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Why did John Adams defend the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre?


Mrs. Schager

U.S. History 5

October 27, 2009


John Adam: A Controversial Decision

            We usually regard our Founding Fathers as true leaders in our fight for freedom and liberty. John Adams was a very influential figure that many looked up to during the American Revolution. Born on October 30, 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams quickly made his way to becoming a revolutionary leader during the mid 18th century (“John Adams”). As a graduate from Harvard College, Adams pursued a career in politics. He adamantly expressed his views against the British invasion in the colonies, and strongly opposed the Stamp Act of 1765, in which American citizens were required to pay a tax for all stamps put on legal documents (“John Adams”). In 1774, Adams was elected as a representative for Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress (“John Adams”). By 1788, John Adams was elected the first Vice President of the United States, and served a second term in the following election (“John Adams”). Adams then won the Presidency in the 1796 election against Hamilton. He gained support through his patriotic actions that improved the nation’s well being. However, John Adams did risk his high status around 1770, when he made a contentious decision to defend the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre.

            On the cold, wintery night of March 5, 1770, eight British soldiers and their commander were accused of murdering five Bostonians and injuring many (Zinn and Arnove 82). As these soldiers and Captain Preston were guarding the Custom House of Boston, Massachusetts, a small group of colonists tried to rouse the armed men by throwing snowballs and slabs of ice, while calling them offensive names, such as “Lobster Back” or “Bloody Back” (Crompton 2-3). The Bostonians’ innocence was questionable, since their actions were considered assaulting an authoritative figure. The reasons the colonists decided to harass British soldiers were also unclear. There was no evidence of the soldiers first angering the colonists, raising the question as to why the colonists should feel the need to cause a skirmish. John Adams portrayed the bedlam as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack tarrs” (Morgan 47). The extreme pandemonium soon augmented when the soldiers started to fire at the Bostonians, killing five men; Maverick, Sam Gray, Crispus Attucks, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr (“Boston Massacre”). There were several accounts, though, for why the shooting began. A Bostonian, Samuel Drowne, reported that Captain Preston screamed, “Damn your bloods! Why don’t you fire?” (Zinn and Arnove, 83). While this report clearly stated that Captain Preston was guilty for murdering several Bostonians, another version stated that the Captain told his troop, “Whatever you do, don’t fire!” yet due to the confusion of the scene, the only word the soldiers heard was “Fire!” (Crompton 4). The grief of losing “innocent” Bostonians led the colonists to resent the British even more. They did not, however, account for their own fault in the massacre. The colonists inflamed the soldiers, and justified their actions by their own abhorrence of the British. Flyers and posters were hung over towns, trying to provoke rebellion against the King (refer to Appendix A). This factor made it particularly risky for John Adams to defend the British soldiers, while the rest of America found them guilty of the crime.

            As discontentment with the British grew after March of 1770, the trials to determine the soldiers’ innocence were held in the late fall and early winter. On October 25, 1770, the first trial for Caption Thomas Preston was held; he had been charged with aiding in the murder of five men (“Boston Massacre”). John Adams believed “it [was] impossible [the jury] should find [Captain Preston] guilty of murder. [They] must suppose least provoked [and] thrown off his guard…by such treatment as this” (Donovan 25). The jury agreed with John Adams’ suggestion of self-defense against a disorderly crowd, and released Thomas Preston of the charges (“Boston Massacre”). A second trial was held on November 27 of that year. There was no dispute that five men were killed in March, but there was a debate, however, on how to define murder. Had these soldiers killed five innocent men, or were they reacting in self-defense to an angry mob? Adams needed to see to it that their actions were justified. He told the jury that “…if the soldiers, in self-defense, should kill [anyone], they must be tried, and, if truth was respected and the law prevailed, must be acquitted…[and asked the jury if they] expected [the soldiers] should behave like a stoic philosopher, lost in apathy?” (Donovan 23-5). It was a hard choice, deciding if one should be punished for irrevocable crimes, when Adams stated the case in this manner. The British soldiers acted in self-defense against a wild crowd, yet no one in the crowd was armed with a weapon such as theirs. Was it a just brawl? The jury believed so when they pronounced six of the soldiers innocent, and two charged with manslaughter (Crompton 6).

            Though Adams had proved that the eight soldiers’ actions were justified in court, many still found his views controversial, and questioned his beliefs. Before the Boston Massacre, it was widely known that Adams was adamantly against the King’s decision to install British troops in America (Crompton 2). The people of Boston knew him to be a strong patriot, which is why he was a very popular political figure at the time. His draft of the Declaration of Independence and his adamant opinion of Britain’s control over America demonstrated his constant belief in the right to be an independent nation. It would be understandable to question why he felt he should defend the enemy. It was possible that when Adams first agreed to defend the soldiers, he was not sure of his motives. Adams asked himself “to what object are [his] views directed? What is the end and purpose of [his] studies, journeys, labors of all kind, of body and mind, of tongue and pen…In truth, [he was] tossed about so much from post to pillar that [he had] not leisure and tranquility enough to consider distinctly [his] own views, objects, and feelings” (Donovan 21). Adams made a risk that would directly affect his political status. If the soldiers had been convicted of murder, the outcome of John Adams’ success could have changed significantly. The court case he took on created “anxiety and obloquy enough”, yet his courage prevailed (26). John Adams was highly respected for his commitment to justice and law. This suggests that he took on the case because of his belief that all men are innocent until proven guilty (Crompton 5). Perhaps he believed that these men were truly acting in self-defense, and their charges should be dropped. It was more understandable, though, that John Adams believed in fairness, and that justice would find its way to the truth of the event. The Bostonians did not turn against Adams, and his quest for justice. In fact, he was regarded as “a hero rather than a martyr as a result of the trial” (26). The trials of the Boston Massacre helped Adams to gain a higher status in politics, which continued throughout his career.

            John Adams agreed to defend the eight British soldiers in court, risking his political status, due to his belief in fairness of law and justice, the basic structure of laws in the United States. In the end of his battle for integrity of the law, his sacrifices were rewarded when he won the case. The citizens of America maintained their trust in Adams as a leader of the revolution, and many considered it “…one of the most gallant, manly, and disinterested actions of [his] entire life, and one of the best pieces of service [he] ever rendered [his] country” (Donovan 26). John Adams’ search for justice set an example for other leaders in the years to come. He conveyed to future Presidents that when making a decision, consider not how their status of power will be effected, but how their actions will help to preserve justice and liberty. In risking his power over the nation, John Adams successfully fought for integrity and fairness when he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre.

 Works Cited

“Boston Massacre.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.             <>.

Crompton, Samuel Willard. John Adams: American Patriot. N.p.: Chelsea House Publisher, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Donovan, Frank. The John Adams Papers. Cornwall: The Cornwall Press, Inc., 1965. Print.

“John Adams.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.             <>.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic: 1763-89. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.

ZInn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HaperCollings Publishers, 2003. Print.

Zinn, Howard, and Anthony Arnove. “Preparing the Revolution.” Voices of a People’s History of the United States. N.p.: Seven Stories Press, 2004. 82-83. Print.