Wednesday, April 24, 2013

John Adams and the Rule of Law in Boston

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,
A Gilbert Stuart portrait
of John Adams, ca. 1821.
right? Why waste tax dollars on this guy with a long, expensive trial?

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.


Chris Beneke said...

Thanks for writing this Heather. Another Boston massacre, another occasion to affirm our commitment to justice and the rule of law.

Steven Cromack said...

Hear, hear!

Eric B. Schultz said...

A great reminder. And when is Adams going to get his statue, anyway?! It was all the rage after David McCullough's bio.

JMS said...

Kudos! I always 'teach" this case to my Western Civ. & U.S. history students by having them read Douglas Linder's great overview of the trials at his Famous Trials website. Linder concludes:

"John Adams, found the verdicts deeply satisfying. Looking back at the trials after an illustrious career that had taken him to the White House, Adams said:

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."

Unknown said...

What a great reminder of the importance of all of us being equal under the eyes of the law.

David Schorr said...

Why were the soldiers acquitted for killing members of a mob?