Adams, King, and Jack McCoy

By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers

In the forthcoming Papers of John Adams, Volume 17, Massachusetts representative to the Continental Congress and future minister to Great Britain, Rufus King, pens his first letter to the sitting minister to Great Britain, John Adams, in November 1785, describing himself as a “stranger.” While it was true that the two had not met, Adams had represented King’s father, the Tory-learning Richard King, a dozen years earlier.

In March 1766, a mob of self-described “Suns of liburty” broke into King’s home and store, terrifying his family, breaking windows and burning papers in his desk. Although threatening retaliation for legal action, King pursued a civil action against the group. When he did not find the awarded damages satisfactory, he appealed, and it was at this point that Adams joined as counsel.

This trial, Richard King v. John Stewart et al., is a poignant reminder that before Adams was a Founding Father, he was a talented attorney. This case, perhaps even more than the Boston Massacre trials, reveals that Adams neither allowed his personal political sympathies to cloud his legal judgment nor to determine which cases he would undertake. Moreover, Adams did not simply recite dry legal precedents, but tied the law to strong emotionally driven images to encourage the jury to connect with his client, as this Jack McCoy styled closing argument demonstrates:

Be pleased then to imagine yourselves each one for himself—in bed with his pregnant Wife, in the dead of Midnight, five Children also asleep, and all the servants. . . . The Doors and Windows all barrd, bolted and locked—all asleep, suspecting nothing, harbouring no Malice, Envy or Revenge in your own Bosoms nor dreaming of any in your Neighbours. . . .

All of a sudden, in an Instant, in a twinkling of an Eye, an armed Banditti of Felons, Thieves, Robbers, and Burglars, rush upon the House. Like Savages from the Wilderness, or like Legions from the Blackness of Darkness, they yell and Houl, they dash in all the Windows and enter. Enterd they Roar, they stamp, they Yell, they houl, they cutt break tear and burn all before them.

Do you see a tender and affectionate Husband, an amiable deserving Wife near her Time, 3 young Children, all in one Chamber, awakened all at once, ignorant what was the Cause, terrifyd, inquisitive to know it. The Husband attempting to run down stairs, his Wife, laying hold of his Arm, to stay him and sinking fainting dying away in his Arms. The Children crying and clinging round their Parents—father will they kill me—father save me! . . .

It’s of great Importance to the Community that sufficient that exemplary Damages should be given in such Cases. King might have kill’d em all. If a Man has Humanity enough, to refrain, he ought to be fully compensated.

One of the children home that night was then eleven-year-old Rufus King. Nearly two decades later, he had grown to reject his father’s loyalism, become a staunch patriot and later Federalist, and initiate a correspondence with John Adams that led to a friendship with two generations of the Adams family.