When the smoke cleared, 11-year-old Christopher Snider lay dead, victim of a shot fired into a crowd at random by a British loyalist. Two weeks later, five other citizens would be slain by British soldiers in what became known as the “Boston Massacre.”
In the weeks and months to follow, one man would play a central role in the struggle for American liberty: Samuel Adams.
Adams’ first thoughts were not of the uprising of his townsmen and the start of a great war. His was the “desire for true religion and liberty.” Though remembered as the “Great Incendiary” of the Revolution, he viewed all of the colonies as proper and loyal subjects of England. He had no doubt that if the infractions of their English rights were clearly spelled out and brought to the attention of the Crown, reconciliation was possible.
But his devotion to his community proved stronger than his misplaced devotion to the distant Crown. As the months turned into years, he knew the Crown was no longer listening to, or caring for, its “children.”
A devout Christian, Adams’ view of society and government was profoundly influenced by early Puritan John Winthrop’s idea of a national covenant properly fulfilled among men in obedience to their sovereign.
While the doctrine of “divine right of kings” held less sway in England than in France, Adams’ civil covenant was nonetheless viewed with alarm.
In 1771, Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Boston, wrote to London about Adams: “I doubt whether there is a greater Incendiary in the King’s dominions or a man of greater malignity of heart, or who less scruples any measure ever so criminal to accomplish his purposes; and … I suppose he wishes the destruction of every Friend to Government in America.”
What Hutchinson saw as destruction was Adams’ unrelenting criticism of any who did not devote themselves wholly to the cause of freedom.
Adams believed the Crown had violated the colonists’ “exclusive Right to make Laws for [their] own internal Government and Taxation,” leading him to believe that other rights, such as religious freedom, were also in danger.
Adam’s firmly held that “all men have a Right to remain in a State of Nature as long as they please: and in case of intolerable Oppression, Civil or Religious, to leave the Society they belong to, and enter into another.”
The king’s violation of this covenant was embodied in the “Stamp Act” of 1765, a new tax instituted by the British government to defray the burden of debt England had incurred fighting France, yet again.
In Boston, the protest of the people forced the newly appointed stamp distributor to resign before the act even officially took effect. New York, Philadelphia and Boston merchants all signed agreements to boycott British goods until the act was repealed.
In 1766 the Stamp Act was officially repealed, although it was closely followed by the “Townsend Act,” which once again marked specific items with duties and instituted a board of commissioners to enforce the act in America.
Adams insisted on a boycott of these goods and founded the Nonimportation Association, designed to bind the colonies together in an agreement to not import any British goods.
Adams took any desertion of the cause of nonimportation seriously, and when the merchants threatened to undermine his efforts, he turned to the local Boston Gazette, to which he frequently contributed: “We hear [the merchants] very gravely asking, ‘Have we not a right to carry on our own trade and sell our own goods if we please? Who shall hinder us?’ This is now the language of those who had before seen the ax laid at the very root of all our Rights with apparent complacency. … Have you not a right if you please, to set fire to your own houses, because they are your own, tho in probability it will destroy a whole neighborhood, perhaps a whole city! Where did you learn that in a state or society you had a right to do as you please? Be pleased to be informed that you are bound to conduct yourselves as a Society with which you are joined [covenanted], or if you please, you may leave it.”
Even with Adam’s constant hounding, many merchants refused to give up their right to import British goods. The colonists, however, were not deaf to Adams’ call. In protest, they hung an anti-British effigy in front of shopkeeper Theophilus Lillie’s store. On February 22, 1770, when Loyalist Ebenezer Richardson attempted to remove it, an angry crowd chased him to his home where, according to reports, he fired randomly from his upper window, felling young Christopher Snider and making him the first victim of the struggle.
Boston’s persistent rejection of Britain’s acts of taxation had resulted in the deployment of British troops into the Boston area in 1768. The continued presence of troops had served only to reinforce the city’s defiant stand. The dislike between the soldiers and the townspeople was palpable.
Just two weeks after Snider’s death, five colonists were gunned down in what became known as “the Boston Massacre,” an event that Adams would use to rally the other colonies to the cause of liberty.