John Adams’ Finest Hour

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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.

4 Responses to John Adams’ Finest Hour

  • Donald,

    Absolutely beautiful. What a moment for a lawyer and gentleman!

    Have you read John Quincy Adams’ argument for the Amistad defendants? The movie is beautiful, and the real argument is almost as stunning.

    http://www.historycentral.com/amistad/amistad.html

    “Little did I imagine that I should ever again be required to claim the right of appearing in the capacity of an officer of this Court; yet such has been the dictate of my destiny—and I appear again to plead the cause of justice, and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men, before that same Court, which in a former age I had addressed in support of rights of property I stand again, I trust for the last time, before the same Court— ‘hic caestus, artemque repono.” I stand before the same Court, but not before the same judges—nor aided by the same associates —nor resisted by the same opponents. As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall—Cushing—Chase—Washington—Johnson—Livingston— Todd—Where are they ? Where is that eloquent statesman and learned lawyer who was my associate counsel in the management of that cause, Robert Goodloe Harper? Where is that brilliant luminary, so long the pride of Maryland and of the American Bar, then my opposing counsel, Luther Martin? Where is the excellent clerk of that day, whose name has been inscribed on the shores of Africa, as a monument of his abhorrence of the African slavetrade, Elias B. Caldwell, Where is the marshal—where are the criers of the Court I Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed? Where are they all I Gone ! Gone ! All gone!— Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. From the excellent characters which they sustained in life, so far as I have had the means of knowing, I humbly hope, and fondly trust, that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high. In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence—’ Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’”

  • I have written about the Amistad case at the link below Jonathan:

    http://almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/amistad-closing-argument/

    The film Amistad is marred for me because Steven Spielberg, a typical Hollywood liberal, gave Harry Blackmun, of Roe infamy, a cameo as Justice Story. I could almost hear the grinding of Justice Story’s teeth from the world beyond at this mockery!

  • Agreed, Donald. One cannot read Roe in combination with Story’s Commentaries and get anywhere useful at all.

    I must say, however, that despite that appearance, the combination of Williams’ music and Hopkins’ rhetorical flair is wonderful.

  • In defending those soldiers, Adams actually helped the partiot cause. By proving that Redcoats could get a fair trial in Massachusetts of all places, the Crown couldn’t easily portray the partiots as a bunch crazed rebels.

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