protect those Royal officials tasked with the collection of revenue. The occupation presented a multi-faceted set of threats to the order of Bostonians’ lives: the occupiers threatened economic livelihoods, physical safety, social order, and political rights. Their presence caused massive disruption beyond what their already considerable number (in relation to Boston’s population) could have achieved. Whether some of these threats to Bostonians were necessarily real or not, the population believed them to be, and thus they became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of these threats, the one posed to the economic wellbeing of the working classes of Boston was probably the most forward in many Bostonians’ minds. The physical violence meted out to rich and poor alike, the undermining of the social cohesion of Boston, and the infringement of rights and liberties were equally important. All of them contributed to a growing sense of separation between the colonists and Great Britain, which would only increase, even after the troops left, until the outbreak of the war in 1775.
The economic threat was the most prominent given the perilous combination of an already suffering economy, and the liberty that British Regulars had to moonlight when not on duty, thus competing for an already scarce supply of jobs. Boston’s economy had been stagnating since the 1750s, and while it had enjoyed a boost during the French & Indian War, with that conflict’s termination, Boston’s economy once again fell into the doldrums. Facing increased competition from Philadelphia and New York, Boston had lost its place as the premiere port of the thirteen colonies. Further, having hit the geographic limits of growth due to being almost completely surrounded by water, Boston’s population had ceased to grow by the mid-1760s due to a lack of space.
As such, Boston’s economic outlook had darkened. Normally, out of work sailors and fishermen, who made up a good percentage of Boston’s population, as well as others who lived by manual labor, could hope to find some paying work by hiring on in various industries associated with maritime trade and fishing. Ropewalks, numerous throughout the town and often in need of labor, offer a prime example of the sort of work that might see a laborer and his family through lean times. With tighter margins, however, many business owners saw hiring soldiers for short-term jobs as desirable, even if they had wanted to stand in solidarity with the laborers of Boston. This practice, while perhaps common sense when it came to running a business, was certainly seen by many Bostonians, especially those out of work, as a betrayal. An opinion piece, first written in New York but also published in the Boston Gazette on February 19, 1770, took these business owners to task, arguing “Is it not enough that you pay taxes for billeting money to support the soldiers, and a poor tax, to maintain many of their whores and bastards in the work house…I hope my fellow citizens will take this matter into consideration, and not countenance a set of men who [are] enemies to Liberty, and at the beck of tyrants to enslave.”[i]
Predictably, fights between unemployed laborers and the Regulars who had taken their jobs were common. This violence was not restricted to the working classes, though, and its pervasiveness across the socio-economic spectrum illustrates the totality of the threat that Bostonians experienced. Numerous accounts of violence directed at both the elites and common citizenry of Boston pepper the newspapers of the town from 1768 to 1770: doctors being stabbed by the bayonets of patrolling Regulars, workmen beaten and robbed as they returned home, and widespread sexual harassment, (even veiled reports of sexual assaults). This violence was not completely one sided, however. There are numerous instances of Bostonians giving as good as they got, particularly when one examines the reports of the street brawls between Regulars and laborers fighting over scarce jobs. These escalating rounds of violence presaged the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, as only a week before some of the Regulars who opened fire had been involved in a fight at Gray’s Ropewalk with a mob of Boston workers, several of whom ended up as victims of the Massacre.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing attempts to undermine the social order of Boston, at least to those elites who practiced slavery, were repeated attempts by Regulars to “…entice and endeavor to spirit up, by a promise of the reward of freedom, certain negro slaves…to cut their master’s throats, and to beat, insult and otherwise ill treat their said masters, asserting that now the soldiers are come.”[ii] Numerous accounts of groups of foreign sailors and people of color being incited to rebel against the social hierarchies of Boston led to a constant stream of complaints to the higher officers and civilian authorities, with mixed results. Laying aside the base hypocrisy of those who enslaved others while complaining of violation of their own rights, these alleged attempts to encourage rebellion convinced Bostonian society that the Regulars were not just a threat to the physical safety of the town’s residents, but to the social order as well. Their presence was an affront to many of the merchants and political elites of the town, who were some of the loudest canaries in the mine warning of the threat to constitutional rights and liberties.
One of the most pervasive forms the threat to the rights of Bostonians took was the practice of Regulars to patrol the streets at night and challenge passerby, inquiring as to their identity and purpose for being out after dark. Bostonians were usually happy to comply with the challenges of the civilian town watch, which had been tasked with keeping the streets safe since Boston’s founding. To be stopped and challenged by the Regulars was an entirely different story, and resistance to this practice was widespread. Many residents outright refused to acknowledge the challenges, ignoring repeated demands to stop and explain themselves. This would often lead to even more violence, as soldiers then attempted to use force, with varying degrees of success. More than one large brawl broke out when Bostonians came to the aid of one of their fellow townspeople who had been so apprehended.
The arbitrary violation of the sanctity of one’s home was also a frequent occurrence, with soldiers frequently breaking into private property, stealing items, and causing vandalism – in addition to the searches and seizures of many of the merchant vessels that called Boston home. This violation of what Bostonians (and many others throughout the British Empire) saw as their constitutional rights was the icing on the layer cake of threats the occupation presented.
Boston was finally rid of the Regulars only after the tragic events of March 5, 1770. Though the Boston Massacre was not the reason for the departure of the troops, half of whom had left by late 1769, and the rest ordered out by Parliament, by sheer coincidence on the very day of the massacre, the event itself was perhaps inevitable given the situation. Through endangering the economic success, physical safety, social order, and political rights of Boston’s residents, the occupation did far more than any taxes or duties passed by Parliament in alienating the colonists from the mother country. Although those supporting independence would have still been a small fringe as the last troops departed in 1770, calls for resistance to the will of Parliament and the re-assertion of colonial rights were only enflamed by the occupation and its attendant violence. A short piece published a few weeks after the Massacre underscored the growing commitment colonists from across Massachusetts and New England to resist, boasting that “not less than fifteen hundred men…would turn out at a minute’s warning, to revenge the murders, and support the rights of the insulted and much abused inhabitants of Boston.”[iii]
The occupation of 1768-1770 was a multi-dimensional threat to Bostonians. It was not as simple as the presence of a few of the King’s finest flying the flag in order to repress grumblings at new trade duties and ensure the security of royal agents. It entailed economic deprivation, violence directed at civilians, violation of constitutional rights, and social chaos. Bostonians saw themselves as being quite literally under attack, and much of the rest of the colonial population eventually came to agree, further enflaming attitudes towards Parliament across the American colonies.
Originally from Northern California, Hugh has a BA in history from the University of California Santa Cruz and a MA in International Security from the University of Sydney. He has worked in education and historical interpretation in Massachusetts for several years. He led interpretive programs at Minuteman National Historical Park, taught history at Revere High School, and served as an educator for the Old North Church & Historic Site. He currently works for the National Park Service, splitting his time between teaching at the Tsongas Industrial History Center at Lowell National Historical Park and serving as a Park Guide at Boston National Historical Park. He and his wife currently live in Salem, Massachusetts.
[i] Brutus, 1770
[ii] Boston Evening-Post. 1769
[iii] Boston Gazette. 1770.
Archer, Richard. 2010. As if an Enemy’s Country. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boston Evening-Post. 1769. “Journal of the Times.” January 2: 2.
Boston Gazette. 1770. March 19: 2.
Brutus. 1770. “To the Public.” Boston Gazette, February 19: 2.
Cook, Don. 1995. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press.
Zobel, Hiller B. 1970. The Boston Massacre. New York: WW Norton & Company.