John Adams on the Case: Untangling Myths of the Massacre

By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers

The basic outlines of the Boston Massacre are well known. March 5, 1770, that fateful and bloody night, led to trials that have become almost as famous. That the British soldiers were successfully defended by staunch patriot John Adams has certainly increased their fame. Myth cloaks the reasons why he took on these cases, but in examining the Adams papers, a different, but far more interesting story reveals itself.

To hear Adams tell it, as he did in his Autobiography written following his bitter defeat to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he was merely standing up for the principles of law, upholding the great ideal that all men deserved a good defense and a fair trial, even at the expense of his own interests, reputation, and bank account, all three of which suffered for this gallant action. History has generally taken him at his word and heralded his actions as the pure disinterested idealism of a heroic patriot.

But reality was not as picturesque as this portrayal. Adams’s own recollection (he kept no diary at the time), is tainted by a long and often torturous public service that left him feeling unappreciated for his many sacrifices to his country. Moreover, while there may have been some gossip, on the whole Adams did not suffer with the patriot community of Massachusetts. In fact, within three months of taking the case (but before the actual trials) Adams was elected to the Massachusetts provincial assembly; and even immediately after the verdict, continued getting work as an attorney. He was even asked by the patriot leaders of Boston to give the annual oration on the third anniversary of the Massacre, an honor he declined.

So why did he take the case? As are human motives generally, his reasons were complex. It is important to remember that these cases were just two out of hundreds in his career and when put in that larger context, they appear less extraordinary. He mistrusted mob action as a rule and he defended patriots against the crown, and Tories against patriot wrongs. No doubt the knowledge that these cases would be well recorded encouraged him and his ego as well. Finally, the balance of power between the Crown and the colonies was still in flux. Adams was determined to appear neutral until the winds were evident. In 1768, he had been offered the position of the Crown’s advocate general in Massachusetts. He declined. On the other hand, Adams wanted it known that he was not controlled by the Boston patriot leadership. He would be an independent man at all times. It was a theme and standard he maintained throughout his life and one quite evident throughout the Massacre trials.