I see a hero working in his law office in Boston on March 6, 1770.  A Boston merchant has come to visit the thirty-four-year old lawyer and patriot.  Both the merchant and the young lawyer are well aware of the shocking event that took place in their city the previous night.  British soldiers had opened fire on a mob of Americans in a cobbled square.  Five of the American had been mortally wounded.  The merchant, James Forest, asks our hero to defend the soldiers and their captain.  The soldiers fired in self-defense, Forest says.  Thugs threw stones, bricks, and oyster-shells at the soldiers.  A club-wielding man knocked down one of the soldiers. 

The lawyer knows that the cause of the British soldiers will not be a popular one in a city with a thousand legitimate grievances against the occupying troops.  The lawyer understands that taking the case will not only subject him to criticism, but might also jeopardize his legal practice--or even risk the safety of himself and his family.  But he believes deeply that every person deserves a defense.   He takes on the case without hesitation.  For his efforts, he will receive the modest sum of eighteen guineas. 

You all know the name of our young lawyer-hero: John Adams.  Adams defends the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre that fall of 1770. As Adams had anticipated, the public mood favors conviction and execution.  His law practice has dwindled to practically nothing.  Yet Adams gives the defense his all.  He gathers and offers to the jury witnesses who tell of the snowballs, stones and oyster-shells hurled by a taunting mob at the soldiers before the shooting began.

 In his summation, Adams reminds the jury: 
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence… To your candor and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause.”


Boston Massacre 
(Engraving by Paul Revere)


The jury responds to Adams’ plea with seven acquittals and two convictions—convictions not for murder, but for manslaughter….

John Adams is hot right now.  David McCullough, in his best-selling biography of Adams, calls him America’s most underrated founding father.  Congress is considering authorizing funds for an Adams Memorial in Washington.  Adams did many great things.  If Jefferson wrote the words of Declaration of Independence, the words were in the voice of Adams.  During the Revolutionary War, while Washington’s ragtag army fought the British, Adams undertook a dangerous winter sea crossing to secure the aid essential to victory.  As our second president, Adams kept the United States out of a potentially disastrous war and appointed the great Chief Justice, John Marshall.

It is striking that a man of such tremendous accomplishments would, in his later years, point to his representation of British soldiers in 1770 as perhaps the proudest achievement of his life. Adams wrote: 

“The Part I took in Defense of Captain 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." 

“Gallant,” “Generous,” “One of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”  What do Adams’s words tell you about the value this man placed on justice?  Injustices are “a foul stain upon a country.”  What does that tell you about what Adams saw as one of the central values of our emerging nation?