"Principled Counsel is professional advice on
law and policy grounded in the Army Ethic and the enduring respect for the Rule of Law, effectively
communicated with appropriate candor and moral courage, that influences informed decisions."1 Although this particular definition is new to our Corps, principled
counsel has been at the heart of our legal practice throughout our nation's history.2 "Principled Counsel is the north pointing direction on our Corps's North
Star—designed to remind each of us—constantly—the origin of our advice and counsel—which are our shared
values sourced from timeless virtues."3
John Adams, in his determination to do the right thing, regardless
of the personal cost
that might accompany his decision, represents the epitome of principled counsel. Adams was the professor of
William Tudor, our first Judge Advocate General, and would later serve as the second President of the United
States. The following article is not about the Army or military law, but it does provide a shining example
of leadership and a profound belief in principled counsel, which resonates throughout our Corps.
On the night of 5 March 1770, British troops opened fire on hundreds of civilians on
the streets of Boston, Massachusetts. What started as a clash between a British sentry, Private (PVT) Hugh
White, and a large crowd, escalated into one of the most controversial events of early American colonial
history. Responding to PVT White's call for help, Captain (Capt) Thomas Preston arrived at the Customs House
on King Street with seven soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot.4 During
the conflict, a fire bell rang out in the night, prompting hundreds of more civilians to come running to
King Street. It is uncertain why the soldiers opened fire on the growing crowd, or how many fired. What is
certain is the night ended with three civilians dead—Samuel Gray, Crispus Attucks (also known as Michael
Johnson), and James Caldwell—with six others wounded. Two of the wounded men later died of their injuries,
Samuel Maverick on 6 March and Patrick Carr on 14 March.5
John Adams was one of the American colonists who responded to the
fire bells that cold
March night. Although he arrived too late to witness the height of the unrest, as the days passed, he found
himself inextricably drawn into the tumultuous events resulting from the clash on King Street. In the
ensuing murder trial, Adams defended Capt Preston and his soldiers in a profound act of moral courage. Adams
risked his and his family's personal safety, his livelihood, and his social reputation to courageously
confront an injustice and uphold his moral principles.
Adams believed in the intrinsic rights of man. He described his
defense of the British
soldiers as "one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested Actions of my whole life, one of
the best Pieces of service I ever rendered my Country."6 In Adams's
mind, the rule of law, informed by facts and evidence, not the passions of a cause, should govern the
affairs of freemen in a society.7 His actions demonstrated his belief
that every freeman had the right to a fair trial and representation in his defense, and it would be an
injustice to deny these rights to Preston and the British soldiers. These men deserved a fair trial and
sound representation in their defense. Adams's actions demonstrated the trial was about the guilt or
innocence of the defendants and the inherent rights of freemen in a society. These were eternal principles.
In standing up for what he believed was right, Adams demonstrated
courage, which William Miller terms "lonely courage."8 Moral courage is
the ability to take a stand for what you believe in, informed by your ideals, principles, or convictions.
Moral courage also entails physical or emotional risk, or perceived risk. If there is no risk in the action,
then there is no courage. Miller further defines moral courage as "the capacity to overcome the fear of
shame and humiliation in order to admit one's mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to
denounce injustice, and to defy immoral imprudent orders."9 John Adams
took action informed by his moral principles, to prevent injustice, overcoming the perceived risk to his
safety, family, business, and reputation, in support of his deeply held principles.
Two-hundred-and-fifty years after the Boston Massacre, the ultimate
responsibility for the
deaths is still a matter of debate. However, on the night of the conflict, Lieutenant Governor Thomas
Hutchinson acted swiftly to determine the guilt of those involved, while calming the crowd of people crying
out for justice on the steps of the Customs House. Arriving on the scene, Hutchinson moved to the second
floor of the council chamber overlooking King Street. He spoke to the crowd and assured them the law would
prevail. He pled with them to peaceably disperse and leave justice to the civil courts of the Commonwealth.
He told the crowd, "The law shall have its course. I will live and die by the law."10 Eventually, Hutchison's efforts helped disperse the troops and the
crowd without further physical conflict. By two o'clock in the morning, Sheriff Greenleaf (the Sheriff of
Suffolk County) served a warrant for Capt Preston's arrest. By three o'clock in the morning, Preston was in
jail. The next morning, the eight soldiers involved in the incident surrendered to the civil
authorities.11 The Superior Court of Suffolk County charged the British
soldiers—William Wemms, James Hartegan, William M'Cauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John
Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery—with the murders of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James
Caldwell, and Patrick Carr.12
British Soldiers in Boston
In the years preceding the winter of 1770, economic troubles dominated the
relationship between England, its American Colonies, and the Crown. To raise revenue to satisfy debts from
the Seven Years War and reassert its imperial control over the colonies, England levied various taxes on
colonial goods, passing the Stamp Acts of 1765 and, later, the Townshend Acts of 1767. The colonists were
able to force the repeal of the Stamp Acts through civil unrest and violence against the King's
representatives. However, soon after repeal of the Stamp Act, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles
Townshend, took several measures to bring the colonists in line and extract more revenue for England. One of
these measures was the Townshend Acts of 1767.
In the summer of 1767, Townshend developed and worked an omnibus
bill through Parliament
reaffirming the legality of the writs of assistance, establishing new admiralty courts, and setting up a
five-member Board of Customs Commissioners in Boston reporting directly to the British Treasury. The Board
of Customs was responsible for commerce, navigation, coast guard, customs, the admiralty courts, and allied
services in seventeen colonies of the mainland and the Caribbean.13 The
customs official's headquarters was in Boston on King Street. Townshend also imposed a new series of duties
on specific goods coming into the colonies including tea, glass, lead, paints, and paper.14 These duties caused angst throughout the colonies, particularly in
Boston due to its vibrant commercial activity.
In response to the Townshend Acts, leading citizens of Boston held a
town meeting on 28
October 1767 and declared their opposition. The citizens vowed to boycott "dutied" articles and to persuade
the merchants to stop importing British goods. The citizens also appointed a committee to draw up a circular
letter persuading other colonies to support the ban.15 In response to
these antagonistic acts, Francis Bernard (the Royal Governor of Massachusetts), reluctantly called the
General Court Legislature into session. The legislature quickly devolved into turmoil—arguing with the
governor over its rights, framing petitions, and drafting circular letters to other legislative assemblies
calling on support of the non-importation movement. Governor Bernard denounced the circular letter as
seditious and dissolved the assembly.16 By the summer of 1768, many
Boston importers joined the economic protest and refused to pay the import fees. In support of the circular
letter, American coastal cities from New England to Georgia refused to import goods from England.17
At a loss to enforce the acts and suffering from reduced revenue,
customs officials sent a
request to Lord Hillsborough (the Secretary of the Colonies) expressing their concern for their safety. Lord
Hillsborough requested help from the War Office. The War Office directed General Thomas Gage, the commander
of all British forces in the American Colonies, to "strengthen the ends of government in the Province of the
Massachusetts Bay, enforce due obedience of the law, and protect officials of the colony in the discharge of
their duties."18 The customs officials did not have the power to enforce
Parliament's directives and obtain compliance. They needed British soldiers to compel the colonies. The War
Office responded and occupied Boston with British Regulars.
In August 1768, General Gage received word from London to move
troops to Boston to enforce
royal decrees, ensure order, and reduce unrest. General Gage sent one of his aides, Capt William Sheriff, to
confer with Governor Bernard on the use of the troops. At a meeting on 3 September 1768, Capt Sheriff and
Governor Bernard agreed they needed two regiments in Boston to enforce the royal decrees. The plan called
for one regiment stationed in the town and the other in Castle William, three miles from the town center.
The 29th and 14th Infantry Regiments arrived in Boston on 1 October 1768.19
In the next eighteen months, between the arrival of the soldiers in
1768 and the fateful
night of 5 March 1770, a bitterness grew over the presence of British soldiers in Boston. Residents resented
the presence of the British soldiers for a variety of reasons. The soldiers competed for many lower-paying
jobs during their off-duty time, often accepting menial jobs for less pay than civilians. With high
unemployment due to the ongoing economic turmoil, residents resented the competition for scarce jobs.
Additionally, the Colonies shared the English tradition of opposing the military occupation of cities in
The soldiers' role in enforcing the King's policies was starkly
different from the role of
British soldiers in the past. The British Government sent these soldiers expressly to enforce royal decrees
and maintain law and order. The soldiers were not in Boston to protect the colonists from outside threats,
making these regiments distinctly different from the British forces formerly serving in the American
colonies. Before this, British soldiers fought to defend the colonies against mutual threats involving the
French, Spanish, and various Indigenous tribes. Now the soldiers represented the colonists' government,
enforcing British economic policy and interests against British citizens. Previously, the colonists
supported British military interests, and about 8,000 colonists served in the British army during the French
and Indian War.20 This occupation was different. It was another example
of England treating the colonists differently from the subjects in Britain and as lower-class freemen. The
resentment continued to grow. Members of the Non-Importation Association and other "radical" groups
continued to foment unrest to force Parliament to revoke the Townshend Acts.
Several noteworthy events occurred in the winter of 1770, leading up to the shootings
on King Street. These activities ranged from public protests and confrontations to persuasive commentaries
intended to arouse unrest. One of the confrontations occurred on 22 February 1770, when radicals erected a
painted, wood head on a post in front of Theophilus Lillie's importation business. The sign marked Lillie's
business as a violator of the non-importation ban and stood as a signal for patrons to boycott his goods.
Later in the day, Lillie's neighbor, Ebenezer Richardson,21 saw the sign
and used an ax to try to cut it down. As he tried to destroy the post, a crowd of boys surrounded him. The
boys threw ice and snowballs at him and chased him into his house. They surrounded the house and threw
stones and bricks through his windows. In response, Richardson fired a musket into the crowd killing an
eleven-year-old boy named Christopher Snider. After the shooting, a crowd entered Richardson's house and
pulled him and another man, George Wilmot, from the house. The crowd took them to Faneuil Hall and presented
the men to three magistrates: Richard Dana, Edmund Quincy, and Samuel Pemberton. The authorities placed
Richardson in confinement to stand trial.22
On 26 February, Boston held a public funeral for Snider. Commencing
at three o'clock near
Liberty Tree, the line of mourners stretched a quarter of a mile from the town center to the burial ground,
and it included 400 to 500 boys from several schools and other members of the town—an estimated 1,300
people.23 John Adams, who was sympathetic to the cause, if not the
means, of the radicals, participated in the march and commented on his experience in his diary.24
When I came into Town, I saw a vast Collection of People, near Liberty Tree—enquired and
found the funeral of the Child, lately kill'd by Richardson was to be attended. Went into Mr. Rowes, and
warmed me, and then went out with him to the Funeral, a vast Number of Boys walked before the Coffin, a vast
Number of Women and Men after it, and a Number of Carriages. My Eyes never beheld such a funeral. The
Procession extended further than can be well imagined.25
Adams also commented on the crowd and the socio-political public
atmosphere of Boston:
This Shewes, there are many more Lives to spend if wanted in the
Service of their Country.
It Shews, too that the Faction [illegible] is not yet expiring—that the
Ardor of the People is not to be quelled by the Slaughter of one Child and the Wounding of another.26
Tensions continued to rise as the Sons of Liberty capitalized on the
unrest to compel the
British to remove the regulars from Boston.27
On Friday, 2 March, shortly after Snider's funeral, another incident
occurred adding to the
already tense mood in Boston. Two soldiers from the 29th Regiment got into a brawl with the dockworkers
along John Gray's Ropewalk.28 The fight broke out when PVT Patrick
Walker of the 29th Regiment got into a verbal confrontation with a rope maker, William Green. The fight
escalated with other workers joining the fray using rocks, clubs, and cutlasses. Sam Gray (who was later
shot on King Street) and PVT Matthew Kilroy (one of the soldiers involved in shooting into the crowd) joined
the fight. The fight escalated as additional workers and up to forty soldiers joined the brawl. Eventually,
the civilians pushed the soldiers back to their barracks.29 Immediately
afterward, rumors flew through town that the workers and soldiers would renew the fight on Monday, 5
On Saturday, 3 March, another brawl arose by the docks between
soldiers of the 29th
Regiment and workers in the ropewalk. Private John Carrol and sailor James Bailey were among those who
returned to the ropewalks to challenge the civilian workers. Several soldiers and civilians were injured in
the ensuing brawl.31 The same day, Reverend Andrew Elliot mentioned many
people were looking forward to "fighting it out with the Soldiers on Monday."32 It was also widely known that the bells summoning the militia would
toll to bring the people together. Anxiety continued Sunday as rumors of another large confrontation
persisted.33 All of these actions increased tensions, making further
confrontations almost inevitable. As soldiers and civilians clashed on King Street the next night, this
played out in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
The clash of Monday, 5 March, resulted in five deaths and immense
political upheaval. The
events also provided an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the rule of law in the maelstrom of
public emotions. John Adams was one of many who responded to the bells tolling that cold March night; the
next morning, he became directly involved in its aftermath.
No One Will Take the Case
On the morning after the clash on King Street, a Boston merchant, James Forrest,
visited John Adams in his residence. Forrest, a Tory merchant, was a known companion of the British
officers. On the night of 5 March, he was sharing drinks with Capt Jeremiah French of the 29th
Regiment.34 Forrest pled with Adams to defend Preston and the soldiers
in the upcoming trial. According to Forrest, no one else would take the case.35 Forrest told Adams the three Crown lawyers refused to represent the
accused men. Even Robert Auchmuty Jr., the Admiralty Court Judge, refused to become involved, but he
admitted he would help represent Preston if Adams would assist. Forrest also stated he had spoken to
barrister Josiah Quincy. Quincy said that if Adams stepped forward, he, too, would assist.36 No lawyer, either royalist or radical, would face the hatred of the
Boston populace unless Adams led the way. Adams had the respect of the community; however, it would require
exceptional moral courage to defy the vocal and active radicals and defend the unpopular British amid the
civil unrest confronting Boston. Adams could have shut the door and dismissed Forrest. However, Adams was a
man of strong principles. He would weigh those principles against the risk of Forrest's request and, in the
end, demonstrate commendable moral courage.
Adams was genuinely concerned about representing the British
soldiers, and his concerns
were well-founded. He was a prominent member of Boston society and held in high esteem by leading figures in
Boston. Taking the case entailed considerable risk to his family, his business, and his standing in Boston
society. Balancing his ideals against the safety of his business and the personal welfare of his family was
a major source of anxiety. These concerns likely weighed heavily on his decision.
His wife Abigail's emotional state and the added stress of taking
the case also caused
Adams much concern. There was already considerable stress in the family because of the loss of a child.37 Abigail took the death extremely hard, becoming listless and depressed.
When Adams would come home, he would find her sitting alone in the dark, staring out the window, motionless
and unresponsive to his appeals.38 The combination of taking the case
and Abigail's current condition troubled him, and he discussed it with her. He related his anxiety in his
diary three years after meeting with Forrest:
I . . . devoted myself to endless labour and
Anxiety if not to infamy and death, and that for nothing, except, what indeed was and ought to be all in all, a sense of duty. In the
Evening I expressed to Mrs. Adams all my Apprehensions: That excellent Lady, who has always encouraged me,
burst into a flood of Tears, but said she was very sensible of all the Danger to her and to our Children as
well as to me, but she thought I had done as I ought, she was very willing to share in all that was to come
and place her trust in Providence.39
In addition to the anxiety over the personal safety of his family,
Adams was concerned
about the effect of the case on his continued success as a lawyer. Adams was a particularly successful
lawyer when he moved his family from Braintree into the city in 1768 to be closer to his office and courts.
Amid a thriving and growing practice, he had much to lose in opposing the popular view. Given the current
unrest in Boston, fueled by the hatred of the British soldiers and tough economic times, accepting this case
would likely result in public scorn—which would damage his reputation and have financial repercussions. By
his own account: "At this time I had more business at the bar than any man in the Province."40 Adams later related in his writings that his role in defending the
soldiers resulted in the instantaneous loss of more than half of his business.41
Another factor affecting Adams's decision was the influence of the
Sons of Liberty. The
Sons were behind much of the unrest in Boston. Their major objective was to force the expulsion of the
British troops. The Sons of Liberty included influential members of society from notable merchants,
artisans, and tradesmen. John Gill—the Boston Gazette editor,42 and Benjamin Eades—the printer of the Gazette, were members of the Sons of Liberty.43 Other supporters included Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, and John
Adams's cousin, Samuel Adams. John Adams was a member of the group and attended some of their meetings.44 He was sympathetic to the radical group's cause, but he questioned
their methods. Sam Adams, being a prominent member of the Sons and an ardent radical, opposed Adams taking
the case. John Adams's loyalty to his family and his sympathy for the radical cause factored in his decision
to represent the men. If he defended the hated British soldiers, he could expect tension between his cousin
and his acquaintances in the Sons of Liberty.
Adams's views on freedom and his principles overrode his concerns.
His later writings
provide insight into his thoughts at the time. He wrote, "[N]o man in a free country should be denied the
right to counsel and a fair trial, and convinced on principle, that the case was of utmost importance."45 The importance of the case was not solely in the guilt or innocence of
the soldiers or civilians. This case was important to Adams because of the ideal it represented. Adams
passionately believed every freeman deserved a trial and representation in his defense by sound counsel.
These concepts were inherent rights of every freeman.
Adams's past writings offer insight into what he believed about the
significance of the
rule of law and the rights of man as he weighed his decision. While a resident of Braintree, Massachusetts,
in October 1765, Adams provided his ideas on the importance of the rule of law in his development and
circulation of a document entitled the Braintree Instructions.46 He wrote Braintree Instructions in
support of the colonial opposition to the Stamp Acts and provided the document to the delegates of the
legislative body of Massachusetts. In these instructions, Adams repudiated the authority of the Admiralty
Court to collect taxes in the colonies. He based his objections on the fact that the courts did not employ
juries and, therefore, violated the principle of just representation inherent in the rights of Englishmen.
Forty towns across New England adopted the Braintree Instructions.47
According to Adams, the Stamp Acts also violated the right to
consultation in the levee of
We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental principle
of the constitution, that no freeman should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his consent, in person or by proxy.
And the maxims of the law, as we have constantly received them, are to the same effect, that no freeman can
be separated from his property but by his act or fault. We take it clearly, therefore, to be inconsistent
with the spirit of the common law, and of the essential fundamental principles of the British constitution,
that we should be subject to any tax imposed by the British Parliament; because we are not represented in
that assembly in any sense, unless it be by a fiction of law, as insensible in theory as it would be
injurious in practice, if such a taxation should be grounded on it.48
In rejecting the authority of the Admiralty Courts, Adams reaffirmed
his commitment to the
inherent right of freemen for a trial by their peers. During the same period, Adams continued his opposition
to the Stamp Acts by writing a series of articles for the Boston Gazette
entitled "The Dissertation on Feudal and Canon Law."49 In these
articles, he reiterated his beliefs about individual rights and asserted these rights came from "our Maker"
and are "indisputable, unalienable, and indefensible" as well as "inherent, essential, and divine."50
Adams's writings provide insight into the principles that guided his
actions in assuming
the case. His writings reveal his belief that God gave men their rights and that no man could take away
those rights. Only through a "social contract" could these rights be limited. This ideal helped explain
Adams's commitment and his belief he had a duty to defend Preston and the British soldiers. Adams knew the
Crown-appointed lawyers refused to take the case because of the danger posed by a passionate element of the
populace, but he would not let that danger prevent him from standing on principles.
Adams took the case because he believed the law, founded on the
facts and the truth, must
govern the outcome, not the emotions of a cause, regardless of how just the cause might be. As he told
Forrest, he would rely on facts, evidence, and the law. The rule of law would determine the soldiers'
innocence. Adams would not stoop to the use of tricks or deception.51
Adams's concerns over his safety and reputation in the community
immediately came to
fruition. While he talked to Forrest, a group gathered outside his home. He was instantly pressured by the
local crowds, composed of members of the Sons of Liberty. After Forrest left the house, Adams met the crowd
outside his door. Benjamin Eades asked Adams what Forrest was doing in his house. Adams announced to the
crowd, "Forrest came to me from the jail. Ben Eades, you may tell whom you please that I have agreed to act
as counsel for Capt Preston, who is held for murder. You may say also that I will defend the British
soldiers lying in the stone jail under capital charges."52
Word spread immediately about Adams taking the case, and he suffered
humiliating words, and taunts of the populous when he appeared in public. The more aggressive radicals even
assaulted him by throwing mud.53 In another incident, three boys threw
stones through the windows of his house.54 On 6 March, on his way home,
members of the Sons of Liberty stopped Adams on the street to ask if he would defend the murderers. He
replied forcefully he would take the case and the men were innocent until proven guilty.55
Yet, while Capt Preston and his men would have defense counsel,
there was no certainty of a
quick trial. The radicals and the Royal Authorities swiftly worked to use the trial to achieve their
political ends: the radicals vying for a swift trial and the Royal Authorities working to delay justice.
With emotions running high in Boston, Lieutenant Governor Hutchison worked hard to delay the trials, hoping
the emotions and passions would subside. He thought that, with the passing of time, reason would prevail and
the delay would facilitate a fairer trial.
On the other hand, the radicals—afraid the passions of the public
would diminish with
time—pushed for a quick trial, working to influence public opinion in their favor. On Monday, 12 March, at a
meeting "of the freeholders and other inhabitants of the Town of Boston,"56
Boston selectmen appointed a committee to write an account of what
happened on King Street. The men produced their report, including ninety-six depositions from eyewitnesses.
On the following Monday, 19 March, they delivered their account to the town meeting. The town leaders
directed the publication of the report as a pamphlet titled A Short Narrative
of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.57 Members of the Sons of
Liberty, Eades, and Gill produced the pamphlet.58
Adams persevered with his preparation for the trial. However, the
environment of Boston would not allow for a quick and, in Adams's mind, fair trial. He mentioned to Abigail
in March, "If Preston's trial is not postponed, we shall have no chance at all. No judge will sit and no
jury dare give a fair verdict."59
As the radicals pushed to rouse the furor of the public and attain a quick trial, on
12 March 1770, Chief Justice Lynde of the Suffolk County Superior Court postponed the trial until June,
citing the absence of two of the Superior Court justices as the reason. Justice Towbridge was sick, and
another was recovering from a fall from his horse. Lynde believed a trial of such significance deserved the
presence of all four of the justices and delayed the trial.60
The radicals also resorted to physical means to assert their demands
for immediate trials.
When they heard the court delayed the trials until June, Sam Adams and John Hancock led a crowd into the
court proclaiming the "necessity of proceeding to the trial of the Criminals this Term, particularly those
concerned in the late bloody Massacre."61 When the radicals referred to
"the Criminals," they meant both Richardson for the murder of the Snider boy and the soldiers for the clash
on King Street. These bullying tactics had their intended effect. The justices, claiming "duress and afraid
to offend the town," agreed to try the Richardson and other cases in April instead of June.62
The Court tried Richardson on 11 April 1770. Josiah Quincy defended
Josiah's brother Samuel Quincy served as prosecutor. The court found Richardson guilty. However, the
justices did not render a punishment and adjourned until 29 May.63 The
justices did not mention the trial of Preston and the soldiers, but many people expected them to address
this issue when they reconvened in May.
When the court reconvened in May, Judge Trowbridge was still sick,
and Judge Oliver was
still recovering from his injury. Unable to convene the court without all four superior justices, Chief
Justice Lynde again adjourned without specifying a day to reconvene. The law did not require the court to
sit in Boston until 28 August; and, since the court conducted its circuit in Maine from June through July,
the earliest possible trial date would be after this circuit. 64
Hutchinson obtained his delay.
In early September 1770, the justices met with the jury of the
Richardson case for
sentencing. The justices felt the evidence did not justify a guilty verdict in the case. They understood the
threat of violence unjustly influenced the jury, but the sanctity of the jury verdict and the law tied the
justices' hands. Once again, faced with the threat of violence, the justices put off sentencing
Richardson.65 Unwilling to sentence Richardson, they turned their
attention to the arraignment of Preston and the soldiers.
On 7 September 1770, the Suffolk County Court arraigned the
defendants. Each man pled not
guilty and elected for a trial "by God and my country,"66 meaning by
jury. The court once again deferred the trial until 23 October and adjourned the next day.67 While previous delays were in his favor, at this point, Preston wanted
a trial soon, understanding that if the superior court found him guilty, he would need time for an appeal of
pardon from the King. He was running out of time. The winter storms prevented travel to England and would
delay his anticipated request for pardon.68
As the Superior Court session approached, the question of separating
Preston's trial from
the trial of the soldiers arose. The soldiers petitioned the court to secure a joint trial. The soldiers
asked the court to "be so good as to lett us have our Trial at the same time as our Captains, for we did our
Captains orders and if we don't Obay his Command we should have been Confine'd and shott for not doing of
it."69 They went on, stating, "[W]e only desire to Open the truth before
our Captains face for it is very hard he being a Gentleman should have more chance for saving his life than
we poor men that is Obliged to Obay his command."70 There are no
surviving notes or correspondence to determine how the court acted on the soldiers' petition. However,
subsequent actions reveal the decision. On 23 October, the records of the court indicated there would be one
trial for both the soldiers and Capt Preston. Yet, despite these written records, at eight o'clock in the
morning on 24 October, Preston stood in the dock alone.71 The Superior
Court would hold two separate trials.
John Adams based his strategy for defending the British soldiers on
the principle that,
under English Common Law, freemen had the inherent right of self-defense. He understood the defense of
Preston and the soldiers relied on convincing the jury of the difference between killing someone and murder.
In Adams's mind, freemen had the right to self-defense and, if assaulted, could defend to the death. The
right of self-defense applied to civilians and soldiers alike. By English law, an attack on a soldier
standing his post was an illegal act. Adams recognized this belief ran counter to the understanding of many
of the people of New England, who based their interpretation of the law on biblical tenets. It was a common
fallacy in Massachusetts that soldiers could not fire on civilians, except in time of war, and Adams's task
was to overcome this misperception.72 He knew overcoming this
deeply-held belief was an arduous task.
Another misconception was that, during times of peace, soldiers
needed permission from the
civil magistrate to fire. Adams had to overcome this myth as well. Adams based his defense on the intrinsic
right of a freeman to defend himself against a threat. This basic right was inherent to every freeman and
not reliant on a state of war or the presence of a magistrate. Furthermore, Soldiers did not abdicate their
rights of freemen by becoming soldiers. These basic ideas served as the foundation for Adams's defense of
the British soldiers.
Preston's trial began on Wednesday, 24 October 1770, and ended on 30
October 1770. For the
defense, John Adams, Josiah Quincy, and Admiralty Court Judge Robert Auchmuty Jr. quickly established that,
in the confusion of the night, it was impossible to conclude whether Capt Preston gave the order to fire.
The jury deliberated for three hours and returned with a not guilty verdict. The court acquitted
Preston.73 The acquittal increased the public's desire for vengeance on
the soldiers who fired their weapons. The Sons of Liberty reacted to the acquittal by pursuing prosecution
of various civil actions in support of the people wounded during the conflict. Because of the threats to his
safety, Preston retired to his regimental garrison at Castle William. He wrote a thank-you note to Auchmuty,
but not to his lawyers Adams and Quincy.74
Preston's acquittal complicated Adams's defense of the soldiers by
increasing the emotions
tied to their case. The acquittal also intensified the social pressure against Adams. The Monday before the
second trial, the Boston Gazette published the following commentary: "Is
it then a dream, murder on the 5th of March, with dogs greedily licking human blood in King Street? Some say
that righteous Heaven will avenge it. And what says the law of God, Whoso sheddeth Man's blood, by Man shall
his blood be shed!"75 The unrelenting rhetoric, coupled with religious
overtones, made John Adams's defense of the soldiers based on the rule of law even more challenging.
Emotions continued to rise, causing difficulties for John Adams's pursuit of the truth based on reason.
Jury selection for the soldiers' trial occurred from 20 November to
27 November. The trial
began the afternoon of 27 November and ended on 5 December 1770. Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine
prosecuted the case for the Crown. John Adams, Josiah Quincy, and Sampson Blowers sat for the defense.76
To Adams, the trial was not a political opportunity as some
believed, or a chance to expel
the British from Boston. The trial was about the rule of law and individual rights. To Adams, the jurors
should disregard the passions they felt based on their loyalties to a cause, either loyalist or radical.
Only the facts must prevail. He stated in his closing arguments,
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our
inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than
the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in
their defence; if it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck
and abused by blows of any sort, by snow balls, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind; this
was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offence of killing, down to manslaughter, in consideration
of those passions in our nature, which cannot be eradicated. To your candour and justice I submit the
prisoners and their cause. The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or
flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes,
imaginations and wanton tempers of men.77
When Adams finished, the prosecution again addressed the jury in
rebuttal. The evening
adjournment interrupted the prosecution's closing arguments, so Paine finished his comments in two hours the
next day. At ten o'clock in the morning, Paine finished, and the four justices addressed the court for
three-and-a-half hours. The justices' address included legalities and formalities with no visible effect on
the outcome. For all practical purposes, Adams won the case after his closing remarks.
He had eloquently made his case, and the rule of law prevailed. With
no sophistry, tricks
of the trade, or lurid objections, he rebuked the passions of the political turmoil with the facts. The
justices excused the jury to deliberate at half-past one o'clock. The jury returned at four o'clock and
rendered a verdict. The jury found Montgomery and Kilroy guilty of manslaughter and the other six soldiers
not guilty. According to the jury, the prosecution proved that only Montgomery and Kilroy fired their
weapons.78 Montgomery and Kilroy immediately pleaded "Benefit of
Clergy."79 The two soldiers read from the Bible and were branded on the
thumb with an "M" for manslaughter before the court dismissed them.80
The ordeal took a great toll on Adams, both physically and emotionally. After the
trial, he moved from Boston back to Braintree, Massachusetts. He moved for two reasons. First, he was
exhausted from the trial. Second, he had work to do as a representative to the provincial legislature for a
year. He suffered chest pains, a general malaise, and a desire for a long rest.81 He related the weariness in his diary:
Before or after the Tryal, Preston sent me ten Guineas and at the
Tryal of the Soldiers
afterwards Eight Guineas more, which were . . . all the pecuniary Reward I ever had for
fourteen or fifteen days labour, in the most exhausting and fatiguing Causes I ever tried: for hazarding a
Popularity very general and very hardly earned: and for incurring a Clamour and popular Suspicions and
prejudices, which are not yet worn out and never will be forgotten as long as History of this Period is
read . . . . It was immediately bruited abroad that I had engaged for Preston and the
Soldiers, and occasioned a great clamour.82
John Adams did not assume the defense of the British soldiers for
any personal gain. He
emerged from the ordeal exhausted. He defended them because it was the right thing to do, and that took
moral courage. Recall that moral courage is the ability to take a stand for personal beliefs or values,
informed by one's principles, involving physical or emotional risk, either real or perceived. In the case of
John Adams, the physical risk was real. As the violence of both the radicals and the Tories displaced reason
on the streets of Boston, John Adams was resolute in his ideals. He passionately believed the rule of
law—not the passions of a mob, no matter how justified they may feel—must inform the affairs of freemen in a
society. More importantly, he acted based on this belief and manifested his beliefs in morally courageous
action. He stood up for the intrinsic rights of the British soldiers because they were freemen, entitled to
a fair trial, representation in court, and the right to defend themselves against a dangerous mob.
While this may be an idealized vision of Adams, the concept of moral
courage is wrought
with idealism. Adams moved from an idealized version of what a virtuous man should do, guided by the rule of
law and the inherent rights of man, to what a virtuous man could do. He acted on his principles. He could
have easily asked Forrest to leave his house on the morning of 6 March 1770. Instead, he defended the
soldiers because he knew it was the right action to take. He demonstrated the courage of his convictions.
Adams could have effortlessly continued with his life, improving his prosperous and growing law practice,
maintaining his positive relations as a rising member of the social-political clubs in Boston, and taking
care of his family. His inaction would have made living with his cousin Sam Adams, and the other Sons of
Liberty, much easier. On the other hand, shutting the door on Forrest would have made it difficult for Adams
to live with himself. For John Adams, certain principles proved eternal. TAL
Mr. Turner is an Assistant Professor of Leadership in the Department of Command and
Leadership at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He retired in 2008 after
serving for over twenty-six years in the U.S. Army in a variety of command and staff positions, to include
commanding at the battalion and group level.
1. The Judge Advoc. Gen. & Deputy Judge Advoc.
Gen., TJAG and DJAG Sends, Vol. 40-16, Principled Counsel—Our Mandate as Dual Professionals (9 Jan. 2020).
2. Major General (Retired) Thomas J. Romig, The Calm in the
Storm, Army Law., no.
4, 2020, at 102.
3. Lieutenant General Charles N. Pede, The Significance of the
Nuremberg International Military Tribunals on the
Practice of Military Law, 229 Mil. L. Rev. 253 (2020).
4. Hiller B.
Zobel, The Boston Massacre
5. Boston-Gazette &
Country J., Mar. 12, 1770, at 2, https://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/3/sequence/101; Boston-Gazette & Country J., Mar. 19, 1770, at 3,
https://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/3/sequence/106; Zobel, supra note 4, at 199–200; William Emmons, The
Trial of the British Soldiers of the 29th Foot: for the Murder of
Crispus Attucks, Samual GrAy, Samual Maverick, James Caldwell and Patrick Carr on Monday Evening, March
5, 1770, Trial Report 4 (1824).
6. 2 John Adams, Diary and
Autobiography of John Adams, 1771–1781, at 79 (L.H.
Butterfield et al. eds., 1961).
7. The term "freemen" is used throughout the article
to represent the historical application of the term. In eighteenth-century, western society, this was an
exclusive word to refer to men who were not subject to indentured servitude, slavery, or legal confinement.
The use of freemen also did not include females. Replacing this word with individuals would be inaccurate
for the period.
8. William Ian Miller,
The Mystery of Courage 255 (2002).
9. Id. at 254.
10. I Page
Smith, John Adams, 1735–1784,
at 118 (1962).
11. Zobel, supra note 4, at 204–05.
12. Emmons, supra note
5, at 3.
13. O.M. Dickerson, The
Commissioners of Custom and the "Boston Massacre," 27 New Eng. Q. 307, 307 (1954).
14. Smith, supra note
10, at 93.
15. Id. at 94.
16z. Id. at 96.
17. Catherine Drinker
Bowen, John Adams and the American Revolution 342 (1950).
18. Smith, supra note
10, at 96.
19. Zobel, supra note
4, at 89, 96, 99.
20. Id. at 94.
21. Dickerson, supra
note 13, at 310.
22. Mass. Gazette: and
The Boston Wkly. News-Letter,
Mar. 1, 1770, at 3, http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/3/sequence/93; Bowen, supra note 17, at 346–47.
23. Mass. Gazette: and
the Boston Weekly News-Letter, Mar.1, 1770, at 3,
24. Bowen, supra note
17, at 347–48.
25. John Adams, John
Adams Diary 1, 18 November
1755–29 August 1756, Mass. Hist. Soc'y, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=D1
(last visited Aug. 4, 2021).
1770, from the Diary of John Adams, Nat'l Archives: Founders Online,
27. The Sons of Liberty was a radical political group
that grew from the colonies' fight against the Stamp Act and other perceived injustices of the Crown. The
Sons were a decentralized collection of societal clubs, which operated independently throughout the
colonies. Sam Adams was a prominent member of the Boston Club, and John Adams occasionally attended some of
28. A ropewalk is a common feature along many docks
that serves as a place for the manufacture and repair of ropes for the shipping industry. The workers would
lay the raw material out to make ropes, conduct inspections, and repair ropes.
29. Zobel, supra note
4, at 182.
30. Smith, supra note
10, at 117.
31. Looking for Trouble,
Even on the Sabbath, Boston 1775 (Mar. 4, 2020),
32. Zobel, supra note
4, at 183.
34. Id. at 196.
35. John T. Morse Jr.,
American Statesman: John Adams 37 (1890). Mr. Morse refers to him as Mr. Forrest. Other sources
use the name Mr. Forrester. Mr. Forrest is the most common spelling.
36. Bowen, supra note
17, at 355–56. Bowen refers
to him as Mr. Forrester. Id.
37. Bowen, supra note
17, at 346. In February, the Adams family lost their
one-year-old daughter, Susanna, to a lengthy illness. Complications in burying his daughter added to the
anxiety and anguish. When Susanna died, John and his two brothers—Elihu and Peter—took her to his birthplace
in Braintree, Massachusetts, to bury her in the churchyard. However, the frozen ground prevented Elihu and
Peter from digging her grave. Elihu covered the small coffin with pine boughs and promised John he would
watch the area daily and return to bury Susanna as soon as the ground thawed. To add to the trauma, a
pregnant Abigail did not have the stamina to make the journey to Braintree. Id.
39. 2 John Adams, The
Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States 232 (Charles Francis Adams ed., 1850).
Shaw, The Character of John
Adams 58 (1976).
42. Smith, supra note
10, at 86.
43. Id. at 110.
44. Id. at 86.
45. David McCollough,
John Adams 66 (2002).
46. John Adams, Instruction of the Town of Braintree
to Their Representative, 1765, reprinted
in The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams ch. 3 (C. Bradley
Thompson, ed., 2000).
supra note 45, at 61.
48. Adams, supra note
49. Alan Axelrod,
Revolutionary Management: John Adams on Leadership 7 (2008).
50. Id. at VIII.
51. Smith, supra note
10, at 121.
52. Bowen, supra note
17, at 357.
53. Hugh P. Williamson, John
Adams: Counsellor of Courage, 54 A.B.A. J. 148, 149 (1968).
54. Bowen, supra note
17, at 365.
55. Id. at 358.
56. A Short Narrative of
the Horrid Massacre in Boston 3 (Edes & Gill 1770),
57. Id. at 13.
59. Bowen, supra note
17, at 361.
60. Zobel, supra note
4, at 222.
63. Id. at 226.
64. Id. at 231.
65. Id. at
67. Boston Gazette &
Country J., Sept. 10, 1770, at 1,
68. Zobel, supra note 4, at 239–40.
69. Id. at 242.
71. Id. at 242–43.
72. Bowen, supra note
17, at 379.
73. The Boston Gazette
& Country J., Nov. 5, 1770, at 1, http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/3/sequence/339; Morse, supra note 35, at 39.
74. Zobel, supra note 4, at 265–66.
75. Bowen, supra note
17, at 384–85.
76. Id. at 386;
Smith, supra note 10, at 123.
77. Emmons, supra note
5, at 117.
78. Boston Gazette &
Country J., Dec. 10, 1770, at 2,
http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/3/sequence/365; Zobel, supra note 4, at 293–94.
79. See generally
Linda Rowe, The Benefit of Clergy Plea, 19 Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, no. 1, 1998. The Benefit of Clergy was
an old English law that evolved from a time when both civil and church officials presided over the Shire
Courts. As English monarchs separated the body of civil and canon law, Benefit of Clergy evolved to protect
ecclesiastic officials from persecution in secular courts under civil law. The law allowed clergy to invoke
the benefit if facing charges in a secular court. The Benefit of Clergy originally only pertained to
officials of the church, including monks and nuns; but, with various modifications from the 12th century on,
it evolved to include layman. By 1770, it further evolved to include all freemen who could read since the
ability to read was often restricted to clergy. The Benefit of Clergy was part of the American Judicial
System until abolished by congress in 1790. Id.
80. Smith, supra note
10, at 125; McCollough,
supra note 45, at 68.
81. John R. Galvin, Three
Men of Boston 218 (1997).
82. Adams, supra note
39, at 231.