The Trials that Started the American Revolution: John Adams

The Bloody Massacre | March 6 1770 | Wikicommons
The Bloody Massacre | March 6 1770 | Courtesy of Wikicommons

“May it please your Honours, and you Gentlemen of the Jury, I yesterday afternoon produced from the best authorities, those rules of law which must govern all cases of homicide, particularly that which is now before you; it now remains to consider the evidence, and see whether any thing has occurred, that may be compared to the rules read to you; and I will not trouble myself nor you with laboured endeavours to be methodical. I shall endeavour to make some few observations, on the testimonies of the witnesses, such as will place the facts in a true point of light, with as much brevity as possible; but I suppose it would take me four hours to read to you, (if I did nothing else but read) the minutes of evidence that I have taken in this trial. In the first place the Gentleman who opened this cause, has stated to you, with candour and precision, the evidence of the identity of the persons.”1

First patriot killed in the Boston Massacre | March 6 1770 | Courtesy of Flickr

This was part of the opening statement that John Adams gave at one of the most popular trials in American history. The Boston Massacre and the trials that followed were part of the sequence of events that ultimately led to the American Revolution. John Adams, one of our founding fathers, played an active role in these trials. However, John Adams did not defend his fellow colonists in these trials, but rather he defended the British soldiers who were put on trial for the murder of five colonists on March 5, 1770. John Adams received an invitation to be the leading defending attorney in the case of Captain Preston and the soldiers. Although many denied this request, John Adams without hesitation agreed. Adams’ motivation for taking the case aren’t clearly known. Adams knew that taking on such a case would be very dangerous, and he and his family could be attacked by an angry mob. And if he were to fail, his economic future, along with any career goals, would be in jeopardy.  Adams’s reasons for defending the soldiers are not entirely known, but Adams was known to believed that everyone deserved a fair trial, no matter the situation. In addition it is also believed that Adams was hoping to use this case to help his political career.2 When asked about how he felt about the trial, he responded, “The part I took in Defense 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 Adams3

Weeks before the trials even began, a huge propaganda war over the massacre had broken out. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty were working hard to make sure their version of the story was heard. Their story was about the Red Coats and how they heartlessly murdered innocent residents. Not only that, but the Sons of Liberty also published the famous engraving of Paul Revere’s showing the British officer Captain Preston ordering his men to fire. The illustration even showed an extra musket firing out of the customs house, to demonstrate that the redcoats had planned this attack. However, Captain Preston was also writing from his jail cell his side of the story for publication.4 The trial did not take place right away. It was delayed for seven months, and then it only lasted eight days. The delay was to allow the tensions in Boston to calm down.

Boston Massacre Trial Notes | 1770 | Courtesy of Boston Public Library

Adams sought to have separate trials for Preston and the soldiers since Preston was not accused of killing, but rather for just ordering his soldiers to fire. Captain Preston was prosecuted independently from his soldiers and was up first for trial. During Captain Preston’s trial, Adams argued on Preston’s behalf that there was a great deal of confusion on that night, but that there was no concrete evidence that Preston had given the order to fire. Adams, leading the defense, called twenty-two witnesses in one day. One witness, a merchant, testified that during the madness of the night, he stood next to Preston, and even had his hand on Preston’s shoulder, and he did not hear him give the order to fire. Three black witnesses, two slaves and a freeman, gave testimony that they did not hear any order to fire. Eyewitnesses also presented contradictory evidence on whether Preston had ordered his men to fire on the colonists, which helped Adams defense. After this, Adams argued that reasonable doubt did exist. Preston was found not guilty.5

Although Captain Preston’s acquittal was a good win for Adams, it complicated the soldiers’ trials as they would be viewed as solely responsible for the shootings. Adams defense strategy focused on the behavior of the mob rather than who shouted “fire.” Adams argued that the mob was threatening and harassing the soldiers and that they were attacked by a group of “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish Teague’s and outlandish jacktars.”6 Adams made it clear that the soldiers felt endangered and had a right to fire into the crowd as an action of self-defense, and that their actions may qualify for manslaughter, but certainly not murder.

Quincy presented many witnesses that also presented the case that the soldiers acted in self-defense. A key factor that really helped the soldiers’ case was a second-hand testimony from one of the wounded victims that had been shot, Patrick Carr. According to the testimony, Carr admitted that the soldiers were in fact provoked and they fired in self-defense and that Carr did not blame them for his injuries. However, the prosecution was working hard on trying to paint the soldiers as vengeful, soulless monsters that fired and killed a group of innocent civilians. Nonetheless, their case was weak, and when their witnesses were cross examined, they admitted that the soldiers were in fact provoked.7

The jury acquitted the six soldiers: William Wemms, William M’Cauley, Hugh White, William Warren, John Carol, and James Hartegan. However, the two other soldiers, Kilroy and Montgomery, faced the death penalty at the sentencing on December 14, 1770. To try and escape execution, they “prayed the benefit of clergy,” a Medieval remnant of the time when clergymen were excepted from the secular courts. To receive the benefit of clergy, they had to prove they could read, in a time when most people could not. Although Kilroy was illiterate, he was still able to obtain the benefit because the reading requirement had been abolished in 1705. Suffolk County Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf branded both soldiers on the right thumb with an “M” for murder. The brand was to prevent them from ever being able to invoke the benefit of clergy again.8

John Adams | Courtesy of wikicommons

The Massacre trials had a great impact on the revolution that was about to come. Samuel Adams wrote several articles in the Boston Gazette in December, 1770, saying that the soldiers had escaped the blood on their hands. The outcome of the trials were a great victory for John Adams, although the prosecution’s weak evidence and testimonies had made Adams’ victory all that much easier. Adams performed at his best. Adams was aware that there were jurors who sympathized with the Sons of Liberty, and so he was careful not to infuriate them by blaming the residents, but rather by shifting the blame towards London, since they had sent the troops. These trials also helped jump start Adams’ political career. Following the trials, he became known as one of the best lawyers. Three months following the trial, in Massachusetts he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and years later he became the second president of the United States.9

  1. “Speech by John Adams at the Boston Massacre Trials,” http://www.bostonmassacre.net/trial/acct-adams1.htm.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v., “Boston Massacre,” by Jeff Wallenfeldt.
  3. Douglas O. Linder, “The Boston Massacre Trials: An Account,” 1995,  Famous Trials.com (website), https://famous-trials.com/massacre/196-home.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020, s.v., “Boston Massacre,” by Jeff Wallenfeldt.
  5.  Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, “The Boston Massacre,” HistoryofMassachussets.org (blog), November 10, 2011, https://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-boston-massacre/
  6. “The Boston Massacre Trials,” John Adams Heritage (website), accessed December 5, 2019. http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/boston-massacre-trials/.
  7. “The Boston Massacre Trials,” John Adams Heritage (website), accessed December 5, 2019. http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/boston-massacre-trials/.
  8. “The Boston Massacre Trials,” John Adams Heritage (website), accessed December 5, 2019. http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/boston-massacre-trials/.
  9. “The Boston Massacre Trials,” John Adams Heritage (website), accessed December 5, 2019. http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/boston-massacre-trials/.

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22 Responses

  1. This article was very interesting to read. I never knew that John Adams had so many victories under his belt before he even stepped foot into the white house. I wonder how much more evidence we would’ve found with today’s technology, and if it were to have changed the outcomes of the case. From this, I can understand that John Adams was someone who fought for what he believed in and didn’t take no for an answer.

  2. A wonderfully informative article about one of the most pivotal moments leading up to the American revolution. It’s always good to remember that the colonists did not set out originally to gain their independence but rather to work with Britain to garner a better situation. I will say that it was fascinating to hear a story about John Adams that I hadn’t heard before. It’s interesting to think about what Adam’s reasons for taking the case are and how the memory of him could be different if we did know them.

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