In 1768, British troops arrived in Massachusetts to enforce the hated, tax-heavy Townshend Acts. Over the ensuing months, tensions between the colonists and their mother country’s soldiers boiled over, culminating in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The killing of five colonists following a squabble between British soldiers and Massachusetts colonists fostered a revolutionary sentiment within America that, along with a number of other milestones, ultimately led to war. However, one of the patriots so essential to the revolution, John Adams, chose to defend the British soldiers in court.
The Boston Massacre
On March 5, 1770, a group of about 50 colonists attacked a British sentinel, throwing snowballs, sticks and stones at the troops after a British private had "sent a local boy running off, bruised and crying, after an exchange of words," according to Stephen C. O’Neill of the Boston Massacre Historical Society. British Captain Thomas Preston called in reinforcements. They too were attacked. British soldiers then fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding six others. Within three weeks a Boston grand jury had indicted Preston, eight of his soldiers and four British civilians who had allegedly fired into the crowd from inside the Custom House for murder. If convicted, they faced execution.
For the Defense
The British soldiers, facing the prospect of the death penalty, had trouble finding defense counsel. No colonist, it seemed, wanted to take on this unpopular case, as doing so might affect his reputation and economic future. However, as British subjects, the soldiers had the right to competent defense lawyers, and the people of Boston wanted to demonstrate that they had a fair legal system. Ultimately, John Adams, a patriot who would go on to be America's first vice president and second president, agreed to lead the defense team.
Why Adams Took the Case
Adams’s exact motivations are not known. He clearly knew that taking on this case was dangerous. An angry mob could threaten his family, and should his reputation be tarnished, his ambitions and economic future would be endangered. On the other hand, Adams strongly believed that the men were entitled to a fair trial and thought that history might view him as a man who put principle above his personal beliefs. One historian, Hiller B. Zobel, has suggested that Adams agreed to defend the soldiers in exchange for a legislative seat. (Three months after the trial, he was Boston's first choice for the position.)
Many years later, Adams would recall his role in the trials in this way: “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.”
Results of the Trials
Preston’s trial took place between Oct. 24 and Oct. 30, 1770. Adams argued that Preston had not given the order to fire, and that Preston's soldiers were provoked by the crowd. The jury ultimately acquitted Preston on the basis of “reasonable doubt” -- notably, this was the first time a judge had ever used that term. The soldiers went on trial in November. Here, Adams argued that they acted in self-defense. The jury in that case acquitted six, but found two guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Finally, in December the four civilians went to trial, and all were acquitted.
Jeffrey Billman is both an experienced and accomplished journalist with national awards for everything from investigative reporting to religion reporting to humor and opinion columns. A student of government and politics, he holds a master's degree in public policy analysis.