John Adams and the Boston Massacre

John Adams and the Boston Massacre

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, thousands of British soldiers were stationed throughout the American colonies. At the time, the colonists saw them as protectors, a defense against potential threats from both the French and Native Americans. However, in the ensuing years, as tensions between the British and their American colonies worsened, the British troops were increasingly seen as an occupying force. In Boston, where nearly one-tenth of the city’s population were British soldiers, relations between Bostonians and the British military were particularly fractious.

On a snowy night in March of 1770, a group of colonists began harassing a lone British soldier who was guarding the Customs House. Alone and fearing for his life, the soldier called for help. British Captain Thomas Preston arrived with several soldiers and took up their defense of the Custom House. From this point, accounts of what happened that night in Boston differ. Some accounts maintained that the Bostonians gathered there pleaded with the soldiers to hold their fire. In contrast, other accounts asserted that the colonists egged them on. At some point, the British soldiers fired into the growing crowd, killing three people and mortally wounding two others. News of the event quickly spread up and down the colonies, and in the charged rhetoric of the day, it soon became known as the Boston Massacre.

In the incendiary environment of pre-Revolutionary Boston, news of the attack outraged an already highly politicized community. Though one of the victims reportedly stated to a doctor as he lay dying that the British fired in self-defense, the attack was quickly—and widely—portrayed as an unwarranted assault on unarmed colonists. In such a highly charged political environment, it would be virtually impossible for the soldiers, who had been arrested within hours, to get a fair trial.

Animosity toward the soldiers was such that no one came forward to defend them. Ultimately, one of the least likely Americans emerged to represent the men—John Adams. Adams was one of the city’s most well-known attorneys and already had a reputation as a staunch patriot. Like other patriot leaders, he was an outspoken critic of the Stamp Act and other legislation passed by Parliament without allowing the colonists a vote.

As devoted as he was to the colonies, Adams was equally devoted to the law. He knew the British soldiers would likely never get a fair trial. He believed the men were innocent of the charge of murder and deserved an adequate defense. Although his choice to defend the men was unpopular with many of his contemporaries and garnered fierce criticism, Adams was determined that the law must be followed. Ultimately, he secured an acquittal for Captain Preston on the grounds that the men under his command opened fire without orders, as well as acquittals for six of the soldiers who were charged. Adams successfully argued that the soldiers, fearing the angry mob of colonists, fired in self-defense. Two other soldiers who were charged with murder were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Though it was unpopular and potentially dangerous for him, Adams’ defense of the soldiers is often cited by defense attorneys who choose to take on clients accused of notorious crimes.