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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
Other witnesses substantiated Palmes’ statement. As a good lawyer, Adams also brought in a few people who bolstered the self-defense side of Preston’s plea. But in his summation, he made it clear that Palmes was his key witness. Coolly, he noted that the mortified merchant was “an inhabitant of the town and therefore not prejudiced in favor of the soldiers.” Robert Auchmuty, summing up after Adams, declared that Palmes’ evidence “may be opposed to all the Crown’s evidence.” He went on to give an impressive speech, citing a wealth of precedents in the common law which permitted soldiers or other persons to kill rioters or even individuals who attacked them and threatened them with serious injury. Auchmuty’s knowledge of the law was considered weak, but he sounded formidable as he cited case after case from Coke and other great authorities on English law. Undoubtedly he was using John Adams’ research. But he put it together with an enthusiasm and flair that surprised and delighted Preston and the Tories who had been doubting him. His performance can probably be explained by a letter General Gage wrote to Colonel Dalrymple, “I am sorry,” the British commander in chief said, “you doubt Mr. Auchmuty’s zeal or good intentions. … If you find it necessary, you should encourage him, for very particular reports are to be made of every circumstance of the tryal.” Caught between the threat of royal censure and his dread of the Boston mob, Auchmuty followed his Loyalist leanings and performed brilliantly.
Robert Treat Paine valiantly tried to rescue the prosecution’s case. But he could not explain away Palmes. He called him “their principal witness” and admitted he was “a gentleman who I can by no means suppose would be guilty of a known falsehood.” Paine could only maintain that this staunch Son of Liberty was “certainly mistaken,” and fumble to an emotional peroration, calling on the jury to “find such a verdict as the laws of God, of nature and your own conscience will ever approve.”
Now came the judges’ charges to the jury. There were four sitting—Chief Justice Lynde and Justices John Gushing, Peter Oliver, and Edmund Trowbridge. Trowbridge was considered the best legal mind in Massachusetts. Stately in their white wigs and long red (for a murder trial) robes, they proceeded to examine the evidence and the law. Trowbridge spoke first, pointing out the contradictory accounts given by the witnesses and declaring that it did not appear to him that the prisoner gave orders to fire. But even if the jury should think otherwise, they surely could not call his crime murder. The people assembled were “a riotous mob” who had murderously attacked the prisoner and his party. If Preston was guilty of any offense, it could only be excusable homicide. The other three judges concurred. Oliver added, “in a very nervous and pathetic manner,” that he was resolved to do his duty to his God, his King, and his country, and despise both insults and threats.
The jury was then locked up for the night. Within three hours they voted to acquit Preston and so reported it to the assembled court the next morning. The Captain was immediately released from jail and rushed by boat to Castle William, where the guns of his regiment guaranteed his safety against possible revenge from the Boston mob. But Samuel Adams’ obvious acquiescence in the choice of a packed jury made it clear that he had long since agreed to let Captain Preston go in peace. His men were another matter.
Thus far, John Adams, with Josiah Quincy’s help, had maintained his perilous balancing act. At one point during the five days of Preston’s trial, he had objected angrily when Auchmuty tried to advance more evidence of a Liberty conspiracy to incite a riot. The Tories on the bench had stressed mob violence in their remarks to the jury; yet the violent side of the evidence had played only a minor role in Preston’s trial. It had to be the heart of the soldiers’ case. That they had fired their guns was beyond debating; five men were dead to prove it.
There was another hint of the way the local wind was blowing: Auchmuty now withdrew from the soldiers’ defense, and another attorney, Sampson Salter Blowers, was appointed in his place. Like Quincy, he was young and comparatively inexperienced. Thus almost full responsibility for the soldiers’ fate, both in a public and a private sense, fell on the stocky shoulders of John Adams.
If he had any illusions about the tactics of the opposition, they vanished when he picked up the Boston Gazette on the Monday before the trial began. “Is it then a dream—murder on the 5th of March with the dogs greedily licking human blood in King Street? Some say that righteous heaven will avenge it. And what says the Law of God? Whoso sheddeth Man’s Blood, by Man shall his Blood be shed! ” And the Gazette quoted at length from a sermon preached by the Reverend Doctor Chauncy, senior minister of Boston, declaring that should the soldiers be convicted of murder, Governor Hutchinson would never dare grant them a reprieve: “Surely he would not suffer the town and land to lie under the defilement of blood! Surely he would not make himself a partaker in the guilt of murder by putting a stop to the shedding of their blood, who have murderously spilt the blood of others.”