Defense of the Boston Massacre Soldiers | Study Guide

John Adams

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Defense of the Boston Massacre Soldiers | Quotes


We are to look upon it as more beneficial, that many guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should suffer.

Adams begins his defense by citing a British legal principle that warns against miscarriage of justice. In doing so, he warns the jury that they must take extreme care in rendering a verdict.


Every instance of killing a man, is not a crime in the eye of the law.

Adams defines four different types of killings, explaining that only two of these types are crimes: murder and manslaughter. He wants to make sure the jury understands that the law does not treat all killings in the same way. The circumstances leading to the killing matter.


If any reasonable man, in the situation of one of these soldiers, ... [believed] that the people came with an intention to kill him, ... they were justifiable ... in firing.

After discussing the right of self-defense, Adams applies it to the situation of the soldiers. Buttressing his case with citations from the common law, he also appeals to the jurors' common sense. Surely, he argues, someone fearing for their well-being has a right to defend themself.


The law does not oblige us ... to stand still with such a number of people ... threatening our lives, until we are disabled to defend ourselves.

Adams hammers home the self-defense argument. The law cannot require someone being threatened to submit to the danger of harm to such an extent that he is no longer capable of self-defense.


In case of an unlawful assembly, all and every one of the assembly is guilty of all and every unlawful act, committed by any one of that assembly.

Adams's strategy is to direct the jury's attention to the danger posed by the mob. Doing so justifies his self-defense argument. He cites decisions from the common law to support his claim that the mob shares collective responsibility for its actions.


If you are satisfied, that these soldiers were there on a lawful design and it should be proved any of them shot without provocation and killed any body, he only is answerable for it.

After establishing group responsibility for the mob, Adams argues the reverse for the soldiers. If they were gathered lawfully—unlike the mob—the precedents of collective responsibility do not apply to them. With this argument, Adams opens to the door to individual verdicts by the jury. That is, it can find some soldiers guilty and acquit others.


I do not mean to apply the word rebel on this occasion: I have no reason to suppose that ever there was one in Boston.

Adams does not wish the jury to think he is accusing the mob of rebellion. Since many in the jury might agree with those who protested the presence of the soldiers, such a view might alienate them. There is a certain irony, of course, in his pleading that "there never was" a rebel in Boston, which became a launching point of the American Revolution five years later.


Whenever one person hath a right to do an act, and that act by any accident, takes away the life of another, it is excusable.

Adams argues this principle to excuse the soldiers in the deaths of the two victims who were probably not rioting. Lack of participation in the riot does not mean criminal responsibility for their deaths—as long as the soldiers were acting lawfully.


Assault and battery ... is such a provocation as the law allows to reduce killing, down to the crime of manslaughter.

Under the law, Adams says, a physical attack gives a person the right to respond. If that response results in the attacker being killed, it is the lesser crime of manslaughter.


If he had malice before, it does not take away from him the right of defending himself against any unjust aggressor.

Adams defends soldier Matthew Killroy against the charge that he had malicious intent. Even if Killroy had said harsh things about the people of Boston, because of the circumstances of the riot, if he fired at all, it was in self-defense.


The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers.

Adams first muses on the number of different names used by witnesses to describe the crowd. He then insists on calling them a mob. Recognizing the truth, he says, does not shatter the world. The sun will not cease burning simply because people acknowledge that the crowd was a mob. Adams goes on to point out that mobs have long been a feature of human societies. They are, he notes, a relatively new phenomenon in Boston.


It is impossible you should find him guilty of murder.

Citing testimony, Adams says that soldier Hugh Montgomery was knocked down by a blow from a club and then struck again when he stood up. Clearly, he says, Montgomery had a legitimate claim of self-defense. This means Montgomery's actions cannot be defined as murder. Adams stresses the distinction between murder and manslaughter. The jury convicted Montgomery and one other solider of manslaughter, acquitting all the others.


This was the behaviour of Attucks—to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.

Adams singles out Crispus Attucks—an African American who was one of the victims—as an instigator of the violence. Later, he says that Attucks was not from Boston but from nearby Framingham. By focusing Attucks's race and status as an out-of-towner, Adams invites the jury to see the mob's actions as not those of true Bostonians. That eases the way for the jury to see the crowd as a riotous mob and not noble individuals protecting their rights.


Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, ... they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

As he draws to a close, Adams stresses that the law relies on facts and reason, not passions and desires. In doing so, he asks the jury to set aside their feelings about British soldiers. Adams was himself part of the growing anti-British movement, but he defended the soldiers based on his commitment to legal principles.


The law ... will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men.

In his closing paragraph, Adams again holds up the law as a model of rationality. By speaking of "uncertain" wishes and "wanton" tempers, he characterizes emotion—the opposite of legal rationality—as unstable and unreliable.

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