The Winter of Our Discontent
Before he became president, John Adams made a name for himself as a Boston lawyer. Although a devoted Patriot, John Adams held somewhat moderate views on rebellion, especially when compared to his firebrand cousin, Sam Adams.
When Boston became the center of unrest in the colonies, John Adams’s devotion to the Patriot cause was tested by the event known as the Boston Massacre.
By the winter of 1770 colonial unrest came to the fore when a group of colonists began to harass British soldiers stationed at the Old State House. The situation erupted into a deadly scene. After the smoke cleared, five citizens from the mob were dead, including Crispus Attucks.
Paul Revere created the above engraving of the Boston Massacre to promote the Patriot cause. It shows a British captain, Thomas Preston, giving orders to fire upon the defenseless colonists. This classic piece of Patriot propaganda tells a story, but perhaps not the whole story.
John Adams Defends British Soldiers?
Captain Preston and the British soldiers were accused of murder, and they needed a lawyer. They eventually found John Adams to head their defense. And, he defended them successfully.
Captain Preston was found not guilty, along with six of the eight soldiers. The remaining two soldiers were found not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter. As a result, the two soldiers were branded with an M on their thumbs. Although surely the results angered Patriots such as Sam Adams and Paul Revere, the trial was a great success for John Adams’s career as a lawyer.
Gallant, Generous, Manly
In his later writings, John Adams recounted his role in defending the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre:
“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”
- “The Bloody Massacre” engraving by Paul Revere, Library of Congress
- The John Adams Historical Society, http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/boston-massacre-trials
- Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/rare-books/john_adams.php
- Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, http://www.millercenter.org/president
- Smith, Carter. Presidents: All You Need to Know. Irvington, NY: Hylas, 2005.