- 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
As propaganda the book was a masterful document. The ninety-six witnesses were all but unanimous in their pro-Liberty description of the murder scene. Only one man had anything even faintly favorable to say for the soldiers, and editorial comments declared him to be a liar. The rest agreed that they were all in the streets of Boston that night on utterly peaceful errands—visiting friends, attending church meetings—when they were attacked by soldiers armed with bayonets, swords, and cutlasses.
But Samuel Adams was not the only person interested in compiling a version of what happened on the night of March 5. In New York, General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of all British troops in North America, wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Dalrymple, the commander of the Boston garrison. It is absolutely necessary everything relating to the unhappy affair of the gth of March should appear as full as it is possible upon Captain Preston’s tryal. Not only what happened on the said night should be circumstantially made to appear, but also every insult and attack made upon the troops previous thereto with the pains taken by the military to prevent quarrels between the soldiers and inhabitants. If such things cannot be introduced at the tryal, affidavits should, however, be procured of these several circumstances and printed with the tryal which ought to be taken down for the purpose. …
Thus from the very start the trial became far more than a matter of determining the guilt or innocence of the arrested soldiers. The King’s men were out to win a conviction against the mob-rule tactics of Samuel Adams. The Liberty men were as fiercely determined to pillory Parliament’s use of armed force to suppress their political rights.
Between these two bitter, determined groups of menstood the prisoners and their uneasy lawyers. Ironically, after the frantic search for defense attorneys, the Crown had almost as much trouble finding men willing to serve on the prosecution side. Jonathan Sewall, the colony’s attorney general, handed up the indictment and disappeared from Boston, declaring that he would never appear in another court in that town. This may have been in part a maneuver to delay the trial. In the weeks succeeding the Massacre, Boston’s inflamed state of mind made the possibility of an objective jury almost laughable.
But Samuel Adams was not to be easily put off. On the thirteenth of March, a town meeting resolved “That the selectmen be desired to employ one or more counsel to offer to the King’s attorney as assistants to him in the trial of the murtherers now committed; and in case the King’s attorney should refuse such assistance and the relatives of those persons who were murthered should apply for it, that then the town will bear the expense that may accrue thereby.” The court soon appointed Samuel Quincy, Josiah Quincy’s elder brother and a convinced Tory, to head the prosecution. Assisting him as the town’s désignée was attorney Robert Treat Paine, a staunch Liberty man.
On March 14, the day after the term opened, two of the judges declared themselves ill and announced a determination to adjourn to the second Tuesday in June. A committee of Liberty men swiftly appeared in court, with Samuel Adams and John Hancock as their spokesmen. In his quavering voice, gesturing with his palsied hands, Adams made what one observer called “a very pathetic [emotional] speech,” calling on the court to proceed to the trial without delay. Governor Hutchinson described Adams as followed by “a vast concourse of people.” The terrified judges, Hutchinson reported, “altered their determination and resolved to go on with the business. This, they assured me, was contrary to their inclination but they were under duress and afraid to offend the town.”
Captain Thomas Preston, meanwhile, tried to launch a small propaganda campaign on his own behalf. An Anglo-Irishman, forty years old with fifteen years of army service on his record, he was, compared to the other British soldiers in the garrison, well liked by the people of Boston. Various letters describe him as “amiable” and as being “a benevolent, humane man.” Hoping no doubt to enlarge this image, he had the following “card” published in the Boston Gazette . Messieurs Edes and Gill, permit me thro’ the channel of your Paper, to return my Thanks in the most publick Manner to the Inhabitants in general of this Town—who throwing aside all Party and Prejudice, have with the utmost Humanity and Freedom slept forth Advocates for Truth in Defence of my injured Innocence, in the late unhappy Affair that happened on Monday Night last: and to assure them, that I shall ever have the highest Sense of the Justice they have done me, which will be ever gratefully remembered, by Their most obliged and most obedient humble Servant, Thomas Preston.
In New York, this gesture struck General Gage as the height of folly. “I can’t be a proper judge at this distance,” he wrote to Colonel Dalrymple, “but I wish he may not have been too premature in that measure; and if a legal proceedings are hereafter made use of against him, they will justify themselves by his own words.”