Monday, November 15, 2010

A lesson of the Boston Massacre

Recently, while learning about the origins of the War of 1812, I was puzzled: Why did the ruling party at the time declare war on the British Empire when America had only a tiny navy and a paltry little army of a few thousand men? I knew that the Republicans of this era were notoriously cheap, hating high taxes. And I knew that there was a general antagonism toward a "standing army." But, hey?

As it turns out, you only need to look back to the "Boston Massacre" of March, 1770. The British had sent 4,000 troops to Boston (a city of 15,000) to maintain order in the face of riots against Parliament's recent tax measures. The troops and Bostonians didn't get along. On March 5, some of the soldiers fired into a crowd of people protesting their presence, killing five of them. Nobody really knew if or how the troops had been provoked, or if the whole thing was premeditated. But, as a propaganda tool and a lasting rallying cry, it was a major step toward the war to come.

A big part of the propaganda had to do with a "standing army." As opposed to a legitimate army mustered in time of war, a standing army was seen as a weapon wielded by a tyrant to attack his own citizens whenever he suffered opposition. That's how most colonists saw the troops in Boston, and the incident on March 5 only confirmed their view. Countless speeches memorializing the killings over the next few years leading up to the revolution pounded the point home. No wonder that even on the eve of the War of 1812, a standing army remained a dirty word - a grim reminder that a despot always could turn that army against his own people.

Incidentally, one of the most effective pieces of propaganda came from none other than Paul Revere. He etched a picture of the attack showing redcoats, standing in a line like a firing squad, shooting into a crowd of unarmed people, bloody bodies lying on the street. The drawing was reproduced widely in newspapers and broadsheets for years. It helped keep the anger alive. I guess he should be remembered for more than his midnight ride.

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