INTERESTING HISTORY NEWSLETTER
May 11, 2009
The Boston Massacre Lawyer
In 1768, after the American colonists resisted the attempts of the
English parliament to collect taxes on the importation of paint, glass, paper, lead, and tea from the Townshend
Acts, the British had enough. They sent troops to Boston to enforce the acts and collect the duties from the
colonists. The Townshend Acts were eventually repealed but the tax on tea remained.
This did not sit well with the American colonists. They resented the concept of
“taxation without representation” and the presence of British troops was a source of increasing tension. On March
5, 1770, a British sentry was on duty at the Customs House on King Street (present day State Street), and the
colonists were in a foul mood. A local merchant had been struck by the soldier after a confrontation and when word
spread, a crowd formed and began throwing stones, ice, chunks of coal and a variety of other material at the
Soon, British reinforcements under Captain Thomas Preston arrived to protect the
young soldier but the crowd did not disburse. Instead they began to taunt the arriving soldiers daring them to
shoot. During the exchange, someone in the crown threw a club at the troops and one of them was hit. Shortly after,
someone yelled “fire” and what has become known as The Boston Massacre began. When it was over, three of the
colonists lay dead, eight others were wounded (two of them would later die from their wounds).
With the anti-British feelings being what they were, it was difficult to find a
lawyer willing to risk his reputation, his career, and maybe even his safety to defend the young men but one man
did step forward. He was not a British sympathizer, in fact he was an outspoken critic of the British occupation,
yet he believed Captain Preston and his men should receive a fair trial and he recognized that he may be the only
person willing to provide it.
Captain Preston was tried first and the 35 year-old attorney and his young assistant
were able to convince the jury that Preston never gave the order to shoot. Preston was acquitted. During the trial
of the eight soldiers, they argued that the fault lie in both the “mob” and with England’s policy of quartering
troops in the city and that the soldier who fired first was acting as anyone would in a potentially life
threatening situation. The trial ended with the acquittal of six of the young men. The remaining two were convicted
of manslaughter and received a relatively light sentence.
Who was this attorney? None other than John Adams. He would go on to be one of the
most notable of our founding fathers and the second president of the United States. Years later Adams would write
in his diary “The part I took in defense of captain 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.”
John Adams recognized what it is all too often easy to forget. Doing the right thing
is not always popular at the time but in the end, it is still the right thing.
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