One of the foundational beliefs of this country is that God has given every individual “certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” No government can rightfully deny these endowed privileges; in fact, the ultimate purpose of a government is to safe-guard these rights. It was this conviction that launched the American Revolution. The majority of American colonists saw themselves as Englishmen with all the attendant entitlements of liberty, but British leaders viewed them as second-class citizens, subjects lacking full protection of these privileges. One of the patriots outraged by this view was a lawyer from Massachusetts. He claimed that British law entitled all the King’s subjects to fair treatment. He was willing to put his life and reputation on the line to defend his beliefs. The greatest test came in 1770 when he was pitted against many of his friends and neighbors in a fight to ensure equal access to and justice under the law. His name was John Adams. This is the story of how he chose to defend the British soldiers who killed five colonists in the Boston Massacre.
John Adams’s early life was a testament to the ideal that America was the land of opportunity. He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, in October 1735 to a farmer and part-time deacon. He took pride in the fact that he came from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers,” and he claimed he was as good as any wealthy merchant’s son in nearby Boston. He spent his early years working on the family farm but showed an aptitude for learning as well. He was educated at local schools where he gained an appreciation for the Roman orator Cicero and other literary works. From that time on, he always carried books on his journeys. At age fifteen he passed the entrance exam for Harvard College and left home for Cambridge. He proved adept at mathematics and science, but it was in the debate club that he found his true calling. He enthusiastically discussed the day’s issues with his classmates and ultimately decided to pursue a career as a lawyer. He graduated in 1755 and moved to Worcester, Massachusetts where he spent the next two years studying under attorney James Putnam and attending sessions at the local courthouse. When his studies were completed, he returned to Braintree and, after passing the bar, established a law office there. Despite losing his first case, his reputation rose as he rode around the country on behalf of clients and travelled to Boston at least once a week to argue cases there. During these trips, he paid close attention to attorney James Otis, who soon led Adams and other Bostonians on the road to revolution.
By the dawn of the 1760s, John and his fellow Americans had come to see themselves as equal to any native Englishman. They had forged a new civilization out of a wilderness and had proudly turned that wilderness into the jewel of the British crown. They had fought and died for Britain in the French and Indian War and believed they had proven their worth. As the war ended, however, British leaders tightened their control rather than loosening it. They issued writs of assistance, or search warrants, allowing customs officials to search any building they wanted for smuggled goods, even private homes. In 1761, Adams and others rallied behind James Otis as he attacked these writs and declared them to be violations of an Englishman’s natural rights. Four years later, in 1765, Adams followed his idol’s example when he learned British authorities had passed the Stamp Act in an attempt to directly levy taxes on the colonists. Denouncing the legislation, he argued that “British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments…that many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims and established as preliminaries, even before Parliament existed.” He united with Otis and his cousin Sam Adams, who John described as “zealous and keen in the cause,” to persuade Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. Parliament acceded in spring 1766, but it was not long before tempers were once again inflamed with deadly consequences.
Despite acquiescing to colonial demands, British authorities still refused to see the colonists as equal citizens. At the same time it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act stipulating that it could legislate for the colonies “in all matters whatsoever.” Its members proved that determination a year later in June 1767 when they passed the Townsend Acts, a series of taxes on paper, tea, paint and glass, to the shock of the colonists. Informed of the Bostonians’ increasingly hostile opposition, Parliament attempted to crush the protests by dispatching a large body of troops to the city in October 1768. For the next year and a half, Adams watched his cousin Sam encourage the townsmen to openly defy the soldiers, sometimes even spitting on them and calling them “Bloody-backs” and “Lobsters,” in reference to their bright red uniforms. He watched fights break out in the city’s taverns and feared it would only get worse. He was right. On the cold, snowy night of March 5, 1770 a British soldier stood guard at the Customs House, the clearinghouse for the taxation effort, when a group of men and boys approached and began taunting him. The soldier insisted they move on, but the crowd refused. Suddenly the sound of church bells, the signal for fire, rang through the night. Within a matter of moments, dozens of people, most of them men from the ship docks, joined the crowd surrounding the lone soldier. The sentry cried out for reinforcements, and immediately eight soldiers armed with loaded muskets appeared at his side. The soldiers’ commander, Captain Thomas Preston, stood in front and pointed his sword toward the crowd. He ordered everyone to go home, but the crowd continued to shout insults and throw snowballs and stones. Then, perhaps in reaction to being knocked down, one soldier fired; the entire line followed suit. When the smoke cleared, five Bostonians lay dead.
John and his fellow patriots were stunned and incensed by the “massacre,” as his cousin Sam called it. The bloody incident was immortalized as the “Boston Massacre” through an engraving sketched by famed silversmith Paul Revere that portrayed British soldiers firing into a crowd of unarmed citizens. John shared the sentiments of both Sam and Revere and detested the presence of the soldiers as much as they did, but he sought a different way to combat the enemy. Just the year before he had defended four American sailors after they killed a British naval officer who tried to force them into the Royal Navy, and he had rejected a lucrative offer from the royal governor to become advocate general of the Court of Admiralty. A firm believer in the rule of law, John preferred to fight the British through legal means rather than the mob violence that Sam and the Sons of Liberty seemed to advocate. He desired peaceful and legal methods “to assert and maintain liberty and virtue, [and] to discourage and abolish tyranny and vice.” He feared the “massacre” had the potential to destroy the very liberty the patriots were seeking to implement. He would stand in defense of those principles, even if it meant doing the unthinkable.
As a lawyer, Adams maintained that every person was, by right, entitled to a fair trial and to representation by counsel. He would not allow Sam and the Sons of Liberty to try Captain Preston and his men in the court of public opinion and then lynch them. It was not long before he was asked to represent the soldiers in the trial that was soon to be held. He was told no one else was willing to take the case. It was obvious they were afraid of retribution by the mob. As he considered the offer, Adams knew he would be taking a huge risk. The decision had the potential to incur “a clamor and popular suspicions and prejudices.” His fellow citizens might be so disgusted with his perceived support of the soldiers they might seek to hurt him or destroy his home, much like they had done to Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s home during the Stamp Act crisis. Even if he escaped physically, his practice and reputation could suffer irreparable damage. Despite these likely repercussions, Adams knew he could not turn his back on these men. He believed this case, more than any other, would prove what kind of nation America was to be — whether a nation governed by public opinion or a nation governed by laws. For him, it was to be a nation of laws. With that thought in mind, John said he would take the case.
As he had expected, Adams faced scorn and ridicule for his decision, but he did not abandon his clients. There were claims he had been bribed to take the case, but the only money he took was the typical retainer demanded by lawyers. In preparation for trial, he questioned twenty-three witnesses who told him how the soldiers had been in fear of their lives that night. Angry Bostonians crowded the courtroom, and emotions ran high as Adams presented his defense of the men. The evidence proved enough for the jury, much to their credit, to hand down a verdict of not guilty on the basis of “reasonable doubt,” the first time the phrase was used, in the trial of Captain Preston. The soldiers were likewise let go, except for two who received an “M” brand on their thumbs for manslaughter. It was the closing argument Adams made, however, that was the highlight of the proceedings. He declared it was more important “that innocence should be protected than it is that guilt should be punished.” He then issued his famous statement that “facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He later claimed his defense was “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”
Adams’s defense of the soldiers marked him as a man who would always stand for liberty, and he continued to prove it. Over the next four years he became one of the colony’s foremost patriots, serving as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. There he became one of the loudest voices calling for American independence and was ultimately chosen as a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. After that momentous service, he was chosen as an ambassador to France and Holland where he helped garner funds to support the Revolution. As the fighting drew to a close, he was chosen to attend the peace treaty deliberations in Paris. Once the treaty was signed, he served his country as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. He worked to build amicable relations between the two countries before leaving for home in the late 1780s. Upon his return, he was elected the first Vice President and along with President George Washington helped establish the new American government. In 1796 he was elected the second President of the United States. Despite a controversial tenure, he helped keep the fledgling country on the right track and, most crucially, kept America out of the war raging between Britain and France. He left public life in 1801 and returned home to Braintree where he took up farming once again. America’s stalwart defender of liberty died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
John Adams may not be the most celebrated of our founding fathers, but he was certainly a true champion of the country’s highest ideals. For him, this new land would be a country governed by the rule of law. No one would be unjustly denied his or her God-given rights of life and liberty. No mob, no king or aristocracy, nor any man-made institution would take away those rights. His courageous stand at the Boston Massacre trials served as a declaration for all time that in this new nation there would be liberty and justice for all.