Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2011

Document Type




First Advisor

Fred Anderson


On the evening of March 5, 1770, a beleaguered detachment of British soldiers fired into a crowd of perhaps 400 Bostonians, killing three men instantly and wounding eight more; two of the wounded died within the next few days. This muddled episode, soon labeled “the Boston Massacre,” brought to the forefront all of the struggles and frustrations that had arisen between British authorities and Bostonians over the previous half-dozen years. Today the event is remembered as a critical moment in the coming of the American Revolution. In the Spring of 1770 it was not clear that it would be remembered at all – or, if it was, that those who did would be able to agree on its meaning. Boston’s Sons of Liberty, above all, were determined not only that the “massacre” should be remembered, but that it should be recalled in a specific way: as a moral lesson for Bostonians in the dangers of the unrestrained power of the state, as exercised by standing armies quartered on civilians in time of peace. They chose to commemorate the event by sponsoring a series of public orations, to be given in Boston each year on the anniversary of the incident. These orations which were clearly intended both to foster remembrance and to create a shared sense of meaning, were offered annually from 1771 through 1783 and published in pamphlet form. Taken together these fascinating documents open a window into both the evolution of radical political rhetoric in Revolutionary America and the emergence of an American cultural identity. This thesis analyzes the orations and assesses their importance in both of these dimensions. Several legal, social, economic, and political histories have described the Boston Massacre and its role in the coming of the Revolution. The Boston Massacre Orations, however, have never been systematically analyzed, and hence exist today as a valuable and relatively untapped resource. These extraordinary documents serve as valuable primary source documents that allow for a micro-level analysis of the stages of ideological development in a pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary society. When analyzed as a cohesive unit the Orations bring to light four distinct stages of ideological development centered around the improper placement of a standing army in a city during a time of peace. Since the town of Boston was the only colonial city to suffer a standing army twice before the Declaration of Independence, they had experienced the cold and merciless rule of the British tyranny long before any other colony. Furthermore, the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord as well as at the Battle of Bunker Hill all in Massachusetts in 1775 catapulted the Bostonian people to the forefront of the movement for independence. The Sons of Liberty effectively used the Boston Massacre Orations to influence and indirectly control the trajectory of ideological development in Boston, and eventually all colonies. The Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party became symbolic of Boston, allowing them to then be used as evidence to prove the British ministerial conspiracy against the colonies. By spearheading the movement for colonial rights, the Sons of Liberty and by extension, the Massacre Orators, served as loyal watchmen and guardians of the fundamental rights of man. While independence was not their initial aim, the Boston Massacre Orations exist to demonstrate the long and conflicted struggle that the people of colonial North America endured in order to create a virtuous and free society.