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Crispus Attucks





BY GEORGE L. RUFFIN

GEORGE L. RUFFIN (1834-1885) the first Negro judge to be appointed in
Massachusetts, graduated in Law from Harvard, 1869. He served in the
legislature of Massachusetts two terms, and in the Boston Council two
terms.

[Note 14: Extracts from an address delivered before the Banneker
Literary Club, of Boston, Mass., on the occasion of the commemoration of
the "Boston Massacre," March 7, 1876.]


The fifth of March, 1770, had been a cold day, and a slight fall of snow
had covered the ground, but at nine o'clock at night it was clear and
cold, not a cloud to be seen in the sky, and the moon was shining
brightly. A British guard was patrolling the streets with clanking
swords and overbearing swagger. A sentry was stationed in Dock Square. A
party of young men, four in number, came out of a house in Cornhill. One
of the soldiers was whirling his sword about his head, striking fire
with it; the sentry challenged one of the four young men; there was no
good blood between them, and it took but little to start a disturbance.
An apprentice boy cried out to one of the guards, "You haven't paid my
master for dressing your hair!" A soldier said, "Where are the d---- d
Yankee boogers, I'll kill them!" A boy's head was split, there was more
quarrelling between the young men and the guard, great noise and
confusion; a vast concourse of excited people soon collected; cries of
"Kill them!" "Drive them out!" "They have no business here!" were
heard; some citizens were knocked down, as also were some soldiers.
Generally speaking, the soldiers got the worst of it; they were
reinforced, but steadily the infuriated citizens drove them back until
they were forced to take refuge in the Custom-House, upon the steps of
which they were pelted with snowballs and pieces of ice.

By this time the whole town was aroused; exaggerated accounts of the
event in Dock Square flew like wild-fire all over the settlement; the
people turned out en masse in the streets and, to add to the general
din, the bells of the town were rung. The regiment which held the town
at that time was the 29th. Captain Preston seemed to have been in
command. He was sent for, went to the Custom-House, learned what had
occurred, and at once put troops in motion. On they came up King Street,
now State Street, with fixed bayonets, clearing everything before them
as they came. They had nearly reached the head of King Street, when they
met with opposition. A body of citizens had been formed nearby, and came
pushing violently through the street then called Cornhill, around into
King Street. They were armed only with clubs, sticks, and pieces of ice,
but on they came. Nothing daunted, they went up to the points of the
soldiers' bayonets. The long pent-up feeling of resentment against a
foreign soldiery was finding a vent. This was the time and the
opportunity to teach tyrants that freemen can at least strike back,
though for the time they strike in vain.

At the head of this body of citizens was a stalwart colored man, Crispus
Attucks. He was the leading spirit of their body, and their spokesman.
They pressed the British sorely on all sides, making the best use of
their rude arms, crying, "They dare not strike!" "Let us drive them
out!" The soldiers stood firm; the reach of their long bayonets
protected them from any serious injury for a while.

From time to time Attucks' voice could be heard urging his companions
on. Said he, "The way to get rid of these soldiers is to attack the main
guard; strike at the root! This is the nest!" At that time some one gave
the order to fire. Captain Preston said he did not; at any rate the
order was given. The soldiers fired. It was a death dealing volley. Of
the citizens three lay dead, two mortally wounded, and a number more or
less injured. Crispus Attucks, James Caldwell, and Samuel Gray were
killed outright. Attucks fell, his face to the foe, with two bullets in
his breast.

That night closed an eventful day. The first martyr-blood had reddened
the streets of Boston, and the commencement of the downfall of British
rule in America had set in. Said Daniel Webster, "From that moment we
may date the severance of the British Empire. The patriotic fires
kindled in the breasts of those earnest and true men, upon whose necks
the British yoke never sat easily, never were quenched after that
massacre, until the invader had been driven from the land and
independence had been achieved. The sight of the blood of their comrades
in King Street quickened their impulses, and hastened the day for a
more general outbreak, which we now call the Revolutionary War." This
was no mob, as some have been disposed to call it. They had not the low
and groveling spirit which usually incites mobs. This was resistance to
tyranny; this was striking for homes and firesides; this was the noblest
work which a patriot can ever perform. As well call Lexington a mob and
Bunker Hill a mob. I prefer to call this skirmish in King Street on the
5th of March, 1770, as Anson Burlingame called it, "The dawn of the
Revolution."

About that time the American people set out to found a government to be
dedicated to Freedom, which was to remain an asylum to the oppressed of
all lands forever. The central idea of this government was to be
Liberty, and a declaration was made by them to the world that all men
are created free and equal, and have the right to life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness. This was the government to be established in the
land which had been fought for and won in the sacrifice of the blood of
both black and white men. Did they do it? Did they intend to do it? Did
they believe in and intend to carry out this magnificent declaration of
principles--a declaration which startled the crowned heads of Europe and
sent a thrill of delight to the hearts of the lovers of liberty through
Christendom? No, they did not do it, neither did they intend to do it!
This manifesto of July 4, 1776, was a fraud and a deception; it was the
boldest falsification known to history; it was a sham and a lie. Instead
of establishing freedom, they built, fostered and perpetuated slavery;
instead of equality, they gave us inequality; instead of life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness, they gave us death, bondage, and misery;
instead of rearing on these shores a beautiful temple to Liberty, they
made a foul den for slavery; and this country, which should have been
the garden-spot of the world, covered with a prosperous and happy
population of freemen, was, under the guidance of traitors to Liberty,
made the prison-house of slaves, and betrayed in the house of her
friends. The Goddess of Liberty, for nearly one hundred years after the
establishment of our Government, sat in chains.

Attucks was in feelings, sympathies, and in all other respects,
essentially an American, and so were the other colored patriots of the
Revolution, and why shouldn't they be? They were born and bred here, and
knew no other country; as was true of their fathers. They had been here
as long as the Puritans. They came here the same year, 1620; in fact,
had been here a little longer, for while Plymouth Rock was only reached
in December of that year, the blacks were at Jamestown in the early
spring. In every difficulty with the mother country, the colored men
took sides with the colonists, and on every battle-field, when danger
was to be met, they were found shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the
Republicans, sharing the burden of war. At Lexington, where the farmers
hastily seized their muskets and gathered on the plain, and at the
bridge, to resist with the sacrifice of their lives the approach of the
British forces, Prince Estabrook, "Negro man" as the Salem Gazette of
that day called him, rallied with his neighbors and comrades in arms,
and fell on the field, a wounded man, fighting the foe. He, like
Attucks, was both of and with the people. Their cause was his cause,
their home was his home, their fight was his fight. At Bunker Hill, a
few months later, we know there was a goodly number of colored men;
history has saved to us the names of some of them; how many there were
whose names were not recorded, of course, we cannot now tell. Andover
sent Tites Coburn, Alexander Ames, and Barzilai Low; Plymouth sent Cato
Howe, and Peter Salem immortalized his name by leveling the piece in
that battle which laid low Major Pitcairn. It is fair to presume that
other towns, like Andover, sent in the ranks of their volunteers colored
Americans. In the town of Raynham, within forty miles of Boston, there
is now a settlement of colored people who have been there for three or
four generations, the founder of which, Toby Gilmore, was an old
Revolutionary veteran who had served his country faithfully. Stoughton
Corner contributed Quack Matrick to the ranks of the Revolutionary
soldiers; Lancaster sent Job Lewis, East Bridgewater Prince Richards. So
did many other towns and States in this Commonwealth. Rhode Island
raised a regiment which did signal service at Red Bank in completely
routing the Hessian force under Colonel Donop, but it was not in
distinctively colored regiments or companies that colored men chiefly
fought in the Revolution; it was in the ranks of any and all regiments,
and by the side of their white companions in arms they were mainly to be
found.

Attucks was born not a great way from Boston, at Farmingham, where his
brothers and sisters lived for a long time. At some time during his life
he was a slave; whether he was a slave at the time of the occurrence of
the events I am now relating is not so clear. One of the witnesses at
the trial of the soldiers testified that Attucks "belonged to New
Providence, and was here on his way to North Carolina." I am inclined to
think that at this time, in 1770, he was in the possession of his
liberty, having got it in the same manner that very many slaves since
obtained their freedom, by giving "leg-bail." Nearly twenty years before
he had run away from his master, as appears from an advertisement in the
Boston Gazette of November 20, 1750. From this advertisement it would
appear that at the time of the engagement in King Street, Attucks was
about 47 years of age, a powerful man, and an ugly foe to encounter.
Twenty years of freedom, and moving from one part of the country to the
other as far away as North Carolina, must have enlarged his views and
given him the spirit of a free man. That he partook of the spirit which
animated those of his countrymen who would throw off the British yoke is
shown by the language used by him on this memorable occasion. "Let us
drive out the rebels; they have no business here!" said he, and they
re-echoed them. These words are full of meaning; they tell the story of
the Revolution.

One hundred and six years have passed away. King Street and Royal
Exchange Lane have lost their names. Cornhill has lost its identity. The
King's collectors no longer gather at the Custom-House, and epauletted
British officers no longer lounge away winter evenings in the
reading-room of Concert Hall; that once stately pile is no more. One
hundred and six years ago, George the Third was king, and these colonies
were British dependencies. Since that time marvelous changes have been
made in the world's history. Probably never before have so many and so
great changes taken place in the same space of time. Slavery then
existed in Massachusetts, as it did in the other colonies. It grew to
huge proportions, and dominated all other interests in the land, and for
years brought shame and disgrace upon us.

But our country now stands redeemed, disenthralled. The promises of 1776
are now realized. The immortal heroes of that age did not die in vain.
We have now, thanks to the Author of All Good, a free country, a
Republic of imperial proportions, a domain as extensive and a government
as powerful as that of the nations of antiquity, or of the present time,
and better than all over all this broad land there does not walk a
slave. In this centennial anniversary of the nation's existence it is
quite in order to suggest, and I do suggest that a monument be erected
to the memory of the first martyr of the Revolution--Crispus Attucks.





Next: Oration On The Occasion Of The Unveiling Of Freedmen's Monument

Previous: A Memorial Discourse



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