Defense of the Boston Massacre Soldiers | Study Guide

John Adams

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Defense of the Boston Massacre Soldiers | Summary & Analysis



Boston Massacre

In the late 1760s, the British government imposed new taxes on the British colonies in North America. Britain needed to raise money because of the great expenses of the Seven Years' War (1756–63), a conflict involving all the major powers of Europe. In particular, Britain and France clashed over their colonial pursuits in North America. British action in the war bolstered Britain's power but also served to protect the British colonists in North America. Many in Britain felt that the colonies should contribute to this expense.

The new taxes in the colonies covered many products colonists used in daily life: tea, paper, glass, paint, sugar, tobacco, salt, and alcoholic drinks. Colonists were angered that such products were taxed. Many colonists protested, leading to rising tensions. Boston, Massachusetts, was a center of colonial protests, prompting the British to station two regiments of troops in the city. Bostonians resented the presence of the troops and frequently harassed them.

These tensions boiled over on March 5, 1770. That day, a crowd of 50 to 60 angry Bostonians surrounded a lone British soldier standing guard at the city's customhouse, a building where British officials involved in collecting the taxes on imported goods worked. Captain Thomas Preston led seven soldiers to the customhouse to protect the sentry who had been surrounded. The crowd taunted and harassed the soldiers, throwing snowballs and oysters and, in some cases, hitting the soldiers with clubs and sticks. In a scuffle, one soldier accidentally fired his musket. Thinking the order to fire had been given, other soldiers opened fire. The shooting left three colonists dead: African American sailor Crispus Attucks, rope maker Samuel Gray, and sailor James Caldwell. Eight other members of the mob were wounded. Two others—17-year-old apprentice carpenter Samuel Maverick and leatherworker Patrick Carr—later died.

Boston Massacre Soldiers Put on Trial

The situation quickly diffused after the shooting, as Massachusetts royal governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711–80) ordered Preston and his men back to their barracks. He promised the crowd that justice would be done. The next day, Preston and the soldiers were arrested. Anti-British agitators in the city made much of the incident, calling it the Boston Massacre. Bostonian radical and protest organizer Samuel Adams (1722–1803) generated and distributed anti-British propaganda over the event, aided by inflammatory printed accounts of the event and an engraving that distorted what actually happened.

Within weeks, a grand jury indicted Preston and eight soldiers for murder. If found guilty, they could be executed. The soldiers were John Carrol, James Hartigan, Matthew Killroy, William McCauley, Hugh Montgomery, William Warren, William Wemms, and Hugh White. John Adams—cousin of the radical agitator Samuel Adams—agreed to defend the soldiers, whose prospect of receiving a fair trial was uncertain. Although Adams was a patriot (a supporter of colonists' interests and independence from Britain), he took on the defense of the soldiers out of his belief that everyone accused of a crime deserves a fair trial. He also thought that a fair trial would demonstrate the Americans' strong belief in the legal rights of all British subjects.

Adams was assisted by attorneys Robert Auchmuty Jr. (1725–88), Sampson Salter Blowers (1742–1842), and Josiah Quincy Jr. (1744–75), who was the younger brother of one of the prosecuting attorneys. The prosecutors were Robert Treat Paine (1731–1814) and Samuel Quincy (1735–89).

The defense team arranged for Preston and the soldiers to be tried separately. Preston's trial took place October 24–29, 1770. The six-day duration was quite lengthy for a trial at that time. Preston was acquitted on the grounds that it was not clear he had ordered the soldiers to fire. The trial of the soldiers took place a month later, starting on November 27, 1770, and lasting seven days. After the prosecution and defense presented their witnesses and evidence, Adams delivered his summary of the case in a speech that was made over two consecutive days, December 4–5, 1770.

Legal Principles of Adams's Defense

On the first day of his summation, Adams states legal principles. In the course of this argument, he cites several English judges supporting his points, drawing on English common law. The common law is the centuries-old tradition of judicial decisions and writings that establishes precedents for how the courts are to view and interpret the law.

Adams begins by saying that it is better to let a guilty man walk free than to convict an innocent man. This is especially true, he adds, if the charge is murder punishable by death. He says that the law identifies homicide—the killing of one person by another—in one of three ways: justifiable, excusable, or felonious (criminal). Felonious homicide, he elaborates, can be either murder—deliberately killing someone—or manslaughter—killing someone without having planned it. The verdict, he says, must identify the killing of the five colonists as one of these four types.

Adams gives examples of each type. He also discusses at length a person's right to self-defense. Adams begins to build his defense of the soldiers in this section. He argues that if the soldiers feared for their lives, they were justified in firing. He cites several legal authorities on this issue in support of his argument. His citations are all relevant to the events of March 5. One involves a killing that occurred when attempting to quell a riot. Another involves defending oneself when assaulted and backed against a wall. A third involves an officer of the government who is performing his official duties. Adams then describes the soldiers' predicament and the actions of the crowd to solidify the connections of these precedents.

Riots and Tumults

Adams mentions the Riot Act, a law passed by Parliament in 1714. The law stated that a mayor or other local official could order a crowd of 12 or more people to disperse if the official thought they were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together." If a crowd is so ordered and does not disperse, at that point it could be subject to attack by armed agents of the government. However, the law required that officials first read the Riot Act aloud to the crowd. In the case of the Boston Massacre, Adams notes, the Riot Act was not read to the crowd.

Adams argues that "riots and tumults" will occur from time to time "even in the mildest government." Riots, he says, are dangerous, and participants are subject to the rules of collective responsibility for any violent act committed during a riot. Again, he cites precedents in common law on this point. This is a key point in his defense. The crowd—a mob of rioters—bears shared responsibility for any actions taken by the soldiers against the rioters.

The soldiers, Adams says, do not share collective responsibility as long as they are seen as carrying out a "lawful design." If they were acting lawfully, they must be judged individually. Interestingly, Adams cites only one common law precedent for this position. He then follows that example with several citations that repeat the principle of collective guilt among rioters. Adams applies these precedents to the case—the mob was larger than three persons and acted to attain its goals with force. Thus, the mob was engaged in a riot.

Murder versus Manslaughter

To further justify the soldiers' actions, Adams offers a hypothetical scenario. Suppose a press gang of sailors came from a British ship to seize a Bostonian in order to force him to serve in the navy, he says. Wouldn't this man's neighbors have a right to join together to resist this action? With this line of argument, Adams tries to get the jury to identify with the soldiers and thus win their sympathy. The soldiers, he says, had the same right to join together to defend the poor sentry standing guard alone at the customhouse. He then cites a case in which a killing in such a circumstance was found to be manslaughter—killing that occurs without malicious forethought and planning, a lesser crime than murder.

Adams next addresses the question of the active participation in the riot of all those who were killed. He says that two of the five were most likely not involved in the riot. He refers to a prospective juror in the trial who said that when innocent blood was shed, someone should be punished. Adams uses an analogy to address this argument. If a father accidentally kills his son when they are both hunting, no one would expect the father to be executed as punishment. Similarly, if the soldiers were acting lawfully and accidentally killed someone, they should not be sentenced to die for this mistake. Again, Adams sets up the distinction between murder and manslaughter and how the punishment for each of these acts should be different.

Adams next addresses the question of provocation. He notes that if a person is physically attacked, they can lawfully defend themselves. Even if that attack is not life threatening, the law nonetheless allows for defining a death that results from such defense as manslaughter, not murder.

Boston Massacre Soldiers Feared the Mob

In his arguments on the first day, Adams presents the legal arguments regarding self-defense, murder, and manslaughter. On the second day, he applies those principles to the facts of the case.

He begins the second day of his defense summation by casting doubt on some of the testimony, his purpose being to demonstrate the chaos and short duration of the incident. He uses the conflicting testimony to try to convince the jury that all the facts are not clear. In doing so, he hopes to weaken any certainty about the soldiers' guilt. He points out that several witnesses saw people with clubs and sticks striking the soldiers' guns. These witnesses include some for the "Crown," meaning the prosecution, who would hardly be expected to offer evidence in favor of the soldiers. If, Adams says, the mob was so bold as to strike soldiers' guns with sticks, the soldiers would be justified in fearing more extreme action. Another witness says the mob had as many 50 people taunting and yelling at the soldiers. Surely, Adams says, they must have felt themselves in danger.

Adams cites one witness who had heard defendant Matthew Killroy say earlier that he relished the opportunity to fire on some of the Bostonians who often harassed the soldiers. But, Adams contends, even if that is true, under the circumstances of the riot, Killroy had a right to defend himself. Killroy's statement is not relevant to the events that actually happened.

Adams summarizes other testimony that clearly establishes the danger the soldiers were in. He focuses particularly on the predicament of the lone sentinel, who was struck by large pieces of ice, and soldier Hugh Montgomery, who was struck twice by a club.

Emphasis on Reason and the Law

Adams went on to examine the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, though the transcript does not preserve this part of his presentation. Instead, it skips to his closing arguments. In those last paragraphs, Adams extols the rationality and stability of the law, as opposed to the changing nature of emotions. In addition to his own praise for the law, he quotes Algernon Sidney (1622–83), an English politician who was executed for allegedly conspiring to overthrow King Charles II (1630–85). Sidney was highly regarded by the anti-British colonists in Boston. Adams closes by saying that the law must be "deaf ... to the clamors" of the people. In doing so, he aims to embolden the jurors to follow the law and do what is right rather than what is popular.

Impact of Adams's Defense of the Boston Massacre Soldiers

The jury acquitted six of the soldiers. Killroy and Montgomery were found guilty, but only of manslaughter. Adams convinced the judges to sentence them merely to having their thumbs branded with the letter "M." While the trial spared the soldiers the death penalty, the Boston Massacre became a symbol to many colonists of the harsh rule of the British government. It served as one step on the road that led to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775.

The trial bolstered the fame and reputation of John Adams. A few months after the trial, he was elected to the Massachusetts assembly. In 1774 he was chosen as one of the colony's delegates to the First Continental Congress, and the next year he was sent to the Second Continental Congress. There, he became a persistent voice in favor of declaring American independence. He eventually became the first vice president of the United States and later became the country's second president, serving from 1797–1801.

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