What were the moral and immoral issues of the Boston Massacre?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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There’s a wonderful scene at the end of director Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film Breaker Morant.  Two of the film’s protagonists, Australian military officers serving in the British Army in South Africa during the Boer War, are to be executed for their roles in the killing of enemy prisoners.  The Boer War, of course, pitted two pillars of European imperialism against each other: the British Empire seeking to consolidate its hold on that resource-rich region, and the Dutch guerrillas who had settled the area.  As the two soldiers are led away to be executed by firing squad, the film’s titular character, Harry “Breaker” Morant, says to the other officer, “Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire-building.”  The message, of course, is that the collateral damage associated with colonialism extends to those sent to fight on behalf of the colonial power.  It is a theme that would be prevalent throughout modern history.  The events at the center of that film were true; the film was adapted from the memoirs of a third officer tried in the same court martial but sentenced to life in prison instead of execution due to his young age.  Now, turn the clock ahead to January 30, 1972.  “Bloody Sunday,” the killing of 26 unarmed Irish Catholic citizens of Northern Ireland by British troops, the enforcers of Britain’s colonial decrees, marked a more modern instance of the vestiges of empire-building.  As with the Boer War (1899-1902), Britain was struggling with the imperative of having to use force to contain anti-colonial rebellion.  Many would die in that conflict before its resolution in 1998.

The reason for this discussion of British colonial experiences in South Africa and Northern Ireland is to help illuminate the moral quandaries inherent in the British colonization of North America.  The Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770 – six years before Thomas Jefferson would produce the Declaration of Independence – occurred within the same context as those other miscarriages of justice more than a century later.  Those rebelling against the policies of the British Crown were of the same heritage and ethnicity as those they opposed.  America’s founders were not British subjects; they were British themselves, albeit residing in colonies far removed geographically from England.  Yet they had grown increasingly opposed to being ruled by a distant autocratic monarch whose policies regarding taxation and whose heavy-handed enforcement of royal edicts had alienated increasing numbers of colonialists.  The revolt by an angry mob was violently suppressed by British troops, with five colonists killed.  As with the other historical examples mentioned, designating certain activities or individuals as moral and others as immoral is no easy task.  The mere fact of unrepresentative government and the growing sense of colonization’s evils were sufficient to inflame passions.  That the morality of the British soldiers’ actions cannot be so easily questioned, however, is a matter of perspective.  Captain Thomas Preston, the British military officer who ordered his men to respond to the rioting colonists, testified in his subsequent trial as to the environment that existed at the time:

“It is a matter of too great notoriety to need any proofs that the arrival of his Majesty's troops in Boston was extremely obnoxious to its inhabitants. They have ever used all means in their power to weaken the regiments, and to bring them into contempt by promoting and aiding desertions, and with impunity, even where there has been the clearest evidence of the fact, and by grossly and falsely propagating untruths concerning them.”

Captain Preston’s statement illustrated the moral ambiguity inherent in such situations.  The British soldiers were acting on behalf of a monarchy without the consent of growing numbers of North American colonists.  Ruling without the consent of the governed is immoral.  The colonists, however, were violently protesting the Crown’s policies rather than petitioning for redress.  The British soldiers involved, including Captain Preston, were tried and acquitted.  The main defense lawyer representing the accused was John Adams, soon to emerge as a founding father of the nation and the second president of the United States.  Reflecting on his role in the successful defense of all but two of the British soldiers, Adams later noted:

"The part I took in defense of captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.”

So, in assessing guilt or innocence, or moral and immoral, one should retain a measure of moderation and objectivity.  One of the founding principles of the United States and its constitution is the right of all citizens to a trial and to have his or her guilt or innocence decided by a jury representing the defendant’s community.  The Sixth Amendment states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury. . .”  The British soldiers enjoyed a fair trial with more than adequate representation in the person of the brilliant Adams.  Adams acted morally, without regard for his personal attitudes or beliefs.  Captain Thomas acted morally, responding to violent insurrection with more measured force than assumed by the application of the word “massacre.”  The rebellious colonists acted out of virtuous motivations, but their actions were not necessarily justified by their motivations.  It is the morality of the “victims” of the Boston Massacre that is the most difficult to judge.  The soldiers may have overacted, but, as with the British soldiers in South Africa and those in North Ireland, the soldiers in Boston were occupying the morally-tenuous ground between colonizer and colonized.  They had been placed in an impossible situation, and relatively innocent people died.  As the Harry Morant character, modeled loosely on the real-life Harry Morant, noted, eventually it is “the soldiers of the Empire” who pay the price for the imperialist actions of their governments.

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In general, we do not talk about moral and immoral issues.  Instead, we simply talk about moral issues.  A moral issue is not an issue that is moral.  Instead, it is an issue that makes us think about morality.  It is an issue that forces us to decide whether something is moral or immoral.  Therefore, I will not talk about moral and immoral issues here.  Instead, I will just talk about moral issues and I will discuss how those issues force us to think about morality.

The first issue is the issue of how far we can morally go in protesting against government actions that we disapprove of.  In the Boston Massacre, many of the colonists were attacking British soldiers because they were so angry about the actions of the British government.  They did not like having the British soldiers in town. They did not like the taxes that had been imposed on them by the Townshend Acts.  Because they disliked the soldiers and the British authority that the soldiers represented, they taunted and attacked the soldiers with snowballs.  We might think about this in the context of things like the protests in Ferguson, MO.  There, protestors took out their frustrations on the police in a way that was (arguably) similar to what the colonists did to the soldiers in Boston.  In both cases, we can see a moral issue.  Is it moral to throw snowballs at representatives of a government that makes you angry?  What about taunting soldiers or police men, calling them “lobsterbacks” or “pigs?”  How far are we allowed to go in this sort of a protest?

The second issue is that of the soldiers’ response. When the soldiers were attacked, they responded by firing into the crowd.  Was this moral?  What we have to ask ourselves is how much force armed people are allowed to use when they feel threatened.  If a few soldiers are surrounded by a large group of people who may or may not be armed, are they allowed to shoot into the crowd?  Similarly, is a police officer morally justified in shooting someone because he feels threatened by that person?  Do we need to require armed representatives of the government to have clear provocation before they fire or do we morally have to allow them to use deadly force whenever they feel threatened?

Finally, there is the issue of telling the truth versus propaganda.  After this incident, in which five people were killed, American patriots coined the term “Boston Massacre.”  They used things like Paul Revere’s woodcut to imply that the British soldiers had killed completely innocent citizens in cold blood.  They did these things because they wanted to incite people to rebel against the British.  This forces us to ask whether it is moral to stretch the truth in pursuit of the “greater good.”  Is it moral to essentially tell lies or half-truths when we think that it is for a good cause?  Alternatively, is it wrong to lie and to mischaracterize people’s actions even if it is for a good cause?

All of these are moral issues that are presented to us by the events of the Boston Massacre.

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