“Naturally Impelled to Acts of Treachery” – Dr. Benjamin Church’s 1773 Boston Massacre Oration in Full Text

Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

in about Warren

An ORATION; delivered March 5th, 1773, at the Request of the INHABITANTS of the TOWN of BOSTON; to Commemorate the bloody TRAGEDY of the FIFTH of March, 1770. By Dr. BENJAMIN CHURCH.

Impius haec culta novalia miles habebit?

Barbarus has segetes? En quo Discordia cives

Perduxit miseros? En queis consevimus agros?    Virgil.  Ecl. I.


O passi graviora, dabit Deus his quoque finem:

—revocate animos, maestumque timorem

Mittite, forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.    Virgil. Aene. I.

(THE THIRD EDITION, Corrected by the Author.)

Boston: Printed by EDES and GILL, in Queen-Street.  M,DCC,LXXIII.

At a meeting f the Freeholders and other Inhabitants f the Town f Boston. duly assembled at Faneuil-Hall, and held by Adjournment at the Old-South Meeting-House, on Friday the fifth of March, Ann Domini, 1773.

Upon a Motion made, Voted Unanimously, That the Thanks of the Town be and hereby are given to Dr. BENJAMIN CHURCH for the elegant and learned Oration delivered by him at their Request in Commemoration f the horrid Massacre perpetrated on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770, by a Party of Soldiers of the XXIX the Regiment, under the Command of Capt. Thomas Preston, and that

The Hon. John Hancock, Esq; Hon. James Otis, Esq; Mr. Samuel Adams, John Scollay, Esq; Dr. Joseph Warren, Mr. William Dennie, Cl. Thomas Marshall,

Be a Committee to wait upon Dr. BENJAMIN CHURCH, and to desire a Copy of the Oration for the Press.   Attest, William Cooper, Town Clerk.


The approbation of my fellow-citizens, which I have been so undeservedly distinguished, influences me without any reluctance, to submit this Oration to the public inspection, in confidence that the exemplary generosity and candour of this sensible metropolis will so far prevail as to shield this hasty production from the severity of criticism.

I am, Gentlemen, with due Respect, Your most obedient, humble Servant, BENJAMIN CHURCH, Junior

March 9th, 1773.


From a consciousness of inability, MY FRIENDS AND FELLOW COUNTRYMEN, I have repeatedly declined the duties of this ANNIVERSARY. Nothing but a firm attachment t the tottering liberties of America,[1] added to the irresistible importunity of some valued friends; could have induced me (especially with a very short notice) so far to mistake my abilities, as to render the utmost Extent of your candor truly indispensible.

When man was unconnected by social obligations; abhorrent to every idea of dependence; actuated by a savage ferocity of mind, displayed in the brutality of his manners; the necessary exigencies of each individual naturally impelled him, to acts of treachery, violence and murder.

The miseries of mankind thus proclaiming eternal war with their species, led them probably to consult certain measures to arrest the current of such outrageous enormities.

A sense of their wants and weakness in a state of nature, doubtless inclined them to such reciprocal aids and support, as eventually established society.

Men began to incorporate; subordination succeeded to independence: order to anarchy; and passions were disarmed by civilization:  Society lent its aid to secure the weak from oppression, who wisely took shelter within the sanctuary of law.

Encreasing society afterwards exacted, the tacit contract made with her by each individual at the time of his being incorporated, should receive a more solemn form to become authentic and irrefragable; the maim object being to add force to the laws, proportionate to the power and extent of the body corporate, whose energy they were to direct.

Then society availed herself of the sacrifice of that liberty and that natural equality of which we are all conscious: superiors and magistrates were appointed, and mankind submitted to a civil and political subordination.  This is truly a glorious inspiration of reason, by whose influence, notwithstanding the inclinations we have for independence, we must accept controul, for the establishment of order.

Although, unrestrained power in one person may have been the first and most natural recourse of mankind from rapine and disorder; yet all restrictions of power, made by laws, of participation of sovereignty, are apparent improvements upon what began in unlimited power.

It would shock humanity, should I attempt to describe those barbarous and tragic scenes, which crimson the historic page of this wretched and detestable constitution, where absolute dominion is lodged in one person:  Where one makes the whole, and the whole is nothing.  What motives, what events, could have been able to subdue men, endowed with reason, to render themselves the mute instruments and passive objects of the caprice of an individual!

Mankind apprized of their privileges, in being rational and free; in prescribing civil laws to themselves, had surely no intention of being enchained by any of their equals; and although they submitted voluntary adherents t certain laws for the sake of mutual security and happiness; they no doubt intended by the original compact, a permanent exemption of the subject body, from any claims, which were not expressly surrendered, for the purpose of obtaining the security and defense of the whole:  Can it possibly be conceived that they would voluntarily be enslaved, by a power of their own creation?

The constitution of a magistrate, does not therefore take away the lawful defence against force and injury, allowed by the law of nature; we are not to obey a Prince, ruling above the limits of the power entrusted to him; for the Common-wealth by constituting a head does not deprive itself of the power of its own preservation. Government or Magistracy whether supreme or subordinate is a mere human ordinance, and the laws of every nation are the measure of magistratical power; and Kings, the servants of the state, when they degenerate into tyrants, forfeit their right to government.

A Breach of trust in a governor,[2] or attempting to enlarge a limited power; effectually absolves subjects from every bond of covenant and peace; the crimes acted by a King against the people, are the highest treason against the highest law among men.[3]

“If the King (says Grotius) hath one part of the supreme power, and the other part is in the senate of the people, when such a King shall invade that part which doth not belong to him, it shall be lawful to oppose a just force to him, because his power doth not extend so far.”

The question in short turns upon a single point, respecting the power of the civil magistrate:  Is it the end of that office, that one particular person may do what he will without restraint? Or rather that society should be made happy and secure? The answer is very obvious – And it is my firm opinion that the equal Justice of God, and the natural freedom of mankind, must stand or fall together.

When rulers become tyrants, they cease to be Kings; they can no longer be respected as God’s vicegerents, who violate the laws they were sworn to protect: The preacher may tell us of passive obedience, that tyrants are scourges in the hands of a righteous God to chastise a sinful nation, and are to be submitted to like plagues, famine and such like judgments: such doctrine may serve to mislead ill-judging Princes into a false security; but men are not to be harranged out of their senses; human nature and self-preservation will eternally arm the brave and vigilant, against slavery and oppression.

As a despotic government[4] is evidently productive of the most shocking calamities, whatever tends to restrain such inordinate power, though in itself a severe evil, is extremely beneficial to society; for who can shudder at the reluctant poniard of Brutus, the crimsoned ax of a Cromwell, or the recking dagger of Ravilliac?

To enjoy life as becomes rational creatures, to possess our souls with pleasure and satisfaction, we must be careful to maintain that inestimable blessing, LIBERTY.  By liberty I would be understood, the happiness of living under laws of our own making, by our personal consent, or that of our representatives.[5]

Without this, the distinctions among mankind are but different degrees of misery; for as the true estimate of a man’s life consists in conducting it according to his own just sentiments and innocent inclinations, his being is degraded below that of a free agent, which heaven has made him, when his affections and passions are no longer governed by the dictates of his own mind, and the interests of human society, but by the arbitrary, unrestrained will of another.

I thank God we live in an age of rational inquisition, when the unfettered mind dares to expatiate freely on every object worthy its attention, when the privileges of mankind are thoroughly comprehended, and the rights of distinct societies are objects of liberal enquiry.  The rod of the tyrant no longer excites our apprehensions, and to the frown of the despot which made the darker ages tremble,[6] we dare oppose demands of right, and appeal to that constitution, which holds even Kings in fetters.

It is easy to project the subversion of a people, when men behold them the ignorant or indolent victims of power; but it is difficult to effect their ruin, when they are apprized of their just claims, and are sensibly and seasonably affected with thoughts for their preservation.  God be thanked, the alarm is gone forth,[7] the people are universally informed of their CHARTER RIGHTS; they esteem them to be the ark of God to NEW-ENGLAND, and like that of old, may it deal destruction to the profane hand, that dare touch it.

In every state or society of men, personal liberty and security must depend upon the collective power of the whole, acting for the general interest.[8]  If this collective power is not of the whole, the freedom and interest of the whole is not secured:  If this constituent power acts by a partial delegation, or for the partial interest, it’s operation is surely determinable, where it’s delegation ends.

The constitution of England, I revere to a degree of idolatry; but my attachment is to the common weal:  The magistrate will ever command my respect, by the integrity and wisdom of his administrations.

JUNIUS well observes; when the constitution is openly invaded, when the first original right of the people from which all laws derive their authority is directly attacked; inferior grievances naturally lose their force, and are suffered to pass without punishment or observation.

Numberless have been the attacks made upon our free constitution, numberless the grievances we now resent:  But the Hydra mischief, is the violation of my right, as a BRITISH American freeholder; in not being consulted in framing those statutes I am required to obey.

The authority of the BRITISH monarch over this colony was established, and his power derived from the province [C]HARTER; by that we are entitled to a distinct legislation.  As in every government there must exist a power superior to the laws, viz. the power that makes those laws, and from which they derive their authority:[9]; therefore the liberty of the people is exactly proportioned to the share the body of the people have in the legislature; and the check placed in the constitution on the executive power. That state only is free, where the people are governed by laws which they have a share in making; and that country is totally enslaved where one single law can be made or repealed without the interposition or consent of the people.

That the members of the British Parliament are the representatives of the whole British Empire, expressly militates with their avowed principles:  Property and residence within the Island, alone constituting the right of election; and surely he is not my delegate in whose nomination or appointment I have no choice:  But however the futile and absurd claim of a virtual representation, may comport with the idea of a political visionary; he must (if possible) heighten the indignation, or excite the ridicule of a free born American, who by such a fallacious pretext would despoil him of his property.

An American freeholder according to the just and judicious conduct of the present ministry, has no possible right to be consulted, in the disposal of his property:  When a lordly, though unlettered British Elector, possessed of a turnip garden; with great propriety may appoint a legislator, to assess the ample domains of the most sensible, opulent American planter.

But remember my Brethren!  When a people have once sold their liberties, it is no act of extraordinary generosity, to throw their lives and properties into the bargain, for they are poor indeed when enjoyed at the mercy of a master.

The late conduct of Great Britain so inconsistent with the practice of former times, so subversive of the first principles of government, is sufficient to excite the discontent of the subject:  The Americans justly and decently urged, an exclusive right of taxing themselves; was it indulgent conciliating or parental conduct in that state, to exaggerate such a claim, as a concerted plan of rebellion in the wanton Americans?  And by a rigorous and cruel exercise of power to enforce submission, excite such animosities, as at some future period may produce a bitter repentance.

Can such be called a legal tax or free gift?  It is rather levying contributions on grudging enslaved Americans by virtue of an act framed and enforced not only without, but against their consent; thereby rendering the provincial assemblies a useless part of the constitution.

Where laws are framed and assessments laid without a legal representation, and obedience to such acts urged by force, the despairing people robbed of every constitutional means of redress, and that people, brave and virtuous, must become the admiration of ages, should they not appeal to those powers, which the immutable laws of nature have lent to all mankind. Fear is a slender tye of subjection, we detest those whom we fear, and wish the destruction to those we detest; but humanity, uprightness and good faith, with an apparent watchfulness for the welfare of the people, constitute the permanency, and are the firmest support of the sovereign’s authority; for when violence is opposed to reason and justice, courage never wants an arm for its defence.

What dignity, what respect, what authority, can Britain derive from her obstinate adherence to error?  She stands convicted of violating her own principles, but perseveres with unrelenting severity; we implore for rights as a grace, she aggravates our distress, by lopping away another and another darling privilege; we ask for freedom and she sends the sword!

To the wisdom, to the justice, to the piety of his most sacred Majesty, I unite in my appeal with this unbounded Empire; God grant he may attend to the reiterated prayer, instead of the murmurs of discontent, and the frowns of louring disaffection, we would universally hail him with these effusions of genuine joy, and dutious veneration, which the proudest despot will vainly look for, from forced respect or ceremonial homage.

Parties and factions since the days of the detested Andross, have been strangers to this land; no distinctions of heart felt animosity disturbed the peace and order of the society till the malignant folly of a[10] late rancorous commander in chief conjured them from the dead:  When shall this unhappy clime be purged of its numerous plagues?  When will our troubles, our feuds, our struggles cease?  When will the locusts leave the land?  Then, and not till then, peace and plenty shall smile around us; the husband-man will labour with pleasure; and honest industry reap the reward of it’s toil.

But let us not forget the distressing occasion of this anniversary: The sullen ghosts of murdered fellow-citizens, haunt my imagination “and harrow up my soul,”[11]methinks the tainted air is hung with the dews of death, while Ate’ hot from hell, cries havock, and lets slip the dogs of war.[12] Hark! the wan tenants of the grave still shriek for vengeance on their remorseless butchers: Forgive us heaven! Should we mingle involuntary execrations, while hovering in idea over the guiltless dead.  Where is the amiable, the graceful Maverick? The opening blossom is now withered in his cheek, the sprightly fire that once lightened in his eye id quenched in death;[13] the savage hands of brutal ruffians, have crushed the unsuspecting victim, and in an evil hour snatched away his gentle soul.

Where is the friendly, the industrious Caldwell? He paced innoxious through the theatre of death, inconscious of design or danger; when the winged fate gored his bosom, and stript his startled soul to the world of spirits.  Where are the residue of active citizens that were wont to tread these sacred floors?  Fallen by the hands of the vindictive assassins, they swell the horrors of the sanguinary scene.  Loyalty stands on tiptoe at the shocking recollection, while justice, virtue, honor, patriotism become supplicants for immoderate vengeance:  The whole soul clamors for arms, and is on fire to attack the brutal banditti; we fly agonizing to the horrid aceldama, we gaze on the mangled corpses of our brethren and grinning furies, gloating over their carnage, the hostile attitude of the miscreant murderers, redoubles our resentment, and makes revenge a virtue.

By heaven they die!  Thus nature spoke, and the swoln heart leap’d to execute the dreadful purpose; dire was the interval of rage, fierce was the conflict of the soul.  In that important hour, did not the stalking ghosts of our stern fore-fathers, point us to bloody deeds of vengeance?  did not the consideration of our expiring LIBERTIES, impel us to remorseless havock?  But hark! The guardian God of New England issues his awful mandate.  “PEACE, BE STILL,” hush’d was the bursting war, the louring tempest frowned it’s rage away.  Confidence in that God, beneath whose wing we shelter all our cares, that blessed confidence released the dastard, the cowering prey.  With haughty scorn we refused to become their executioners, and nobly gave them to the wrath of heaven:  But words can poorly paint the horrid scene—-[14]. Defenceless, prostrate, bleeding countrymen — the piercing, agonizing groans — the mingled moan of weeping relatives and friends: — these best can speak; to rouse the luke-warm into noble zeal, to fire the zealous into manly rage; against the foul oppression of quartering troops, in populous cities, in times of peace.

Thou who yon bloody walk shalt traverse, there

Where troops of Britain’s King, on Britain’s Sons,

Discharg’d the leaden vengeance; pass not on

E’er thou hast blest their memory, and paid

Those hallowed tears, which sooth the virtuous dead:

O stranger! Stay thee, and the scene around

Contemplate well, and if perchance thy home,

Salute thee with a father’s honor’d name,

Go call thy Sons — instruct them what a debt

They owe their ancestors, and make them swear

To pay it, by transmitting down entire

Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

[1] [Note: in the original footnotes appear on each page and are denoted by * and † symbols. They appear as numbered end notes in this transcription.]

Periclosæ plenum opus aleæ Tractus, incedis per ignes

Suppositos cineri doloso.    Horace.

[2]  Mrs. Macaulay.

[3] Saius populi suprema lex esto.

[4]  The ingratitude and corruption of Rome, is perhaps in no instance more strongly marked, than in her treatment of her colonies, by their labours, toil, and arms, she had reached to that summit of glorious exaltation as to be like Britain the wonder and dread of the world; but by fatal experience those ruined colonies inculcate this serious lesson, the ambition of a despot is boundless, his rapine is insatiable, the accomplishment of his conquests over his enemies is but the introduction of slavery, with her concomitant plagues, to his friends.

[5]  The very idea of a representative, deputy or trustee includes that of a constituent, whose interest they are ordained and appointed to promote and secure; my unappointed self-constituted agent in the british parliament, has fraudulently and arbitrarily surrendered my best interest without my privity or consent; I do therefore hereby protest against all such powers as he shall claim in my behalf, and most solemnly discard him my service forever.  See Lock[e] civil government.            Risum teneatis amici!

[6]  Cæium, non animun mutant, qui trans mare currant.  The citizens of Rome, Sparta or Lacedemon, at the blessed periods when they were most eminent for their attachment to liberty and virtue, could never exhibit brighter examples of patriotic zeal than are to be found at this day in America, I will not p[resume to say that the original british spirit has improved by transplanting; but this I dare affirm, that should Britons stoop to oppression, the struggles of their American brethren will be their eternal reproach.

[7]  The instituting a Committee of grievances and correspondence, by the town of Boston, has served this valuable purpose:  The general infraction of the rights of all the colonies, must finally reduce the discordant provinces, to a necessary combination for their mutual interest and defense: Some future congress, will be the glorious source of the salvation of America: The Amphictiones of Greece, who formed the diet or great council of the states; exhibit an excellent model for the rising Americans.

[8]  Lord chief Justice Coke observes “when any new device is moved in the King’s behalf, for aid or the like; the commons may answer, they dare not agree without conference with their counties.”  The novel device of fleecing the colonies, was introduced in a way the constitution knows of, and crammed down their throats by measures equally iniquitous.

[9]  Nothing, continued the Corporal can be so sweet,

An’ please your honor, as liberty;

Nothing Trim – said my uncle Toby musing –

Whil’st a man is free – cried the Corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus.   Tristam Shandy.

[10]  The Nettleham Barronet [i.e. Governor Francis Bernard].

[11]  [Unnoted in the third edition, this words are from William Shakespeare’s’ Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5]

[12]  [Unnoted in the third edition, these words are adapted from the character Marc Anthony in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar]

[13]  — — — — –Hic ubi barbarous hostis,

Ut sera plus valeant legibus arma facit.   Ovid de Ponto.

[14]  ——————————–Multque rubentia cæde

Lubrica faxa madent, nulli sua prosuit ætas.  Lucan. Lib. 2.

Source: Benjamin Church An oration, delivered March fifth, 1773. At the request of the inhabitants of the town of Boston; to commemorate the bloody tragedy of the fifth of March, 1770.  Boston: printed and sold [by Joseph Greenleaf] at the new printing-office, in Hanover Street near Concert-Hall, MDCCLXXIII. [1773], four editions.  Contemporaneous printings: Boston: Edes and Gill in Queen-Street, MDCCLXXIII [1773], first, second, and third edition corrected by the author.

Commentary: John Adams was present for Benjamin Church’s speech and described the scene in his diary: “1773. MARCH 5TH. FRYDAY.  Heard an Oration, at Mr. Hunts Meeting House, by Dr. Benja. Church, in Commemoration of the Massacre in Kings Street, 3 Years ago. That large Church [Old South Meeting House] was filled and crouded in every Pew, Seat, Alley, and Gallery, by an Audience of several Thousands of People of all Ages and Characters and of both Sexes.”

Just the day before delivering his speech, Dr Church , as a member of a committee including Joseph Warren, had met with Governor Thomas Hutchinson as one of a number of exchanges following Hutchinson’s New Year’s harangue of the Patriots.

Church devoted most of his talk to an extended exposition of natural rights, the social contact, and representative government relative to taxation.  It is an erudite exposition of New England Whig thinking, replete with frequent quotations in Latin from classical authors, English literature, and more current political thinkers.  Dr. Church makes broad hints that a king who abuses the social contract should expect righteous rebellion and to be a target for assassination. Allusions to the Boston Massacre victims and resentment at “standing armies in a time of peace” are almost perfunctory in comparison to the political discourse.

In October 1775, following the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Church was convicted of unauthorized correspondence with the enemy, a charge just short of treason.  A private letter by Thomas Hutchinson indicates that Church may have been secretly favoring the Loyalists as early as 1772, months prior to this strident Whig public oration.

Recalling events over two decades later in 1798 for Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Paul Revere stated that Benjamin Church was suspected of secret interactions with the enemy for some time prior to his trial.  “He appeared to be a high son of Liberty. He frequented all the places where they met, Was incouraged by all the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, and it appeared he was respected by them, though I knew that Dr. Warren had not the greatest affection for him. He was esteemed a very capable writer, especially in verse; and as the Whig party needed every Strength, they feared, as well as courted Him. Though it was known, that some of the Liberty Songs, which We composed, were parodized by him, in favor of the British, yet none dare charge him with it. I was a constant and critical observer of him, and I must say, that I never thought Him a man of Principle; and I doubted much in my own mind, wether He was a real Whig.” Revere may have benefitted from hindsight. No documentation prior to Church’s arrest in the fall of 1775 indicates anything other than full confidence in Church’s fidelity by Patriot associates.

The above speculative picture of Benjamin Church, Jr. is from the late 19th century. No authentic likeness of him is known to have survived his disgrace and banishment.

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