In 2017 #fakenews does not really mean the news is false, but is now broadly interpreted as being “made up” to fit a narrative. The current President likes to hammer on CNN and the New York Times as “fake news” but nothing in what they report is false. To the partisan eye it may be intentionally misleading, but it is not fake.
That said it was on this day in 1770 that #fakenews may have been born. The setting: a group of protesters become increasingly angry at government presence. Tempers flare and violence ensues. When the smoke clears 5 lay dead and seven are wounded. Those are the facts that could be readily agreed upon by all — but it is not how it will be presented to America.
The British had been omnipresent in Boston for years, as the seat of colonial unrest is in this harbor town of hotheads. The Sons of Liberty have used what was essentially terrorist tactics to persuade public opinion and temper parliamentary rule. These patriots, as they would label themselves, choked on the stranglehold of acts and intervention by the government and felt their natural rights abused. While some took to speech, others took to violent opposition.
Tax collectors would be tarred and feathered. Textbook illustrations (like shown here) make the act seem comical but it was deadly as the boiling hot tar left third degree burns upon the body. The HBO mini-series John Adams depicted it grotesque and humiliating agony the process. Follow this link at your own peril, as it is not for all eyes to view.
So on a cold 5th of March, sentry Hugh White pulled guard duty in front of the Customs House in Boston, when a teen taunted him repeatedly. White eventually submitted to the bait and smacked him with the butt of his gun. The gathering crowd, many leaving the taverns having consumed something other than Samuel Adams ale, took up the cause and rallied to the stricken youth’s side.
The powder keg was lit.
Many of those visiting the taverns were dock workers who were angered that British soldiers were taking their some of their work opportunities. Being a soldier in his Majesty’s army was not particularly well paying work, so off duty soldiers would compete with townfolk for extra income.
As the situation deteriorated, a squad of 7 soldiers, six privates and a captain, marched from their barracks a football field away to assist their comrade. Forming a defensive semi-circle around the Custom House, the soldiers faced a crowd that not only were taunting them but hurling objects at them as well. Ice, snowballs, clubs and oyster shells were winged towards the soldiers. Standing in front of his men, Captain Prescott kept his soldiers at bay as the events unfolded. Finally through the crowd a colonist surged forward and struck a soldier, knocking him to the ground. At this point his weapon discharged. Whether that was intentional, on accident or through the colonists action the musket was triggered, we will never know.
What followed was a single volley into the crowd by the soldiers, reacting to the first gunshot out of fear or panic. Before they could reload, Prescott knocked their guns up in the air and marched them back to their barracks.
Shock and awe followed. Never before in the history of England’s American colonies had this many civilians been casualties at the hands of its own army. A trial would be held where all but two of the soldiers would be acquitted of murder, defended by none other than John Adams. Adams believed that the rule of law should prevail and that the colonists abused their rights and those of the soldiers.
But his cousin Samuel had other ideas. Well before the trial commenced, Adams pounced on the emotional anger spreading through Boston like a lit powder fuse. He turned to Paul Revere to provide the artwork that would explode that fuse across the colonies. Revere’s famous engraving, which is much of what students in school see in their History books, forever depicted the event as British tyranny and an army bent on murder of its citizens. Revere’s intentionally made two significant alterations to the event (perhaps he would have called them “alternate facts”?).
He shows the crowd of people to be peacefully standing about rather than angrily taunting and hurling dangerous objects at the soldiers. The soldiers themselves are standing in a traditional firing stance, rather than the defensive half circle with Captain Prescott standing behind his soldiers looking as though he has given the order to fire.
It is unlikely Adams and Revere, neither who were present at the shooting, were constructing a narrative based on facts, but seizing upon emotional opportunity. The evidence and testimony that comes forward at the trial clearly shows that Revere’s two key alterations were false.
Breitbart or OccupyDemocrats would be proud. This co-opting of the facts to fit a narrative will be no less effective as today’s far left and far right news organizations that push a loose and exaggerative narrative of an event. As fast as news can spread in the 1770s, the Boston Massacre pushes America all the closer to a civil war against its King. One can almost envision the early morning tweet that the current president would post upon seeing Revere’s engraving.