In Spring 2017, the SAGU History department hosted the seminar “Beginnings: Life, Culture and Politics in Early America.” Topics included the birth of the American Navy, Breaking the Glass Ceiling, The Electoral College, America’s Military Bands and many more. Gary McElhany, Ph.D. discusses the events that lead to the infamous Boston Massacre and how it shaped John Adams.


On October 24, 1770, Captain Thomas Preston entered the new courthouse on Queen Street. He, with William Wemms, James Hartigan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Kilroy, William Warren, John Carrol and Hugh Montgomery, had been charged with the murder of several Boston residents and if found guilty would hang. The men, all part of England’s 29th regiment had arrived in Boston to maintain the peace and form tax collection under the Townsend acts and protect the crowns revenue at the customs house. Over 4,000 soldiers were housed in close proximity to Boston’s 20,000 residents. Conflict between the soldiers and the Bostonians was common. Military rules of the day require that the soldiers pay for their own uniforms and the food beyond their normal rations. The poorly paid soldiers often took jobs in the city to earn extra pay, putting them in competition with local workers for the same jobs. But how did the accused find themselves in a court room? There are mixed and conflicting accounts of the event known as the Boston Massacre, but the basic facts are these: On March 5, 1770 at approximately 9 p.m., sentry Hugh White stood guard outside the customs house. A group of townsmen led by Edward Garrick started insulting Private White. Some of the boys in the crowd began to throw snowballs, chunks of ice and oyster shells. Those passing by stopped to see what would happen next. As tensions rose, someone entered a nearby church and rang the bell. In a time before fire departments, the bell was the signal that fire had broken out in the city and help was needed to put out the flames. Still, more people poured out into the streets in response to the bell. As additional soldiers arrived to reinforce the sentry, Captain Preston attempted to control the crowd but violence followed. Armed with sticks or clubs, a group of men came up from the docks, joined the conflict, and some began to strike the soldiers with their weapons. Fearing for their lives, the soldiers attempted to defend themselves as best they could. Someone in the crowd taunted them, daring the troops to open fire on the crowd. One of the attackers threw a club at Private Montgomery, knocking him off his feet. Montgomery fired a shot into the air and then received the second blow from the club as he tried to stand. In the confusion that followed, additional shots were fired leaving Boston residents Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, Crispus Attucks and Patrick Carr dead or dying. John Adams wrote of his own experience on that night:

“The Year 1770 was memorable enough, in these little Annals of my Pilgrimage. The evening of the fifth of March, I spent at Mr. Henderson Inches’s House at the South End of Boston, in Company with a Clubb, with whom I had been associated for several Years. About nine O’ Clock We were allarmed with the ringing of Bells, and supposing it to be the Signal of fire, We snatched our Hats and Cloaks, broke up the Clubb, and went out to assist in quenching the fire or aiding our friends who might be in danger. In the Street We were informed that the British Soldiers had fired on the Inhabitants, killed some and wounded others near the Town house. A Croud of People was flowing down the Street, to the Scene of Action. When We arrived We saw nothing but some field Pieces placed before the south door of the Town house and some Engineers and Grenadiers drawn up to protect them.” Concerned for his wife Abigail, Adams made his way home but found the crowded street difficult to maneuver. In the solitude of his home he found time to consider the events. He wrote in his diary, “For months uncertain busy characters had to work to spark quarrels between the lower classes and the soldiers. I suspected that this was the explosion which has been intentionally wrought by the designing men. They knew what they were aiming at better than the instrument employed. If these poor tools should be prosecuted for any of their illegal conduct, they must be punished. If the soldiers in self-defense should kill any of them, they must be tried. And if truth was respected in the law prevailed must be acquitted.” To Adams, a verdict rendered on a motion rather than the law would disgrace the country. “Paul Revere and others seize the moment to stir anti-British sentiment” is now famous print of the massacre that hit the street within weeks. No effort was made by Revere to ensure accuracy. It was after all a propaganda piece designed to enflame passions. The event took place after 9 in the evening. Snow covered the ground and the deaths were the result of chaotic mingling of soldiers and civilians. Yet the prints suggest that innocent civilians were gunned down in full light of day by an organized military under the command of a determined officer. The trial was postponed to allow hostility to die down but the soldiers found it nearly impossible to find legal counsel in Boston. Only John Adams would take the case and that after a time of personal struggle. Adams was in the early stages of building a law practice in Boston. He had some success and was building important contacts and a growing client base. His young family was dependent on his continued success. He knew well the political climate of Boston and what was at risk should he take the case; that he stood to lose clients and friends seemed clear. Placing his family in physical danger was also a very real possibility. Finding strength in a treatise by Sassari Beccaria, an opponent of capital punishment, Adams copied these words. “If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny or ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of mankind.” In the end it came down to his bedrock belief that all men deserve a fair trial with capable representation. If no one else would defend the soldiers, then he must. Assisted by Josiah Quincy, Adams first defended Preston, arguing that it was impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Preston had given the order to fire. In fact, Preston had been standing in front of his men when he allegedly gave the order to fire – hardly the logical actions of an able commander. The jury acquitted Preston on the grounds of reasonable doubt. In December, a second trial was held to determine the guilt of the soldiers. In his closing, Adams called on the jury to lay aside emotion and decide the case only on the evidence. “I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you. Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, are inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence. Nor is the law less stable than the fact. If an assault was made to endanger their lives the law is clear. They had a right to kill in their own defense. If it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snowballs, oyster shells, cinders, clubs or sticks of any kind, this was provocation – for which the law reduces the offense of killing down to manslaughter. In consideration of those passions in our nature which cannot be eradicated, to you candor, and justice, I submit the prisoners in their cause.” Of the six defendants, four were acquitted and the other two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. Those two were branded on the thumbs and sent home to England. Meanwhile, England had repealed the detested Townsend acts, and at least for a while life settle down to its normal rhythm. Although facing immediate criticism and the loss of clients, Adams’ principled stand and able defense actually seemed to advance his young attorneys’ standing in the community. He was elected to several offices and played a significant role in the birth of the nation. With revolution likely in the spring of 1776, John Adams pinned his thoughts on government. At the Second Continental Congress he urged the independent states to adopt constitutions, creating self-government. The Declaration of Independence in July of 1776 made this step critical. In Massachusetts, the state legislature attempted to create a constitution on its own but it met with resistance. A constitutional convention was then called in 1779 and John Adams was elected to represent Braintree. The convention selected John and Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin to draft the constitution and they deferred the task to John. Seated at his desk in Braintree, he worked through the fall completing the draft in October of 1779. The Massachusetts Constitution was ratified the following June. Adams also served as the first vice president of the United States under George Washington. After years of active participation in decision-making, he found the office a disappointment. In a letter to his beloved Abigail, he complained, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention a man contrived or his imagination conceived.” The nation honored Adams for his service, electing him president in 1796. In 1800, he participated in the first contested presidential election, when he a Federalist was challenged by the Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson. The campaign was marked by personal attacks on both sides, producing years of animosity between these former friends. Only at the end of their lives was the relationship restored. Looking back at the sum of his life, Adams wrote that above all honors bestowed upon him, the part he took in defense of Captain Preston and the soldiers procured be anxiety and obloquy enough. “It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would’ve been a foul stain upon this country as the executions of Quakers or witches anciently.” As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right. Holding to his core belief that all deserved a fair trial with able defense, John Adams took greatest pride in this trial and that he had responded with actions beyond mere words.

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