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.
Adams defended British officer Thomas Preston and his soldiers in two separate trials. Can you talk about the balancing that Adams undertook to defend all of his clients without alienating his fellow Bostonians, many of whom fervently supported the broader cause of the Patriots?
As far as the city is concerned, you know, these days, criminal defense lawyers regularly cite the defense of British soldiers by John Adams as an example of why they have to represent certain clients. And yet, the thing that Adams did in this case was that some of them were not defending them in a way that was not scorched earth. Adams did not blame the city for starting the skirmish. He kept him very, very focused on the facts of this particular case – what happened, who was there, the specific individuals – and did not make a broader indictment of the Sons of Liberty and others who supported violence against British soldiers.
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The trial brought together dozens of witnesses who often gave contradictory testimony. Was it Adams’ legal strategy to make jurors unclear about the facts the night of the incident?
I don’t think it was part of his strategy to make it unclear. I think it was not clear. There was a lot of confusion about what exactly had happened. What we know does not have This is what most of us learn in school – the idea of British soldiers mowing settlers. What exactly led to this first shot is not yet clear today, but I think Adams must have gone further here. I think he had to show that these soldiers were afraid, and I think he did.
What was the impact of the testimony of Dr. John Jeffries, who reported that one of the victims of the Boston massacre said on his deathbed that the soldiers had shot in self-defense?
When a doctor says one of the victims understands why the soldiers did what they did, there is almost nothing more powerful. It is hearsay. This is also called the declaration of death, and in a courtroom today we have an exception to the hearsay rule for a declaration of death because the theory is that, although hearsay evidence may be generally unreliable; it is more reliable if it is someone’s final statement before their death.
Adams was not particularly charismatic, so what made him an effective lawyer?
First of all, I think he really appreciated the law. I think he had a real love for the law and the rule of law. Others may have had a more rhetorical flair, but when it came to presenting the facts, especially in one difficult case, Adams was incredibly intelligent and efficient. Part of what made him effective may have been his lack of spice – because he was just credible as a law student.
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What was the impact of these trials on the creation of the American legal system?
What makes this case so interesting from a legal point of view is how they must have understood things in several ways. Yes, they were using British law, but there was also this feeling that the settlers wanted their own system of law, so some of the rules were different. It was the first time that a reasonable doubt was used as a standard. It was the first time that a jury had been kidnapped. It was definitely a case of firsts.
I think part of the reason why certain aspects of this case have been devoted is because this case has been viewed in such a positive light from a positive point of view. At the time, the settlers were frustrated with the outcome, but I think they realized that the trial had been fair. And if you can have a case with so much emotion and passion and get a mixed verdict, which was generally unsatisfactory for the settlers – and yet have accepted it – this is the kind of case that serves as an effective precedent.
The patriots accepted the verdicts of the non-violent mixed trial. What does this say about their faith in the rule of law?
The Boston massacre could certainly have led to the revolution six years earlier, but it is not because people have accepted a very controversial verdict. As we discuss in the book, part of the reason why the transcript of the trial was so important was that anyone who was not in court could always review what the witnesses had said. It was not just British soldiers who were shooting randomly at settlers.
After researching the trials, has the result been returned?
Surprisingly. I think the verdicts are almost exactly what we would see today. It is obvious to me that Captain Preston did not order his men to shoot and he was acquitted. They could have convicted all of the soldiers for the actions of one or two of them, but they did not do so because there was simply no evidence that the others were involved in the shooting. And I think that is an amazing testimony to the jurors of the time.
This interview has been condensed and revised.