John Adams and the Boston Massacre

John Adams and the Boston Massacre

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.


Patriot Propaganda

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.”  

–John Adams


© 2021 Periodic Presidents

Which presidents are related?

Which presidents are related?

 Father-Son Duos

The Adamses were the first father-son duo to be elected President. The Adams family connection to the New World goes way back.  In fact, John Adams’s great-great-grandparents were among the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620.

John and John Quincy experienced similar careers: both went to Harvard, both were lawyers, and both were elected to one presidential term.

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”

~John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams, 1780


George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush were the second father-son duo to reach the White House. Incidentally, the Bush presidents share some similarities with the Adams presidents.

Both John Adams and George H. W. Bush served as vice presidents before being elected president. John Quincy and George W. both entered the White House under controversy.

John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay in the election of 1824 – in what was dubbed “The Corrupt Bargain” by Jackson supporters. In 2000 George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in a presidential election that wasn’t finalized until five weeks after Election Day. Neither John Quincy Adams nor George W. Bush received the majority of the popular vote in their elections.  As a matter of fact, the elections of 1824 and 2000 were both decided by outside of the Electoral College. The House of Representatives made the final decision in 1824, and in a five to four vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the 2000 election with a George W. Bush victory.

“I had watched Dad climb into the biggest arena and succeed. I wanted to find out if I had what it took to join him.”

~George W. Bush, Decision Points, 2010

Grandfather & Grandson

The Harrison family name was etched in American history books when Benjamin Harrison V signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Founding Father Harrison had a son named William Henry, who eventually became a war hero, a president (for thirty days), and the origin of a presidential legend.  William Henry’s grandson, Benjamin would also reach the White House when he was elected in 1888.

The election of 1840 was truly a national campaign with slogans, songs, and even nicknames. William Henry Harrison, or “Old Tippecanoe,” ran as an everyman candidate who was born in a log cabin.  However, Harrison’s beginnings were far from modest. The Harrison family had been a wealthy Virginia family from the beginning of the nation.

As the grandson of a president and the great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Harrison brought a distinguished name into the White House. However, most historians agree that his one term as president didn’t shine nearly as brightly as his family name.


James Madison and Zachary Taylor were second cousins. James Madison was a devoted student of history, law, and politics. As a an influential Founder, he played a leading role in framing the Constitution and introducing the Bill of Rights.

Zachary Taylor, on the other hand, was a military hero who arguably knew little about government, law, or politics when he was elected. How about that?  The Father of the Constitution and the president who was a first-time voter at his own election are related.

The Roosevelts were fifth cousins. Teddy was the uncle of Eleanor. In fact, when Franklin and Eleanor married, Teddy gave the bride away. Teddy’s signature can be seen on Franklin and Eleanor’s marriage certificate below.

Genealogists have determined that FDR is related – by blood or marriage – to a total of eleven presidents: George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Madison, Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Howard Taft.

 “It is a good thing to keep the name in the family.”

~Teddy Roosevelt to a reporter at the Franklin Roosevelt-Eleanor Roosevelt wedding, 1905


© 2021 Periodic Presidents

What is written on Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone?

What is written on Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone?


The above words are inscribed on Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone.  Where is “Third President of the United States of America?”  Before his death, Thomas Jefferson left specific instructions for a monument to be constructed on his grave site.  In reference to the words to be placed on his gravestone, Jefferson said, “On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more.”1  He continued by writing, “because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

Why didn’t Thomas Jefferson rank “U.S. President” as one of his top three most memorable moments?  Overall, historians view Thomas Jefferson quite favorably as president – on his worst day he’s still in the top ten.  He appears on our money, on Mount Rushmore, and he’s got one of the best memorials in D.C.  In fact, one line from Jefferson’s resume would get a person in the history books.

“because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

Perhaps the three accomplishments on Jefferson’s gravestone are what he views as his best.  The fact that he left explicit instructions for his gravestone’s inscription demonstrates Jefferson’s need to exert some control over his legacy.  Independence, religious freedom, and education.  You can’t argue with those ideas.

Original gravestone, Courtesy of the University of Missouri

Jefferson’s family erected the obelisk gravestone in 1833.2  The original gravestone was eventually replaced due to visitors chipping off pieces of the it for souvenirs.  In 1882 Congress okayed a measure to provide funds to replace Jefferson’s original gravestone.  The original obelisk was donated to the University of Missouri at Columbia – where it now resides.

July 4, 1826

Just months after Jefferson wrote instructions for his gravestone, he passed away.  According to the Monticello website, Jefferson’s last words cannot be determined with certainty.3  Jefferson’s last recorded words are “No, doctor, nothing more.”  However, some believe that Jefferson’s last words were “Is it the Fourth?” or “This is the Fourth of July.”  In any case, Thomas Jefferson passed away on the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776 – arguably the most important date in American history.  Jefferson was not alone.  In fact, in Quincy, Massachusetts, John Adams passed away on the same day at the age of 90.  Adams’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”  He was mistaken.  Jefferson had actually died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 82.4

Gravestone photos by PJ Creek

Google Maps

Go to Jefferson’s Grave.


“MU Teams with Smithsonian to Save Original Jefferson Tombstone Marker”


The Library of Congress: Thomas Jefferson Exhibit

Monticello website: Jefferson’s Gravestone

Monticello Website: Jefferson’s Last Words This Day in History – July 4

© 2021 Periodic Presidents, PJ and Jamie Creek