Why John Adams Took the Case

With the March 5th anniversary of the Boston Massacre behind us, Amanda Matthews of the John Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, reflects on why John Adams, a Boston attorney, agreed to be the defense lawyer for the British soldiers charged with instigating the riot that led to five civilian deaths.

Matthews rightly reminds us that we should be careful about giving too much historical authority to Adams’s post-election of 1800 recollection of his role in the affair.  She writes: “Adams’s own recollection (he kept no diary at the time), is tainted by a long and often torturous public service that left him feeling unappreciated for his many sacrifices to his country….”

John Adams

So why did he take the case? Here is Matthews’s argument:

As are human motives generally, his reasons were complex. It is important to remember that these cases were just two out of hundreds in his career and when put in that larger context, they appear less extraordinary. He mistrusted mob action as a rule and he defended patriots against the crown, and Tories against patriot wrongs. No doubt the knowledge that these cases would be well recorded encouraged him and his ego as well. Finally, the balance of power between the Crown and the colonies was still in flux. Adams was determined to appear neutral until the winds were evident. In 1768, he had been offered the position of the Crown’s advocate general in Massachusetts. He declined. On the other hand, Adams wanted it known that he was not controlled by the Boston patriot leadership. He would be an independent man at all times. It was a theme and standard he maintained throughout his life and one quite evident throughout the Massacre trials.