Heather Cox Richardson
Message boards and blogs are full of angry people calling for Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be tortured or killed. Or both. Immediately. After all, it’s pretty clear he’s guilty,
right? Why waste tax
dollars on this guy with a long, expensive trial?
|A Gilbert Stuart portrait |
of John Adams, ca. 1821.
And anyway, who ever said a terrorist who murders Americans should get a fair trial?
Well, Founding Father John Adams, for one. Right here in Boston.
Adams was a rising lawyer in Massachusetts during the infancy of the American Revolution. On March 5, 1770, eight British soldiers opened fire when someone in a taunting mob threw a rock at them. When the shooting was over, five Americans were dead and others were wounded. Within weeks, a grand jury indicted the soldiers, along with their commander, Captain Thomas Preston.
It seemed all Boston was inflamed against the murdering foreign soldiers. The “Boston Massacre” became a rallying cry for those eager to revolt against England. Son of Liberty Paul Revere produced his famous engraving rewriting the event to show the soldiers firing systematically into a peaceful crowd. Few wanted to bother to try the prisoners, and in the end, officials delayed the trial for seven months in the hope that emotions would subside. They didn’t.
After a number of lawyers refused to defend Preston and the soldiers, 35-year-old John Adams took the case. Adams supported the Revolutionaries, but also fervently believed in the rule of law. (Ironically, the prosecutor was a Loyalist.) When prosecutors botched their argument—perhaps intentionally—Adams and his team refused to throw the game. Bearing down, they managed to get all but two of the soldiers acquitted. Those two were convicted not of murder, but of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Thus, Adams won his case . . . and won freedom for the men who had killed his countrymen.
|A detail of from the Paul Revere of the Boston massacre.|
But by insisting on a fair trial for his country’s enemies, Adams served his cause far better than if he had bowed to the popular desire to mete out mob justice. Adams and his team established that Massachusetts—and by extension, the new nation Massachusetts men wanted to create—would put no man, even a killer, beneath the law, and no man above it. Theirs would be a nation based not on popular sentiment, but on law. “Facts are stubborn things,” Adams said in defense of the soldiers, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates or our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He went on: “The law no passion can disturb. ‘Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ‘Tis . . . written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but, without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low.”
That principle turned the Revolutionaries into our founding generation, and that same generation made John Adams the nation’s second president.