On February 22, 1770, Christopher Seider, an eleven-year old boy, was shot and killed on the streets of Boston by Ebenezer Richardson, a former informer for the Royal Customs Office. Richardson had come to the aid of a neighbor being harassed by a group of young boys for selling imported British goods. The boys chased Richardson back to his own house and from the attic windows, he shot down into the crowd, killing Seider.
John Adams attended the huge funeral which Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty planned for Seider. Despite the snow, hail, thunder, and lightning that tormented the mourners that day, close to three thousand people turned out for the funeral, in part to lament the death of a child and in part to protest oppressive British programs in policing the Massachusetts colony, and particularly its largest town, Boston.
The funeral of Christopher Seider was not the first time the patriots of Boston turned out to protest British oppressions, nor would it be the last. Having studied the protest movements which led to the American Revolution, I see many parallels between what the rebels were fighting for then, and what the protesters who have taken to the streets following the murder of George Floyd are marching for today. The men and women who fanned the flames of the American Revolution — and who I write about in my book, American Rebels –would understand the motivations behind the protests going on now in their hometown of Quincy, their adopted town of Boston, and around the country and the world.
Although I’m not sure what the phrase “Black Lives Matter” would have meant to them, the core complaints which have driven Americans to the streets today are the same ones which drove the American rebels to the streets in the 1760s and ’70s. Brutality of occupying troops; restriction of liberties; failure to protect one’s safety in his or her own home and community; militarization of police forces; lack of accountability of the policing forces: these are all reasons why we march now, and why the American rebels made the difficult — and dangerous- decision to rise up against England and fight for independence.
Already eight years before independence was declared, Josiah Quincy Jr. wrote a letter to a friend about his growing disillusionment with the British government. The letter resonates with how so many Americans feel today about our government’s failure to address present-day injustices and long-accepted oppressions.
“To see the daily blunders which are committed, and the deep tragedy which is now acting on the political theatre, and not to be moved, is to be an unfeeling wretch indeed. If the contempt and indignation of every sensible and humane man in Christendom were sufficient to explode a political system, there would be some hopes of seeing ‘ Venice Preserved and the Plot Discovered.’”
Quincy was referring to the growing oppressions imposed on the colonists by Parliament and King George, and the final line about ‘Venice Preserved” concerns a popular 17th century play criticizing politics of tyranny. In other words, if contempt and indignation were enough to topple a system of oppression, the system would be long gone, for the American colonists were fed up — and the flames of rebellion were starting to flicker and grow.
As England tightened its fists on the American colonies by subverting the courts, condemning the free press, prohibiting peaceful meetings, flooding Boston with occupying troops, offering immunity from colonial justice to British soldiers and officers, and attempting to enter and secure private properties for their own purposes, as well as executing warrantless searches and instituting jury-less trials, the flames of rebellion grew hotter, brighter, wider until they burst into armed uprising and, ultimately, rebellion. As patriot Josiah Quincy Junior wrote in 1772, “One and All ought to arise, and overturn, overturn, and continue to overturn till they leave not a wreck of their bondage behind.”
On the eve of the Boston Tea Party, on December 16, 1773, the men and women of Boston were called to the Old South Meeting House to discuss what should be done about the Tea Act, which granted the East India Company a monopoly on selling tea in the colonies. In defiance of orders prohibiting such meetings, over 7,000 people came to the Old South to hear the rebel leaders speak, as well as more moderate voices. In the end, the determination was made that there could be no compromise over the Tea Act. The English Parliament must be sent a clear message that oppressions of the colonial freedoms would not be tolerated. The tea of the East India Tea Company, a symbol of British oppression, must be destroyed.
Josiah Quincy Junior offered the final benediction to the gathered masses before they left the Meeting House to go to the harbor and destroy the hated tea: “I see the clouds which now rise thick and fast upon our horizon, the thunders roll, and the lightnings play. To that God who rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm I commit my country.” All in all, it took about sixty men little more than three hours to destroy 342 chests and throw 46 tons (92,000 pounds) of tea into the frigid waters of Boston Harbor: the American Revolution had begun.
Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party with another act aimed to crush the spirit and the economy of the Massachusetts colony. The port of Boston was to be shut down until full reparations for the dumped tea was made, and even more British troops would be stationed in the town to enforce the blockade. But instead of crushing the colonial uprising, the Boston Port Act brought new and united resolve to all the American colonies. In the fall of 1774 the Continental Congress began meeting, with twelve colonies sending representatives.
By the time the Battle of Concord and Lexington was fought in April 1775, American protests had turned into coordinated acts of preparation for actual war against England. The Battle proved to be a routing of the British troops and they were forced to retreat to Boston, where they would be held under siege by the colonial forces for the next eleven months. Lord Percy, a British commander, wrote of his surprise in the outcome: “Rebels attacked us…with perseverance & resolution. . . . Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken.”
Abigail Adams saw the battle as final proof that England was no longer fit to rule over the colonies, not because they had been forced to retreat but because they had fired on their fellow citizens: “O Britain Britain how is thy glory vanished — how are thy Annals stained with the Blood of thy children.”
Although Josiah Quincy Junior had died in the days following the Battle (while returning from England with a secret message for the rebels which was never delivered and which died with him), his words remained to stir his fellow rebels — and can still inspire today’s protesters who gather, day after day, to march for meaningful change in our country. As Quincy wrote in a letter to his wife from England, “It is yourselves, it is yourselves must save you; and you are equal to the task.”
History teaches us that lessons not learned will be taught again and again. The American rebels fought for rights they deemed basic and unquestionable — and today we march for those rights again. As for the current Administration, and all who deny the importance of black lives and of justice for all, and fail to ensure the right of every American citizen to be safe in his or her own home, the lessons of history will repeat. What happened the last time a monarch tried to control Americans with the help of sycophants? I only hope that this time the revolution will take place on the floor of the House and the Senate, in state and local governments, and in police precincts — and in the voting booth this November.
As the American rebels declared in the fall of 1772 in a pamphlet that was distributed throughout the American colonies, “Let us disappoint the Men, who are raising themselves in the ruin of this Country. Let us convince every Invader of our Freedom, that we will be as free as the Constitution…will justify.”
 A number of American rebels were involved in bringing “freedom suits” on behalf of enslaved blacks to secure their freedom. John Adams defended a few slave owners but even he admitted, and without any regrets, that “I never knew a Jury by a Verdict, to determine a Negro to be a slave. They always found them free.”