The Role of John Adams in the Boston Massacre Trials

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As one of our Founding Fathers, John Adams was an influential and reputable figure who contributed much to the success of the American Revolution. During the colonial times that led up to the rebellion, John Adams worked fervently and passionately as a Patriot. However, his support of the American cause to break away from the English monarchy did not disturb his moral compass; he understood that the political actions that he took would be crucial to his success as a politician. The Boston Massacre Trials were the historical cases that worked towards Adams’ advantage.

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The British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in 1767. The Acts were a series of laws passed on the American colonies which placed new taxes on imports of paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. These taxes angered the colonists which caused Parliament to repeal the acts. On the same day that the acts were repealed, a public uproar stormed King Street. The stationing of British troops all over the colony elevated the tensions between the Bostonians and the British. Small acts of violence or physical struggle would spark rampages amongst the people. This was the reaction of the colonists who were repulsed and outraged by the legislation passed onto them without any given representation in government.

Boston was considered to be one of the most revolutionary of the American colonies. The stationing of British soldiers in Boston brought about many hostile reactions from the civilians. Open brawls and squabbles frequent the streets as the civilians treated the soldiers with no sense of respect and ridiculed them any chance they had. British soldiers called the Bostonians Yankees as a derogatory insult. The term usually referred to Americans in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, and New Zealand. The troops were given a very low wage so they were constantly competing with the residents of Boston for labor and women.

On March 5, 1770, a lone British soldier named Private Hugh White, stood guard outside the Custom House of Boston, Massachusetts. On this cold winter night, a young, drunken colonist exited the tavern and engaged in a heated exchange of insults with the soldier. He provoked White by poking him in the chest and the soldier responded by clubbing the man with the butt of his rifle. The fallen colonial cried for support and civilians began to rush out of the surrounding buildings. These civilians were a part of an angry mob, mostly drunk and infuriated with the British. They began to harass White as he called for more reinforcements. Church bells rang throughout the town, ensuing chaos. The sound of bells usually warned of a fire, sending a rush of panicked and disturbed male colonists into the crowd. Captain Thomas Preston rallied along with several soldiers to provide support. The mob soon grew exponentially in number as they surrounded the armed men and threw snowballs and slabs of ice.

Crispus Attucks, a mulatto of Native American and African descent, approached a soldier's bayonet and taunted him, daring him to fire. The soldiers tried to hold their fire in an attempt to prevent excessive bloodshed. Upon hearing a cry to “fire”, a soldier mistakened this as an order from the Captain and shot into the crowd. Once the first shot was heard, the other soldiers followed suit and opened fire.

Crispus Attucks and 4 other colonists were killed while the mob fled in all directions. The soldiers were arrested within hours and the colonists demanded a trial. The Sons of Liberty, a secret organization that was created to protest British taxation on the colonies, used the Boston Massacre as a form of propaganda.

As the colonists become more and more discontent with the British occupance, the Redcoats were withdrawn from the city, and those involved in the massacre were put on trial for murder. Sam Adams was the driving force behind the trial, and, in an odd coincidence, his cousin John Adams defended the seven soldiers. John Adams agreed to take on the unpopular assignment of defending the men who had killed five Boston residents: Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Coldwell, Crispus Attucks and Patrick Carr. His acceptance of this case would have adverse effects on his reputation and his future political affairs. He adamantly believed that all men were entitled to a fair trial and deserved equal justice. He knew that taking on the case would but him in a negative position with the colonists and endanger his family. On the other hand, in the long term, he might be remembered as a man who put law above his personal beliefs.

On October 25, 1770, Captain Thomas Preston was held on trial for the charge of aiding in the murder of five men. John Adams believed that it would be unreasonable to charge Preston with murder or assistance of murder because he was simply acting in self-defense when he was provoked and endangered by the onslaught of a drunk, angry mob. The jury sided with Adam’s argument and dropped the charges on this account and a second trial was held on November 27, 1770 to further the discussion on whether to classify this incident as murder. Adams wanted to justify the actions of the soldiers through the use of an empathetic argument. He argued that if the soldiers should kill anyone in self-defense, they must be tried and acquitted under a fair trial. If one was attacked and harassed by a large chaotic crowd of drunken men, they should have the right to self-defense, and not expected to “behave like a stoic philosopher, lost in apathy”. The verdict of the trial was given as the jury pronounced the soldiers innocent but two had their thumbs branded for manslaughter. All of the soldiers had to leave the American colonies for their own protection.

Adams’ defense brought about controversy as people questioned his political stance and beliefs. He was prominent for his outspoken Patriotism and his strong opinions for declaring independence from the British rule. His motivation behind the decision to defend the supposed enemies of the colonists were fueled by a sense of righteousness and integrity, even though it would directly affect his political status.

John Adams was highly respected for his commitment to justice and law. His work ethic was synonymous to that of “ all men are innocent until proven guilty”. He believed that justice would prevail no matter what the situation is. His unbiased political motivations boosted his reputation as Bostonians held him in high regard. Evidently, John Adams’ defense of Captain Preston and his soldiers was a resounding success. His service to the law only strengthened his reputation with both sides—patriots and Tories alike. Throughout history, his opinions would be respected as impartial, and evidence based.

Adams took an objective stance and argued that 'emotions cannot override facts'. The Boston Massacre Trials ultimately benefited John Adams and his political advancement. His political sacrifice would eventually allow the colonists and citizens of the United States to maintain their trust in him as John Adams continues to be a popular politician and eventually the president of the United States. He sets an example for future leaders and Presidents by demonstrating the importance of recognizing how their actions will preserve justice and liberty and what is best for the country, without the consideration of their personal gains or losses. Leaders are to demonstrate the ultimate form of selflessness in order for the nation to thrive with justice.

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