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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

The Trial of the Boston Massacre

On March 5th, 1770 a confrontation occurred when a mob formed around a British sentry. Eight more soldiers joined him as the crowd became increasingly threatening. One soldier had fired his musket after being struck by a rock-filled snowball which had caused a series of shots from the others to follow. Colonists in the crowd lay dead while others were mortally wounded.

Captain Thomas Preston, William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, soldiers in the English 29th regiment of foot, were accused of murdering Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr.

During this time John Adams was a lawyer and leading patriot who contemplated the idea of running for public office. He had his own independent views on the politics of the colonies. Despite his own views, Adams accepted the offer to defend these soldiers after several lawyers refused to accept the case. He wanted to help these soldiers because he wanted to ensure a fair trial. Massachusetts Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and private attorney Robert Treat Paine were hired to handle the prosecution.

The trial of the eight soldiers opened on November 27, 1770. The prosecutors built their case upon the soldiers' hatred of the townspeople. They characterized the soldiers as brawling fighters and agitators little better than criminals. They fueled the people's hate for the British empire and how this was just another example of tyranny. They fueled the people's passions.

John Adams fully understood why the colonists were angry but he wanted to fulfill his duty to the law. He was devoted to the right to counsel and the presumption of innocence in common law. Adams wanted the people to check their passions with reason so it wouldn’t consume them. He asked the jury to look beyond the fact that the soldiers were British and see them as their common man. To judge these men as individuals and not a part of a hated collective group. John Adams wanted the jury to not fear these men but to fear the mob that had provoked what he called a justified response from the soldiers.

“Why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can't conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them. The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers."

Adams painted the mob as a terrifying force and said they had attacked the soldiers. He stated that the soldiers were hit by clubs, stones, and snowballs filled with rocks He argued that these men who were assaulted should have the right to defend themselves. He wanted the jury to consider themselves in the same situation and to think what they would do if they were fearing for their lives. Adams even placed himself on their side and agreed with their anger but it didn’t matter because that didn’t change the evidence provided. John Adams stated...

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they can not alter the state of facts and evidence.".

John Adams was successful in the defense of these British soldiers despite his own views on colonial independence. Six of the soldiers were fully acquitted while the other two were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to a branding on the hand. It was a pretty light sentence thanks to Adams because he found a technical loophole where guilty soldiers were seen as the clergy and the only definition of "clergyman" was an ability to read from the Bible. Years later Adams wrote...

"The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies."

This trial which was seen as unwinnable set a precedent for future generations of American lawyers. It was clear that Adams took his commitment to justice and having a fair trial very seriously. Even though we want something to be true and we are passionate about it, it doesn’t change the facts and what the truth is. We should stand by the truth even if it’s unpopular. It’s like John Adams said, "Always stand on principle even if you stand alone."

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