Why did John Adams defend Captain Preston after the Boston Massacre?

John Adams, Second President of the United States
Portrait of John Adams, Second President of the United States. Oil by Charles Wilson Peale, 1791. Independence National Historical Park

Question: Why did John Adams defend Captain Preston after the Boston Massacre?

Answer: John Adams believed that the rule of law should be paramount and that the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre deserved a fair trial.

On March 5, 1770 a small gathering of colonists in Boston were tormenting British soldiers. Unlike normal, the taunting on this day led to an escalation of hostilities. There was a sentry standing in front of the Custom House who talked back to the colonists.

More colonists then arrived on the scene. In fact, the church bells began ringing which led to even more colonists arriving on the scene. Church bells were typically rung in cases of fire. 

Captain Preston and a detachment of seven or eight soldiers were surrounded by Boston citizens who were angry and taunting the men. Attempts to calm the gathered citizens were useless. At this point, something happened that caused a solider to fire their musket into the crowd. Soldiers including Captain Prescott claimed the crowd had heavy clubs, sticks, and fireballs. Prescott said that the soldier who shot first was hit by a stick. Just like with any confusing public event, a number of disparate accounts were given about the actual chain of events. What is known is that after the first shot, more followed. In the aftermath, several people were wounded and five were dead including an African-American named Crispus Attucks.



John Adams led the defense team, assisted by Josiah Quincy. They faced off against prosecutor, Samuel Quincy, Josiah's brother. They waited seven months to start the trial in order to let the furor die down. However, in the meantime the Sons of Liberty had started a major propaganda effort against the British.

The six-day trial, quite long for its time, was held in late October. Preston pleaded not guilty, and his defense team called witnesses to show who actually yelled the word 'Fire'. This was central to proving whether Preston was guilty. The witnesses contradicted themselves and each other. The jury was sequestered and after deliberating, they acquitted Preston. They used the basis of 'reasonable doubt' as there was no proof he actually did order his men to fire. 

The verdict's effect was huge as the leaders of the rebellion used it as further proof of Great Britain's tyranny. Paul Revere created his famous engraving of the event that he titled, "The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street." The Boston Massacre is often pointed to as an event that presaged the Revolutionary War. The event soon became a rallying cry for the patriots.

While John Adams actions made him unpopular with the patriots in Boston for several months, he was able to over come this stigma due to his stance that he defended the British through principle rather than sympathy for their cause.

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