- Historic Sites
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
On the morning after ihe bloodshed, John Adams was in his office beside the Town House steps. Through the door came a tearful, wailing man, James Forest, known about Most on as a British toady and scornfully called “the Irish infant.” The accused leader of the arrested British soldiers. Captain Preston, had begged him to find a lawyer posthaste. This had proved very difficult. Finally, young Josiah Quincy, Jr., from John Adams home town of Braintree, had expressed a willingness on one condition—that John Adams join him in the defense. One other lawyer, Robert Auchmuty. a staunch conservative, had volunteered with the same proviso.
The challenge aroused all the latent conservatism in the thirty-four-year-old |ohn Adams’ pugnacious spirit. For a decade he had watched his distant cousin Samuel construct a “political engine” in Boston, discovering under his tutelage “the wheels … cogs or pins, some of them dirty ones, which composed the machine and made it go.” Though lie wrote convincing defenses of the Liberty party position in the Boston Gazette , John often signed himself “Clarendon” (the British lord who had done his utmost to prevent Cromwell’s excesses in the English civil war), and politely declined to harangue town meetings in the demagogic style of cousin Samuel and his friends Dr. Joseph Warren and James Otis. John took an even dimmer view of the violent tendencies of the Sons of Liberty—and obviously saw a direct connection between their terrorist tactics and the frighicned slate of the Boston bar.
Years later, John Adams recalled that he had “no hesitation” in accepting the case. He told Forest “that Council otig’lu to be the very last thing that an accused person should want [ i.e. , lack] in a Tree country. That the bar ought in my opinion to be independent and impartial at all limes and in every circumstance.”
This was a noble ideal, but John Adams knew that it was far from the reality of Boston in 1770. The city was ruthlessly divided into King’s men and Liberty men. Doctors, lawyers, even clergymen, were chosen lor their fiercely partisan political opinions. Adams himself had made his irrevocable choice in iyOH, when lie refused Thomas Hutchinson’s offer to make him advocate general of the Court of Admiralty. Since that time the vast proportion of his law practice had come from Liberty clients.
Nevertheless Adams solemnly accepted a guinea from James Forest as a retainer to seal the agreement. He warned the overwrought Irishman that this would be “as important a cause as had ever been tried in any court or country of the world.” Neither he nor Captain Preston could, of course, expect anything more than “fact, evidence and law would justify.”
“Captain Preston,” Forest answered, “requested and desired no more … as God Almighty is my judge I believe him an innocent man.”
It was only a few days before the surprising news of Adams decision had made a complete circuit of Hoston and its environs. Rocks were flung through the windows of the Adams home. Boys jeered him on the streets. Josiah Quincy got a letter from his father in Braintree: “My Dear Son, 1 am under great affliction at hearing the bitterest reproaches uttered against you, for having become an advocate for those criminals who are charged with the murder of their fellow citizens. Good God! Is it possible? I will not believe it.”
Young Quincy wrote his father a spirited defense of his decision. Tall and handsome, he was a fervent Liberty man, but above all an idealist. And he could afford to be reckless. He already knew he was suffering from tuberculosis, which was to cut short his brilliant career five years later. John Adams, with an established practice and a wife and three children to support, had no such motive. Nor was his temperament in the least inclined to enthusiasm. A worrier by nature, he sometimes expressed awed amazement at Sam Adams, who let the citi/ens of Boston pay his debts and lived “like the grasshopper” from day to day. John had always self-consciously planned his career. “The art of living,” he once told Cousin Samuel, had cost him “much musing and pondering and anxiety.”
Adams’ morale did not improve when Cousin Samuel convened a town meeting of three thousand roaring adherents to demand the immediate expulsion of the two regiments. Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson yielded one regiment, then (literally trembling with anguish) yielded both, and the soldiers trudged through a barrage of derision to boats that took them to Castle William, far out in Boston Harbor.
Sam Adams’ next move was a vigorous prosecution of a trial by newspaper. Ninety-six depositions from eyewitnesses were recorded by John Hodgson, the only shorthand writer in Boston, and solemnly sworn to before justices of the peace. They were attached to a twenty-two-page report compiled by the Boston selectmen and published and distributed throughout the province, but not in Boston. The Liberty men piously declared they did not want to prejudice anyone against the defendants.