Boston Massacre Propaganda: Examples & Posters

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Boston Massacre is one of the most famous events in American history, but why? In this lesson, we'll look at the propaganda surrounding the event and see how it impacted American national memory.

Propaganda in the American Revolution

'Don't believe everything you read' - this sage advice has been frequently passed around society, but have we ever stopped to actually explain it? What's wrong with trusting what we read? The issue is that not all printed things are true, even if they claim to be. Very often, textual and visual documents are made with a distinct agenda. Sometimes, this agenda carries through a little more clearly than others. We call information that is designed to encourage the widespread promotion of an ideology or cause propaganda. Propaganda is often misleading, stretching or reinterpreting the truth to create a specific reaction. It is used especially frequently in wartime as a way to create popular support. Propaganda has been a part of every American war, including the first one and the events leading up to it.

The Boston Massacre

In 1767, the British government was in debt. The government had just paid for a major colonial struggle called the French and Indian War and was in the process of increasing its imperial control of the American colonies, which had gone un-regulated for too long. To pay for this, they authorized a new set of importation taxes on the American colonies, called the Townshend Duties. From this point on, colonists would have to pay a special tax on British products imported into the colonies. The American colonists were furious about this. How could the government tax them without giving them proper representation in Parliament? To express their discontent, Americans boycotted British products, starting what they called the Non-Importation Movement.

The Non-Importation Movement made a particularly large splash in the city of Boston. Boston was an important port and home to some of the most radical thinkers of the colonies. As Bostonians rallied around the Non-Importation Movement, Britain sent more troops into the city - a lot more. In fact, roughly 4,000 troops were sent into Boston in 1768. At the time, Boston's population was only between 15,000 and 20,000.

The radical Bostonians and British troops started to clash. Then, one day, these confrontations turned fatal. On March 5 of 1770, a crowd of rowdy Bostonians started what was more-or-less a riot, yelling and jeering at a garrison of troops. Eventually, they started throwing rocks and snowballs at the British soldiers, who responded by firing back into the crowd. In the end, five colonists were killed. The Bostonians immediately began calling the event the Boston Massacre.

Boston Massacre Propaganda

In a time when colonists were starting to express greater discontent towards Britain, the event became immediately politicized. Even the name suggests this. The colonists didn't call the event the 'Boston Riot' or 'Boston Conflict.' They called it a massacre.

We can see the differences in how this moment was interpreted through newspapers. In April 1770, a British newspaper called the London Chronicle reported on the event. ''On the 5th of March . . . a number of townspeople, after insulting in the barracks, attacked a sentry . . . Captain Preston (who was captain of the day) sent a non-commissioned officer and 12 men to his assistance, and soon after followed himself. This party was also attacked and insulted by the mob, and one of them, receiving a blow, fired his piece''.

However, an account from the American newspaper The Boston Gazette began with the description of Boston citizens being assaulted by soldiers, which then led to the confrontation and the following: ''On this, the Captain commanded them to fire… he said again, damn you, fire, be the consequence what it will!'' That's a very different side of the story. Another American paper took this even further in a memorial of the event two years later, reading: ''Americans! Bear in remembrance the HORRID MASSACRE…when five of your fellow countrymen lay…basely and most inhumanly MURDERED!''

Obituary of Patrick Carr, colonist killed in the Boston Massacre
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So, what's going on here? The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and in 1770 the seeds of discontent were being planted in the American colonies. Through their treatment of the event, American newspapers turned the Boston Massacre into a rallying point, a symbol of a common struggle to unite 13 individual colonies into a single political body. It was one of the first moments when a sense of American nationalism began to rise.

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