The Influence of Art on History, Part 2: The Boston Massacre

Read Part 1 of the series here.

As much as the Palace of Versailles supported the prevailing authority and was used to sway public thought in favor of being under the absolute rule of King Louis XIV, our next work was just as powerful at undermining the prevailing authority and turning British citizens living in America against British rule. This work is known as The Bloody Massacre and was engraved by Paul Revere in 1770. Whereas the Palace of Versailles was a tool to strengthen support for the government and increase the king’s power, Paul Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre was a tool to destroy people’s faith in the British government and turn them towards revolution.


Stamp Act Propaganda
Public Domain

In the years preceding the event that inspired Paul Revere’s engraving, the British government had been cracking down on the growing independence of the American colonies by imposing additional taxes, limiting their voice in their own governance, and quartering soldiers in their homes without consent. Resentment had been growing in the colonies due to the oppression by and lack of representation in the British government. Taxes and laws were levied without the colonies having any say or voice. As each new tax, regulation, or law was handed down, the anger in the colonies grew. Local councils called for boycotts on goods that were taxed in violation of their rights as British citizens, namely representation in the government and a say in their taxes. England responded by disbanding local governments and continuing to levy taxes. It was the imposition of the Stamp Act of 1765, a law which required printed materials to be on specially stamped paper printed in London and embossed with a seal to show the tax had been paid, and Townshend Acts of 1767 and 1768, taxes on goods imported from England, that became the catalyst for the ‘massacre.’

Opposition to the Stamp Act and Townshend Act led to England sending a Naval warship to Boston in 1768 and the forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes. This was also a violation to colonial rights as British citizens since British citizens were allowed the right to their own homes and control over who resided within. On top of forcing Bostonians to feed and care for Naval officers, the captain of that ship began forcing Boston citizens into service on his warship and seized a local merchant’s ship on allegation of smuggling. Bostonians rioted and England sent four Army regiments to restore control. A newspaper printed news of clashes between Boston residents, customs officials, and the British military and sensationalized the death of an 11-year-old child at the hands of a customs employee on February 22, 1770. This led to tensions on both sides and a desire for revenge.

British Troops Landing in Boston, 1768
Public Domain


On the evening of March 5, 1770, a local merchant’s apprentice began harassing a British officer and calling insults out to him. They engaged in a verbal altercation before the apprentice began poking the officer’s chest, which prompted the officer to strike the boy in the head with his musket. This led further people into the argument, both citizen and soldier. While a young bookseller and another British officer worked to reduce tensions, the crowd began throwing rocks and snowballs at the soldiers, who arranged themselves in a defensive formation.

During the chaos of the argument, a shot was fired. Whether it was one of their own who fired the shot or they were being fired upon, the soldiers reacted by firing into the crowd of colonists, killing 5 of them and seriously wounding several others. Former slave Crispus Attucks was the first to die, with two others shortly after, a fourth the next morning, and the last two weeks later.

The crowd fled from the Customs House to nearby streets and grew as word spread. On the verge of dealing with a riot, the army captain called his regiment to defend their position and keep the mob at bay. The local governor worked to calm tensions and arrested both the army captain and eight other soldiers. To further calm tensions, the army was removed from the city to a nearby island.

This incident spread and became the inspiration for a wildly inaccurate engraving by Paul Revere that would become a powerful piece of propaganda for the revolutionary Patriots. Paul Revere understood the power of visual representations and created a piece to sway those who were on the fence about separating the colonies from Britain to be in support of the effort while also undermining those who were in full support of the British. This engraving became a central argument for supporting the Revolutionary War and is known as The Bloody Massacre.


Boston Massacre, Bloody Massacre, Boston, Paul Revere, US History, America, Massachusetts, Revolutionary War,
The Bloody Massacre by Paul Revere
Public Domain

While history shows another version of the event, Paul Revere twisted what happened to suit his own needs. He utilized facts mixed with omissions to create a piece to touch the hearts of almost every Bostonian. The most powerful aspect of The Bloody Massacre is the fact that it depicts a group of organized and trained soldiers firing upon a group of disorganized and unarmed civilians. The soldier on the far right with his saber raised is depicted in the pose of giving the order to fire. This, and every other aspect of the engraving, is entirely false.

Along with the deceitful portrayal of the British instigating the conflict, how the ‘victims’ are portrayed is also misrepresented. The civilians are dressed as gentlemen, which gained the sympathy and outrage of the higher classed citizens, even though, in all actuality, those who attacked the soldiers were lower class laborers in far less expensive attire. The inclusion of a woman in the center of the civilians served to heighten the anger of the colonists by touching on their notions of chivalry and instinctive protection of women. This, also, was a complete fabrication by the artist. Seen also are men carrying injured away and others in positions of supplication as if begging the soldier not to shoot. This heightened the notion of an unprovoked attack on innocent citizens that lasted an extended period of time. Historic records indicate the actual shooting lasted only minutes.

Had the participants been portrayed as the actual class they were and without the fictional woman, it is entirely likely that The Bloody Massacre would not have incited the outrage and vitriol that it did. But, as it stands, Paul Revere’s representation of events provoked such anger on the part of the colonists that the Lieutenant Governor withdrew all troops from Boston and installed them on a nearby island in order to pacify the colonists and restore some form of order to Boston. This resulted in greater confidence in on the part of the Patriots and a strengthening of their resolve for freedom.

As a political symbol, The Bloody Massacre became a beacon for the cause of freedom. This engraving conveyed far and wide the brutality and cruelty of the Crown of England and swayed many to support separating from British rule. Whether a person could read or not, they could clearly see represented a foundation for breaking away from England, no matter the veracity of the depiction. Because of the already-present discontent of the colonists, this inflaming work served to ignite a greater passion for freedom in the hearts of those who believed in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and hastened the start of the Revolutionary War.

Thank you for reading my analysis of how The Bloody Massacre affected American history. This is Part 2 of a 4-part series examining the historic influence of art. Last week we discussed how King Louis XIV used the Palace of Versailles to solidify his position as an absolute monarch and his divine right to rule. Next week we will look at Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, and how that expose on the British poor laws served to inspire social reform and a change in how the poor were treated.


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