Newton Prince and the Struggle for Liberty


December 2, 2014
by J. L. Bell Also by this Author


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On the 5th of March, 1770, Newton Prince heard Boston’s church bells start to ring. He ran to the door of his house and heard “the cry of fire.” Putting on his shoes, Prince went out to help fight the blaze, as town inhabitants were supposed to do. On the streets he asked other men where the fire was. According to his later testimony, “they said it was something better than fire.”[1]

As he pressed on to the center of Boston, Newton Prince moved into the struggle for liberty in British North America. But his experience of liberty differed from most of his neighbors’. Newton Prince was a black man, born in 1733. When he married in 1761, town records listed him as a “negro servant”—i.e., slave—of John Gould, Jr. By March 1767, when he married his second wife, Phillis Binn, Prince was a free man and a member of Boston’s Old South Meeting.[2]

According to the merchant Gilbert Deblois, the Princes “Supported themselves…with Reputation in the Pastrycook branch by attending & Cooking at most of the Public Entertainments &c.” Prince himself wrote that he “supported himself & family in a decent & comfortable way” for years.[3] He might have catered dances and concerts at the building on Hanover Street called Concert-Hall, which the Deblois family owned in the 1760s.

In March 1770, Boston had been occupied by British army regiments for almost a year and a half. As soon as those soldiers arrived, there had been friction between them and locals: over using public buildings for barracks, over whether town watchmen could give orders to army officers, over the use of the streets. In those months Concert-Hall stayed busy with musical performances, but even those were political fodder: local Whigs happily reported about a concert on 25 January 1769 that some “noisy and clamorous” officers had “turned topsy turvy.”[4]

Turmoil waxed and waned, but as that winter ended Boston was roiled by several conflicts. The town’s Whigs were promoting a boycott of goods from Britain to protest the Townshend duties, and putting harsh pressure on the small number of shopkeepers still selling imports. A demonstration outside one storefront on 22 February had ended with a Customs employee fatally shooting a young boy. In early March an insult that one ropemaker threw at one soldier had grown into days of running brawls.[5]

In that atmosphere, word that the army sentry guarding the Customs house had clubbed a barber’s apprentice with his musket was incendiary. The apprentice’s friends spread the news and rang the bells of a nearby church to summon more people. Some of the men who arrived had already been fighting soldiers outside their barracks.

As Newton Prince headed to the center of town, he met some people carrying fire-fighting equipment and others with “clubs” and “sticks in their hands.” He reached the Town House, seat of the provincial legislature. An angry crowd surrounded Pvt. Hugh White, the sentry in front of the Customs office a block away down King Street. As Prince watched, Cpl. William Wemms led a squad of six grenadiers from the 29th Regiment from the main guardhouse through the crowd “with their guns and bayonets fixed.”

Prince was standing at the west door of the Town House. He listened to the people around him argue about attacking the main guard. “For God’s sake, do not meddle with them,” said some. “By God we will go,” said others.[6] In the end, nobody made a move in that direction. Instead, it appears, those men “huzzaed and went down King-street” toward the Customs office. More people joined the crowd from other directions, and Prince followed them.

He recalled, “The soldiers were all placed round in a circle with their guns breast high. I stood on the right wing.” Capt. Thomas Preston, officer of the day, joined the soldiers from the main guard. Prince recalled that locals thronged around the captain to speak to him, and he moved with those men “next to the Custom-housedoor.”

By this point men were crowded only “three or four feet” from the soldiers’ bayonets. Some were shouting, “Fire, damn you, fire!” “Fire, you lobsters!” “You dare not fire!” Prince stated:

I saw people with sticks striking on their guns at the right wing. I apprehended danger and that the guns might go off accidentally. I went to get to the upper end towards the Town house, I had not got to the center of the party, before the guns went off; as they went off I run, and did not stop till I got to the upper end of the Town-house.

Three men lay dead in the street. Two more had been fatally wounded, and six more suffered lesser wounds. Prince said he “saw the bodies carried away.”

Whigs named that event the Boston Massacre. Prince was called to testify at two of the trials that followed, of Capt. Thomas Preston and of the enlisted men. In both cases, he was a defense witness. His testimony was not entirely damning for the townspeople—he said, for example, that he had not seen anything thrown at the soldiers “but snow balls, flung by some youngsters.” But, in contrast to some prosecution witnesses, he described the crowd as aggressive.

Suffolk County juries acquitted Capt. Preston and all but two of the soldiers. Pvts. Edward Montgomery and Mathew Kilroy were convicted of manslaughter, a crime punished at the first offense by branding instead of hanging. Locals continued to argue the justice of those verdicts.

Newton Prince reappears in the record of Boston politics in the spring of 1773 when the Massachusetts legislature debated a petition from four men. Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, Felix Holbrook, and Chester Joie identified themselves as slaves and asked for their liberty in the same spirit that the province was demanding its political liberties from the Crown.

That petition was not a spontaneous plea. It was an organized campaign by the town’s African-Americans, supported by some anti-slavery whites. The four men’s letter, dated “Boston, April 20th, 1773,” was printed for distribution to the legislators, with an address line printed on the front: “For the Representative of the town of [blank]”.[7]

The four slaves had neither liberty nor legal standing, but Newton Prince spoke for them. Years later Samuel Dexter, then a member of the Council or upper house of the legislature, recalled how he had received the petition:

I was called out of the Council Chamber, and very politely presented with the pamphlet by Newton, who, after making his best bow, said that the negroes had been informed that I was against the slave-trade, and was their friend. He had several more to give to particular members of the House of Representatives. Upon my returning into the chamber, I boasted, as I have since, that I was distinguished from all the other members of council by this mark of respect.

Dexter wrote on his copy of the pamphlet that “it was given to me by Mr. Newton Prince, lemon merchant, in the name and at the desire of a number of negroes.”[8] Prince was thus acting as what we would now call a civil-rights lobbyist.

According to their letter, after becoming free those four men planned

to leave the province, which we determine to do as soon as we can, from our joynt labours procure money to transport ourselves to some part of the Coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement.

This was a presage of American abolitionism’s colonization movement as blacks sought any route to liberty that the dominant society would allow.[9]

That year the Massachusetts legislature voted to bar people from importing new slaves from Africa, but it did nothing to end slavery within the province. And then the royal governor vetoed that law anyway. It took another ten years and a war before Massachusetts’s highest court ruled that the new constitution of 1780 had made slavery unenforceable within the state.[10]

According to Prince, his testimony in the Massacre trials had already made him unpopular with Bostonians who were “not attach’d to Government”—i.e., supporters of the Crown. Some neighbors “deserted him” while others even “Enter’d into associations, to utterly destroy him, by Tarring & Feathering him.” There is no evidence those men ever succeeded in carrying out that plan, but the threat drove Prince closer to the friends of the royal government.[11]

When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Newton and Phillis Prince stayed inside Boston. In March 1776, they joined the evacuation of Loyalists to Halifax, leaving behind their shop, goods, and debts they would never be able to collect. In Nova Scotia the Princes supported themselves by working for Gilbert Deblois, probably as cooks or other house servants.

Later Newton and Phillis Prince sailed to London, capital of the British Empire. By the early 1780s, he was running a coal and chandler’s shop there. The word “chandler” can mean either “candlemaker” or “retailer of provisions and supplies,” usually for ships, and Prince was probably the latter.

In 1781 Prince applied to the British government to reward him as a Loyalist. Gilbert Deblois and the Massachusetts-born baronet Sir William Pepperell wrote to support his claim. In 1783 Prince petitioned again, saying that his wife was in poor health.[12]

Recognizing his adherence to the Crown, the Loyalists Commission granted Newton Prince an annual government pension of £10. That was not a large amount, as those grants went, but it was a steady supplemental income for a working man. Newton Prince thus found his liberty in the heart of the British Empire, collecting his pension until he died in 1819.[13]

/// Featured image at top: The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt. Source: Library of Congress


[1] Newton Prince’s descriptions of what he saw on 5 March 1770 are collected in Legal Papers of John Adams, L. Kinvin Roth and Hiller B. Zobel, editors (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 3:77, 201.

[2] Boston Town Records, 30:39, 327. Prince’s first wife was Martha Barnaby, a free black woman. Prince’s master Gould died before 1765; Colonial Society of Massachusetts Publications, 20:14-5. To the British government Prince identified himself as “a native of Boston in America.” In 1770 Robert Treat Paine wrote in his trial notes that Prince came “from [blank] in the WI,” interpreted as the West Indies; Legal Papers of John Adams, 3:77. Prince might actually have said he came from Boston’s West End since his route to the center of town went past “the Chapple,” most likely King’s Chapel.

[3] Deblois’s 10 March 1781 letter to the Loyalists Commission and Prince’s undated petition from about the same time are in the Newton Prince file, Audit Office 13/75, 282-7, National Archives, Great Britain.

[4] O.M. Dickerson, compiler, Boston Under Military Rule, 1768-1769 (Boston: Chapman & Grimes, 1936), 55.

[5] The most thorough treatment of this period appears in Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970).

[6] Words quoted from Prince’s testimony with modern punctuation for clarity.

[7] The New York Historical Society owns a copy of the leaflet marked for a representative from Thompson, Massachusetts. This petition followed one signed by Felix [Holbrook?] alone.

[8] Samuel Dexter to the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, 26 February 1795, Weston, quoted in Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 5th Series, 3:387. Note that Dexter referred to Prince in his letter by his first name—not out of closeness but reflecting how Massachusetts society still did not treat the former slave in the same way as a white man.

[9] Petition quoted in Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990), 174. Peter Bestes appeared (as Peter Bess) as one of seven men signing a 1777 anti-slavery petition and (as Peter Best) as a founding member of Boston’s African Lodge of Freemasons.

[10] For a précis of that historical change, see: .

[11] In Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (London: BBC Books, 2005), Simon Schama wrote that Prince “was tarred and feathered by infuriated Patriots,” but neither Prince nor the witnesses supporting his requests for support described such an attack, and there is no contemporaneous report of one. Tarring and feathering in a crowded town was meant to be a public humiliation, widely viewed.

[12] The file does not state Mrs. Prince’s given name, but Deblois’s mention of the couple as having supported themselves for years in Boston suggests this was Phillis.

[13] Gregory Palmer, Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution (Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1984), 704. E. Alfred Jones, The Loyalists of Massachusetts: Their Memorials, Petitions, and Claims (London: Saint Catherine Press, 1930), 239.


  • Newton Prince’s pension of 10 pounds per year doesn’t sound like much, but at roughly 6.5 pence per day it was a bit more than the 5 pence per day that was the standard pension for British soldiers who had served for at least twenty years or who had been disabled in the army. It was just a subsistence level income, to be sure, but in an era most working men in their twilight years received no pension or benefits at all, it was a relatively generous award.

    1. True, Don, but most of the people applying for money from the Loyalists Commission had been substantial property owners in America and claimed large losses. The commission usually seems to have granted lump sums much larger than £10 rather than pensions like this. I suspect the bureaucrats didn’t expect Newton Prince to live so long.

  • Great article, John. It is important to write about the experiences of ordinary African Americans in the American Revolution, as there is so little written material about them. Interesting that Newton got in trouble for his apparently honest testimony about the aggressiveness of the Boston Massacre crowd. I believe at this time that in most colonies or states, a slave would not have been permitted to testify. I am not sure about freemen.

  • Thanks, Christian. On the same afternoon that Newton Prince testified, an enslaved black man named Andrew was called to the stand. He also described the violence leading up to the shooting. Then the next witness was his owner, Oliver Wendell, who vouched for his truthfulness. So that seems to have been the only restriction about slave testimony—it should come with an endorsement from the slave’s master.

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