Verdicts Of History I: The Boston Massacre
Even the worst offender, even the most unpopular cause, deserves a good lawyer. Our example is a passionate moment in Boston on the eve of the Revolution, when John Adams undertook to defend the hatred British soldiers who had fired into a Boston mob and created some “martyrs.” There are echoes of our own times in the trial that followed
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
“The Jurors for the said Lord the King upon oath present that Thomas Preston, Esq.; William Wemms, laborer; James Hartegan, laborer; William McCauley, laborer; Hugh White, laborer; Matthew Killroy, laborer; William Warren, laborer; John Carroll, laborer and Hugh Montgomery, laborer, all now resident in Boston in the County of Suffolk, … not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil and their own wicked hearts, did on the 5th day of this instant March, at Boston aforesaid within the county aforesaid iuith force and arms feloniously, willfully and of their malice aforethought assault one Crispus Attacks, then and there being in the peace of God and of the said Lord the King and that the said William Warren, with a certain handgun of the value of 20 shillings, which he the said William Warren then and there held in both his hands charged with gunpowder and two leaden bullets, then and there feloniously, wilfully and of his malice aforethought, did shoot off and discharge at and against the said Crispus Attucks, and that the said William Warren, with the leaden bullets as aforesaid out of the said handgun then and there by force of the said gunpowder so shot off and discharged as aforesaid did then and there feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, strike, penetrate and wound the said Crispus Attucks in and upon the right breast a little below the right pap of him the said Crispus and in and upon the left breast a little below the left pap … of which said mortal wounds the said Crispus Attucks then and there instantly died.”
Thus did the citizens of Boston indict nine British soldiers for murder. (The designation of the soldiers as “laborers” in the indictment emphasi/ed that they were being tried as ordinary citizens—and also that they often eked out their pay by working for hire in and around Boston.) Never before in the history of Massachusetts had a trial aroused such intense, complex political and personal passion. Although his name stands alone in the indictment, Crispus Attucks was not the only victim. Four other Bostonians were also dead in what Samuel Adams, through his mouthpiece Benjamin Edes, publisher of the Boston Gazette , promptly called “a horrid massacre.” For Adams and his friends in the Liberty party, the trial could have only one possible outcome. Paul Revere summed it up in the verse beneath his famous engraving of the scene.
But know, Fate summons to that awful Goal Where Justice strips the Murd’rer of his Soul: Should venal C[our]ts the scandal of the land Snatch the relentless Villain from her Hand Keen Execrations on this Plate inscrib’d Shall reach a Judge who never can be brib’d.
The gist of what happened, whether baldly or passionately stated, was simple enough. Parliament’s passage of the Townshend duties (import taxes on lead, paper, glass, tea) had inspired a series of riots and assaults on Royal officials which the magistrates and watchmen of Boston seemed helpless to prevent. On October 1, 1768, the Crown had landed two regiments of Royal troops to keep the peace. Relations between the townspeople and the soldiers had started poor and deteriorated steadily. Alter eighteen months, tempers on both sides were sputtering ominously.
Ironically, Parliament was about to repeal the Townshend duties, except lor the tiny tax on tea, but the news had not reached Koston when the explosion occurred. At about eight o’clock on the moonlit night ol March 5, 1770, a sentry on duty bet’f6re the hated Custom House gave an impudent apprentice boy a knock on the ear with his gun. An unruly crowd gathered. Someone rang the bells in a nearby church. This signal, ordinarily a summons to fight me, drew more people into the street. The !lightened sentry called out the main guard. Seven men led by a corporal responded, and were shortly joined by Captain Thomas Preston. A lew minutes later, a volley ol shots IcIi dvc “martyrs dead or dying in the snow and six other men painfully wounded.
For a few hours Hoston teetered on the brink ol a blood bath. The well-armed Sons ol Liberty outnumbered the British regiments ten to one, and the local militia was swiftly bolstered by hundreds of farmers who swarmed in from the countryside. Only a desperate speech by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, in which he promised to arrest the soldiers and charge them with murder, calmed the enraged city enough to restore an uneasy semblance of peace.