Why John Adams Defended British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials

Blood remained fresh on the snow outside Boston Customs on the morning of March 6, 1770. A few hours earlier, rising tensions between British troops and settlers had exploded in violence when a band of Redcoats opened fire on a crowd that had bombarded them with just taunts, but ice, oyster shells and broken glass. Although the soldiers claimed to have acted in self-defense, the patriots’ propaganda called the incident a Boston massacre. Eight British soldiers and their responsible officer, Captain Thomas Preston, were charged with the murder of five settlers.

Not far from customs, a 34-year-old Boston lawyer sat in his office and made a difficult decision. Although a devout patriot, John Adams agreed to risk his family’s livelihood and defend the British soldiers and their commander in a Boston courtroom. The issue was not only the fate of nine men, but the relationship between the homeland and its colonies on the eve of the American Revolution.

In the new book John Adams Under Fire: The founding father’s fight for justice in the Boston murder trial, Dan Abrams and co-author David Fisher detail what they call the “most important case in American colonial history” and an important milestone in the development of American jurisprudence. Abrams, who is also the chief legal affairs correspondent for ABC News and host of “Live PD” on A&E, recently discussed the matter with History.com.

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HISTORY: At the time of the Boston massacre, John Adams was a patriot mourning the loss of a child with a new baby on the way. Why did he risk his family’s livelihood to represent British soldiers?

Dan Abrams: The main reason was that he felt that everyone had the right to a defense. But I also think he learned a little about the case and that there was a legitimate defense – because the events were not as clear as some patriots wanted to make believe. He also knew that there were two lawyers who said they would take the case as long as he was part of the team.


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