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Short Narrative

A Meeting to Protect the Town’s Reputation

Back in late March 1770, the Boston town meeting had commissioned Capt. Andrew Gardner to carry its official report on the Boston Massacre and other documents to London.

Gardner arrived in the imperial capital in early May. That was a couple of weeks after Londoners had read the first newspaper reports about the shooting on King Street.

Furthermore, the captain discovered, Customs Commissioner John Robinson had reached London before him, carrying documents that reflected poorly on Boston. That material included:

  • Capt. Thomas Preston’s “Case,” describing how hostile the town had been to the army, and how people had provoked his soldiers into firing.
  • Several depositions collected by Loyalist magistrate James Murray in mid-March backing up that picture of the shooting.
  • Province secretary Andrew Oliver’s description of the Council meetings after the Massacre, accusing members such as Royall Tyler of almost openly threatening unrest if acting governor Thomas Hutchinson didn’t withdraw troops from town.

Most of Preston’s “Case” was printed in London newspapers by the end of April. The depositions and Oliver’s account went into the pamphlet titled A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston.

Those publications offset the effect of Boston’s Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre. In fact, the Fair Account was a direct response to the Short Narrative; its depositions were numbered starting with 97, where the first edition of the Short Narrative ended.

To be sure, London’s Whiggish printers quickly set about reprinting Boston’s report (as well as the Rev. John Lathrop’s sermon, Innocent Blood Crying to God from the Streets of Boston). But after all the Boston Whigs’ effort to present their town as innocently attacked, they had been scooped.

(My talk “Reporting the Battle of Lexington” discusses how Massachusetts Patriots were determined not to let that happen again in 1775. After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Provincial Congress rushed to collect depositions and spared no expense sending them to London. There was none of the delay and debate we see in the town meetings of 1770.)

Capt. James Hall brought the first news of trouble in London back to Boston on 18 June, as I discussed here. Capt. Gardner returned with confirmation on the evening of 6 July.

Bostonians seem to have felt particularly betrayed by Capt. Preston’s “Case” since he’d sent a short note to the Boston Gazette back in March to say he was being treated fairly. At the very same time, people now knew, he’d written this long message to London, warning that he might be lynched. When Preston’s “Case” became public, people worried about that danger even more—at least according to officials and friends of the royal government.

The Boston Whigs therefore had to respond, but only in the most legal, least violent way. Which meant calling a town meeting. At 9:00 A.M. on 10 July 1770, 250 years ago today, qualified white men assembled in Faneuil Hall to discuss “Sundry Letters received by Capt. Gardner Master of the Packet taken up by the Town, in answer to those by him to our Friends in England.”

The meeting took action by, of course, forming a committee. It consisted of Thomas Cushing (also moderator of that meeting), Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Richard Dana, William Phillips, William Molineux, Dr. Joseph Warren, Ebenezer Storer, and William Greenleaf. They were delegated to “draw up a true state of the Town, and the conduct of the [Customs] Commissioners.”

The news from London prompted another agenda item as well: “A Motion made that the printed Narratives of the late horred Massacre, which has been retained by order of the Town in the hands of the Committee; may now be sold by the Printers.” Benjamin Edes and John Gill had gone to the trouble and expense of printing copies of the Short Narrative, but the town had forbidden them to sell any copies locally to avoid complaints about tainting the jury pool.

Now that the Short Narrative was being reprinted in London, Edes and Gill no doubt argued, copies of that edition were coming into Boston. So there was no longer any point in forbidding them to sell their stock, right?

The town meeting disagreed. Town clerk William Cooper wrote that the question “Passed in the Narrative”—a psychological slip for “in the negative.” Edes and Gill were told to keep sitting on their copies.

The meeting then adjourned until Friday the 13th, when they would hear from the new committee. In practical terms, that probably meant Samuel Adams got busy writing the town’s response, if he hadn’t already drafted it.