Biography of John Adams

The Boston Massacre

"Never in more misery my whole life."

John Adams, writing in his journal, February 1771, shortly after the trial of the British soldiers.

The Boston Massacre was the act of British soldiers firing into a mob of Boston citizens. When the smoke had cleared, five citizens of the mob were dead, including Crispus Attucks. The captain of the troops was Thomas Preston. After the troops had stop firing, Captain Preston noticed a Boston citizen walking directly up to soldiers. The citizen, Benjamin Burdick told Captain Preston, "I want to see some faces that I may swear to another day." Captain Preston, realizing that there would soon be a trial, answered, "Perhaps, sir, you may."

The next morning John Adams was in his law office in Boston. The anti-British fever in Boston was rampant. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty were already calling the event the Boston Massacre. Paul Revere turned out an engraving that depicted Captain Preston ordering the troops to fire at point blank range on a defenseless crowd. To help calmed the mobs, Governor Hutchinson ordered that the soldiers arrested and promised the crowds that a trial would be held. That afternoon in Faneuil Hall a meeting of the Sons of Liberty demanded that all British must be removed from Boston.

James Forrest, a successful merchant and staunch Tory, brought a message to Adams. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Forrest explained that the message was from Captain Thomas Preston. Captain Preston was in jail and needed legal council. Forrest had spoke to several other lawyers and none of them would take the case. Captain Preston asked if Adams would take the case. Adams and another young lawyer, Josiah Quincy accepted Captain Preston request.

The soldiers faced arraignment in September. Captain Preston and his eight men pleaded innocent. Preston's men had petitioned that they were following Preston's orders and they should all be tried at one time. The court denied the petition and ordered that Captain Preston should stand trial first.

Captain Preston's trial began on October 24, 1770. By the standards of the time, the trial would be a long one. It was the first criminal trial in Massachusetts to last longer than one day! The jury selection favored the defendant. Of the fist seven jurors, only two were from Boston. The last five were all Tories. In addition to the favorable jury, the defendant had reason for hope. During the summer the thirst for blood by the town's residents had weaken.

The prosecution began its case by trying to prove that even if Captain Preston did not give the order to fire, he did have time to give the order, "Recover!" However, most of the witness testimony was confusing and conflicting. Benjamin Burdick, the citizen who took a hard look at the soldiers for this trial, admitted that he had carried a sword that evening. Burdick was prepared to cut off the head of any solider who threatened to stab him with a sword. The crown prosecutors rested their case on the second day.

John, leading the defense, called twenty-two witnesses in one day. A merchant claimed he had his hand on Preston's shoulder and did not hear Preston give the order to fire. Three black witnesses, two slaves and a freeman, gave testimony that they did hear any order to fire. They also testified that the crowd pelted the soldiers with snowballs.

After breaking for Sunday, on October 30, 1770, the jury declared a verdict of not-guilty. Preston wrote to General Gage praising the skill of his lawyers. In his diary, John Adams, noted that Captain Preston had not taken the time to thank his lawyers personally.

The trial of the soldiers began in December. Josiah Quincy wanted to put the town on trial, trying to prove that there was a premeditated plot to drive the British soldiers out of Boston. When Adams heard of this, he threatened to quit the case. Adams' threat worked, Quincy rescheduled his witnesses. Adams and Quincy were able to prevent any Boston resident from serving on this trial's jury. Quincy presented many witnesses that presented the case that soldiers acted in self defense. It was up to John Adams to offer the final summation of the case.

In disagreement with Sam Adams, John had no tolerance for any mob, even when the mob was on John's side. John tried to recreate what it was like to face the mob for those jurors that have never seen one. Adams reminded the jury that everyone who joined in an illegal assembly was guilty of every crime a mob might commit. However, he claimed that the mob on March 5 was provoked due to despotism of the government.

Adams was not finished when the court adjourned for the day at 5:00 P.M. The next morning, Adams described that the mob was

"a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes, and mulattos, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars...shouting and hazing and threatening life...whistling, screaming, and rending an Indian yell... throwing every species of rubbish the could pick up in the street."
Adams told the jurors to put themselves in the place of the soldiers.

Robert Treat Paine summed the crown's case. It was a very uninspiring performance. The jury was out for two and a half hours before coming to a verdict. Of the eight soldiers, only two were found guilty, Matthew Kilroy and Hugh Montgomery. The next week the two soldiers were sentenced to have their thumbs branded. The soldiers were sent back to their regiment. As the regiment was set to sail to New Jersey, Hugh Montgomery confessed to his lawyers that he had shouted on that fateful night, "Damn you, fire!"