A Fair Trial for the Boston Massacre Soldiers

By Emilie Haertsch, Publications

In the aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, the question remains of how to handle the trial of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There has been a public outcry for punishment, and it seems unlikely that the defense will be able to obtain an unbiased jury in a case as high profile as this. But this is not the first time that the desire for punishment has clashed with procedure in Boston’s legal history. On National Public Radio, Cokie Roberts rightly made the connection between this current case and the Boston Massacre trial of almost 250 years ago, when John Adams, in providing legal defense for the British soldiers involved in the Massacre, dealt with similar issues.

In 1768 the British Parliament stationed troops in Boston to protect customs commissioners, since they collected the unpopular taxes on imports and feared for their safety. Bostonians resented the presence of troops in their city and animosity grew between the locals and soldiers over the next year and a half. On March 5, 1770, tensions came to a head. A crowd gathered to harass the sentry posted outside the Custom House, and Capt. Thomas Preston and a small group of soldiers came to his aid. When the crowd refused to leave, the British soldiers fired on them. Three members of the crowd were killed instantly, and two later died from their wounds. The captain and his soldiers were placed in jail.

Following the Boston Massacre deaths, some Patriot leaders used propaganda to enflame feelings of rancor in Boston towards the British. Paul Revere created a famous engraving of the scene with uniformed British soldiers firing at close range into a crowd and a sign that read “Butcher’s Hall” hanging over the Custom House. Many Patriots hoped that the pressure of public opinion would lead to a murder conviction for the soldiers and aid the cause for independence.

The level of outrage in Boston made it very unlikely that the soldiers would get a fair trial. Government and judicial officials delayed the beginning of the trial in hopes that time would calm public opinion. Amidst this tumult, John Adams, Robert Auchmuty, Jr., and Josiah Quincy, Jr., were hired to defend the soldiers. The trial began on November 27, 1770.

The defense could not make the argument that the soldiers fired in self-defense without also hurting Boston’s reputation, so they tread carefully. In addition, since Capt. Preston was found to be not guilty, the soldiers could not claim they were following his orders when they fired. Adams opened his defense dramatically with a quotation from the Marquis Beccaria: “If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport, shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind.” He argued that because it was impossible to tell which soldiers fired the fatal shots, finding all of the soldiers guilty would inevitably lead to the wrongful conviction of some innocents.

On December 5, 1770, the jury delivered its verdict: six of the soldiers were found not guilty, and two were found guilty of manslaughter. None were convicted of murder. The soldiers who were convicted of manslaughter were branded on their right thumbs with the letter “M.”

The verdict quieted the mood in Boston and reflected well on the colonies internationally. Years later, Adams wrote in his diary that he believed a “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.”

The Society has in its collections several manuscripts related to the Boston Massacre; there is a good introduction to them here. Robert Treat Paine prosecuted the soldiers, and you can learn more about his papers here. You can also read more about Adams’s views on the Boston Massacre and trial in this previous post.