The HBO miniseries John Adams brilliantly recreates, in the above video, what has always struck me as John Adams’ finest hour. Adams, an ardent patriot, was sickened by the carnage caused by British soldiers when they fired into a crowd of Boston rioters on March 5, 1770. Nevertheless, when approached by the soldiers to defend them he agreed, realizing that thereby he would make himself hated by his patriot friends. He did this because he believed the soldiers were innocent of the homicide charges against them, the soldiers being under attack by a mob when they fired, and he wished to ensure them a fair trial, notwithstanding the high emotions running against them throughout Boston and Massachusetts. As Adams wrote three years late on March 5, 1773:
“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, 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.”
Adams conducted a brilliant and successful defense of the British soldiers. Go here to read his closing argument to the jury, and always recall this ringing line: 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.
For all his hard work Adams’ financial reward was small, and as a fellow attorney I can say that is not an unimportant fact for any attorney!
“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….”
However, posterity has remembered his brave stand, as Adams did himself, never being burdened with much modesty:
“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. 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. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.