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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 next morning, Justice Trowbridge charged the jury. It was a long and careful examination of the evidence and the law, most of which had already been covered by John Adams. But Adams must have stirred uneasily when he heard Trowbridge couple the words “riot and rebellion,” and add a remark that the law in regard to treason should be “more generally known here than it seems to be.” Judge Peter Oliver went even farther down this risky path. He declared that the riot had been perpetrated “by villains.” As for the tall man in the red cloak and white wig, “that tall man is guilty in the sight of God of the murder of the five persons mentioned in the indictment.”
Thus instructed, the jury withdrew. Two hours and a half dragged slowly by while the defense attorneys undoubtedly sat there fearing the worst. Finally, a door behind the bench opened, the twelve countrymen filed into their places, and the foreman, Joseph Mayo of Roxbury, arose to give the verdict. “William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, William Warren, and John Carroll: Not guilty . … Matthew Killroy and Hugh Montgomery, Not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.”
John Adams rose instantly and asked the benefit of clergy for Killroy and Montgomery. The judges dismissed the six acquitted men and quickly granted Adams’ plea. ("Benefit of clergy,” by 1770, had been interpreted to include anyone who was literate; and the “clergyman’s” penalty for manslaughter was branding on the thumb.)
On December 14, Killroy and Montgomery were brought back to court. They read a passage from the Bible to establish their literacy, and prepared for the shock of the glowing iron. Adams recalled later he “never pitied any men more … They were noble, fine-looking men; protested they had done nothing contrary to their duty as soldiers; and, when the sheriff approached to perform his office, they burst into tears.”
For Preston and the soldiers, the ordeal was over. They went their various ways, and John Adams saw only one of them again. Years later, when he was ambassador of an independent America to the Court of St. James’s, he recognized Preston as he passed by on a London street. For bearing his part of the ordeal with patience and dignity, Preston, retiring from the army almost immediately, received a pension of two hundred pounds a year from the King. The enlisted men, as was their lot in those days, received nothing.
In his diary and later letters, John Adams maintained that his “disinterested action” in defending the soldiers was “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.” Samuel Adams did not think so, at least in public. Writing under the name Vindex , he denounced the jury’s verdict and the defense arguments in a series of scathing articles in the Boston Gazette . But Samuel Adams was a very subtle man. Privately, his friendship with John became even more intimate; early in the following year, when John Adams took his family home to Braintree and became a commuter to his city law office, he frequently ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at his “brother” Samuel’s house.
Did Samuel Adams realize that without John at the defense table, the trials might well have sent him and other leaders of the Liberty party, such as the man in the red cloak, to London under arrest for treason? Did the trials enable John to convince his cousin that the Liberty policy of violence had come close to destroying the cause, and must be modified henceforth? Both conclusions seem almost inescapable. But two years later, patient Cousin Samuel revealed another reason for his friendship. He had organized an annual extravaganza to commemorate the death of the Massacre victims with prayers and fierce anti-British oratory. In 1772, Samuel asked John to make the principal address. It would have been a most satisfactory way of including him at last on the Boston side of the case. But John Adams was still his own man. He quietly declined, explaining that he felt “I should only expose myself to the lash of ignorant and malicious tongues on both sides of the question.”
There the matter would have undoubtedly remained if Parliament had not foolishly reignited the quarrel with the colonies the following year. The dead rioters thereby became enshrined in American folklore as martyrs. And John Adams was able to stand beside his Cousin Samuel with a clear conscience in the struggle against British oppression. That John won the larger place in history should not be surprising to anyone who penetrates beyond the patriotic myth to the interior drama of this great but little-understood trial.