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Boston Massacre Speech
First Anniversary, 1771

by James Lovell

YOUR design in the appointment of this ceremony, my friends and fellow townsmen, cannot fail to be examined in quite different lights at this season of political dissension. From the principles I profess, and in the exercise of my common right to judge with others, I conclude it was decent, wise, and honourable.

The certainty of being favoured with your kindest partiality and candour, in a poor attempt to execute the part to which you have invited me, has overcome the objection of my inability to perform it in a proper manner; and I now beg the favour of your animating countenance.

The horrid bloody scene we here commemorate, whatever were the causes which concurred to bring it on that dreadful night, must lead the pious and humane, of every order, to some suitable reflections. The pious will adore the conduct of that BEING who is unsearchable in all his ways, and without whose knowledge not a single sparrow falls, in permitting an immortal soul to be hurried by the flying ball, the messenger of death, in the twinkling of an eye, to meet the awful Judge of all its secret actions. The humane, from having often thought, with pleasing rapture, on the endearing scenes of social life, in all its amiable relations, will lament, with heartfelt pangs, their sudden dissolution, by indiscretion, rage, and vengeance.

But let us leave that shocking close of one continued course of rancor and dispute, from the first moment that the troops arrived in town; that course will now be represented by your own reflections to much more solid, useful purpose, than by any artful language. I hope, however, that heaven has yet in store such happiness for this afflicted town and province, as will in time wear out the memory of all your former troubles.

I sincerely rejoice with you in the happy event of your steady and united effort to prevent a second tragedy.

Our fathers left their native land, risked all the dangers of the sea, and came to this then savage desert, with that true undaunted courage which is excited by a confidence in God. They came that they might here enjoy themselves, and leave to their posterity the best of earthly portions, full English liberty. You showed upon the alarming cause for trial, that their brave spirit still exists in vigor, though their legacy of right is much impaired. The sympathy and active friendship of some neighboring towns, upon that sad occasion, commands the highest gratitude of this.

We have seen and felt the ill effects of placing standing forces in the midst of populous communities; but those are only what individuals suffer. Your vote directs me to point out the fatal tendency of placing such an order in free cities—fatal indeed! Athens once was free; a citizen, a favourite of the people, by an artful story, gained a trifling guard of fifty men; ambition taught him ways to enlarge that number; he destroyed the commonwealth, and made himself the tyrant of the Athenians. Caesar, by the length of his command in Gaul, got the affections of his army, marched to Rome, overthrew the state, and made himself perpetual dictator. By the same instruments, many less republics have been made to fall a prey to the devouring jaws of tyrants. But this is a subject which should never be disguised with figures; it chooses the plain style of dissertation.

The true strength and safety of every commonwealth or limited monarchy, is the bravery of its freeholders, its militia. By brave militias they rise to grandeur, and they come to ruin by a mercenary army. This is founded on historical facts, and the same causes will, in similar circumstances, for ever produce the same effects. Justice Blackstone, in his inimitably clear commentaries, tells us, that "it is extremely dangerous in a land of liberty, to make a distinct order of the profession of arms; that such an order is an object of jealousy; and that the laws and constitution of England are strangers to it." One article of the Bill of Rights is, that the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in a time of peace, unless it be with consent of parliament, is against law. The present army, therefore, though called the peace establishment, is kept up by one act, and governed by another; both of which expire annually. This circumstance is valued as a sufficient check upon the army. A less body of troops than is now maintained, has, on a time, destroyed a king, and fought under a parliament with great success and glory; but, upon a motion to disband them, they turned their masters out of doors, and fixed others in their stead. Such wild things are not again to happen, because the parliament have power to stop payment once a year: But arma tenenti quis neget? which may be easily interpreted, "who will bind Sampson with his locks on?"

The bill which regulates the army, the same fine author I have mentioned [Trenchard], says, "is, in many respects, hastily penned, and reduces the soldier to a state of slavery, in the midst of a free nation. This is impolitic; for slaves envy the freedom of others, and take a malicious pleasure in contributing to destroy it."

By this scandalous bill a justice of peace is empowered to grant, without a previous oath from the military officer, a warrant to break open any (freeman's) house, upon pretense of searching for deserters.

I must not omit to mention one more bad tendency; it is this, a standing force leads to a total neglect of militias, or tends greatly to discourage them.

You see the danger of a standing army to the cause of freedom. If the British parliament consents from year to year to be exposed, it doubtless has good reasons. But when did our assembly pass an act to hazard all the property, the liberty and lives of their constituents? What check have we upon a British army? Can we disband it? Can we stop its pay?

Our own assemblies in America can raise an army; and our monarch, George the 3rd, by our constitution, takes immediate command. This army can consent to leave their native provinces. Will the royal chief commander send them to find barracks at Brunswick, or Lunenburg, at Hanover, or the commodious hall of Westminster? Suppose the last; suppose this army was informed, nay thought the parliament in actual rebellion, or only on the eve of one, against the king, or against those who paid and clothed them; for there it pinches: — we are rebels against parliament; — we adore the king.

Where, in the case I have stated, would be the value of the boasted English constitution?

Who are a free people? Not those who do not suffer actual oppression; but those who have a constitutional check upon the power to oppress.

We are slaves or freemen if, as we are called, the last, where is our check upon the following powers, France, Spain, the States of Holland, or the British parliaments? Now if any one of these (and it is quite immaterial which) has a right to make the two acts in question operate within this province, they have a right to give us up to an unlimited army, under the sole direction of one Saracen commander.

Thus I have led your thoughts to that upon which I formed my conclusion, that the design of this ceremony was decent, wise, and honourable. Make the bloody 5th of March the era of the resurrection of your birthrights, which have been murdered by the very strength that nursed them in their infancy. I had an eye solely to parliamentary supremacy; and I hope you will think every other view beneath your notice, in our present most alarming situation.

Chatham, Camden, and others, gods among men, and the farmer, whom you have addressed as the friend of mankind; all these have owned that England has a right to exercise every power over us, but that of taking money out of our pockets, without our consent [taxation and representation are inseparable]. Though it seems almost too bold therefore in us to say "we doubt in every single instance her legal right over this province," Yet we must assert it. Those I have named are mighty characters, but they wanted one advantage Providence has given us. The beam is carried off from our eyes, by the flowing blood of our fellow citizens, and now we may be allowed to attempt to remove the mote from the eyes of our exalted patrons. That mote, we think, is nothing but our obligation to England first, and afterwards Great Britain, for constant kind protection of our lives and birthrights against foreign danger. We all acknowledge that protection.

Let us once more look into the early history of this province. We find that our English ancestors, disgusted in their native country at a Legislation, which they saw was sacrificing all their rights, left its jurisdiction, and sought, like wandering birds of passage, some happier climate. Here at length they settled down. The king of England was said to be the royal landlord of this territory; with him they entered into mutual, sacred compact, by which the price of tenure, and the rules of management, were fairly stated. It is in this compact that we find our only true legislative authority.

I might here enlarge upon the character of those first settlers, men of whom the world was little worthy; who, for a long course of years, assisted by no earthly power, defended their liberty, their religion, and their lives, against the greatest inland danger of the savage natives; but this falls not within my present purpose. They were secure by sea.

In our infancy, when not an over tempting jewel for the Bourbon crown, the very name of England saved us; afterwards her fleets and armies. We wish not to depreciate the worth of that protection. Of our gold, yea, of our most fine gold, we will freely give a part. Our fathers would have done the same. But must we fall down and cry "let not a stranger rob and kill me, O my father! Let me rather die by the hand of my brother, and let him ravish all my portion!"

It is said that disunited from Britain, "we should bleed at every vein." I cannot see the consequence. The states of Holland do not suffer thus. But grant it true, Seneca, would prefer the launcets of France, Spain, or any other power, to the bow string, though applied by the fair hand of Britannia.

The declarative vote of the British parliament is the death warrant of our birthrights, and wants only a Czarish king to put it into execution. Here then a door of salvation is open. Great Britain may raise her fleets and armies, but it is only our own king that can direct their fire down upon our heads. He is gracious, but not omniscient. He is ready to hear our appeals in their proper course; and knowing himself, though the most powerful prince on earth, yet, a subject under a divine constitution of law; that law he will ask and receive from the twelve judges of England. These will prove that the claim of the British parliament over us is not only illegal in itself, but a downright usurpation of his prerogative as king of America.

A brave nation is always generous. Let us appeal, therefore, at the same time, to the generosity of the people of Great Britain, before the tribunal of Europe, not to envy us the full enjoyment of the rights of brethren.

And now, my friends and fellow townsmen, having declared myself an American son of liberty of true charter principles; having shewn the critical and dangerous situation of our birthrights, and the true course for speedy redress; I shall take the freedom to recommend, with boldness, one previous step. Let us show we understand the true value of what we are claiming.

The patriotic farmer tells us, "the cause of liberty is a cause of too much dignity to be sullied by turbulence and tumult. Anger produces anger; and differences, that might be accommodated by kind and respectful behavior, may, by imprudence, be enlarged to an incurable rage. In quarrels, risen to a certain height, the first cause of dissension is no longer remembered, the minds of the parties being wholly engaged in recollecting and resenting the mutual expressions of their dislike.— When feuds have reached that fatal point, considerations of reason and equity vanish; and a blind fury governs, or rather confounds all things. A people no longer regard their interest, but a gratification of their wrath."

We know ourselves subjects of common law; to that and the worthy executors of it, let us pay a steady and conscientious regard. Past errors. in this point have been written with gall, by the pen of malice. May our future conduct be such as to make even that vile imp lay her pen aside.

The right which imposes duties upon us, is in dispute; but whether they are managed by a Surveyor-General, a Board of Commissioners, Turkish Janissaries, or Russian Cossacks, let them enjoy during our time of fair trial, the common personal protection of the laws of our constitution. Let us shut our eyes, for the present, to their being executors of claims subversive of our rights.

Watchful, hawk eyed jealousy, ever guards the portal of the temple of the Goddess Liberty. This is known to those who frequent her altars. Our whole conduct therefore, I am sure, will meet with the utmost candour of her votaries; but I am wishing we may be able to convert even her basest apostates.

We are slaves until we obtain such redress, through the justice of our king, as our happy constitution leads us to expect. In that condition, let us behave with the propriety and dignity of free­men; and thus exhibit to the world, a new character of a people, which no history describes.

May the all wise and beneficent ruler of the universe preserve our lives and health, and prosper all our lawful endeavors in the glorious cause of freedom.


Source: Orations, Delivered at the Request of the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, to Commemorate the Evening of the Fifth of March, 1770

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