Some Thoughts on John Adams

Tonight, I have been preparing a brief lecture for my US History students on events leading up to the Revolutionary War. We are finishing up our section on the French and Indian War, a fascinating time in American History (especially if you have an interest in Colonial Powers and impact on indigenous peoples). Tomorrow, we’ll start on the 1750s through the 1770s, the period directly leading up to the American Revolutionary War. Tomorrow, we touch on early patriots and their reaction to British Actions.

I was reading up a bit on the Boston Massacre – an event I have not looked at in a few years. If you are unfamiliar with the event, the Boston Massacred occurred on March 5, 1770. British troops stationed in Boston opened fired on a group of civilians, killing five. The event was memorialized by Paul Revere in a graphic (and intentionally inaccurate) engraving – intended to further enrage the American Colonials and declare independence from the British Empire.

Not surprisingly, the case was controversial from the start. While, looking back, it appears obvious that the crowd was raucous, there bricks and clubs at the soldiers, and were threatening to riot, the image painted by American separatists at the time was of a group of peaceful civilians summarily executed by British ruffians and brutes. The expected outcome was a public trial followed by a summary public (and celebrated) execution.

However, a friend of Captain Thomas Preston solicited a young Boston attorney – John Adams. In spite of the fact that defending the British soldiers would prove quite unpopular and quite likely kill his budding practice as well as his political aspirations. There were also his personal sentiments – John was a patriot, a New England man, a member of the Continental Congress, and a supporter of American Independence. However, John Adams also believed in and supported the American ideal of blind justice and a solid defense for all. His integrity and belief in justice overwhelmed his devotion to career and even the well-being of his young family.

John Adams took the case, suffered the indignities of his role of defending the most hated men in Boston, and successfully attained an acquittal for six men and a conviction of manslaughter for two of them (they returned to Britain to serve their sentence). Three years after the verdict, John Adams said this:

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.

This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.

What has always struck me about President Adams is the fact that he not only espoused a belief in American ideals – life, liberty, and justice for all, but he truly lived this belief and put himself and his family at risk. If you know anything of his life, history, and Presidency you will see that this often brought him into conflict with his compatriots, family (his cousin Samuel Adams was an infamous Son of Liberty who advocated ready violence against all British loyalists, citizens, officers, and sympathizers), and colleagues. He frequently suffered professional and personal blows in order to adhere to his beliefs. A remarkable man – the type of character we can certainly use today.

If you want to learn more about John Adams, I highly recommend the David McCullough book John Adams, an amazing read if at times verbose and dense. If you want something a bit easier to consume, check out HBO’s miniseries John Adams (based on the above book).

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