RCC Honors History Project

Crispus Attucks -John Adams Takes the Case

Posted by dnsom on October 29, 2008

Here is a statement from John Adams justifying why he accepted to represent the soldier who was accused of being responsible for the Boston Massacre…

The next Morning I think it was [i.e., 6 March 1770], sitting in my Office, near the Steps of the Town house Stairs, Mr. [James] Forrest came in, who was then called the Irish Infant. I had some Acquaintance with him. With tears streaming from his Eyes, he said I am come with a very solemn Message from a very unfortunate Man, Captain Preston in Prison. He wishes for Council, and can get none.

I have waited on Mr. [Josiah] Quincy, who says he will engage if you will give him your Assistance: without it possitively he will not. Even Mr. [Robert] Auchmuty declines unless you will engage. . . .

I had no hesitation in answering that Council ought to be the very last thing that an accused Person should want [i.e., be without] in a free Country. That the Bar ought in my opinion to be independent and impartial at all Times And in every Circumstance. And that Persons whose Lives were at Stake ought to have the Council they preferred: But he must be sensible this would be as important a Cause as ever was tryed in any Court or Country of the World: and that every Lawyer must hold himself responsible not only to his Country, but to the highest and most infallible of all Trybunals for the Part he should Act.

He must therefore expect from me no Art or Address, No Sophistry or Prevarication in such a Cause; nor any thing more than Fact, Evidence and Law would justify. Captain Preston he said requested and desired no more: and that he had such an Opinion, from all he had heard from all Parties of me, that he could chearfully trust his Life with me, upon those Principles.

And said Forrest, as God almighty is my judge I believe him an innocent Man. I replied that must be ascertained by his Tryal, and if he thinks he cannot have a fair Tryal of that Issue without my Assistance, without hesitation he shall have it.

Upon this, Forrest offered me a single Guinea as a retaining fee and I readily accepted it. From first to last I never said a Word about fees, in any of those Cases, and I should have said nothing about them here, if Calumnies and Insinuations had not been propagated that I was tempted by great fees and enormous sums of Money.

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 fees I ever received or were offered to me, and I should not have said any thing on the subject to my Clients if they had never offered me any Thing.

This was 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.

For the Experience of all my Life has proved to me, that the Memory of Malice is faithfull, and more, it continually adds to its Stock; while that of Kindness and Friendship is not only frail but treacherous. It was immediately bruited abroad that I had engaged for Preston and the Soldiers, and occasioned a great clamour which the Friends of Government delighted to hear, and slyly and secretly fomented with all their Art.

This is an inspiring picture of a lawyer speaking up for both the right of counsel and the power of a trial to determine the truth—in spite of both popular resentment and the insinuations of political enemies. It’s become the standard U.S. illustration of both how important the right of counsel is, and how admirable Adams was. But is it accurate?

Adams wrote this account in his Autobiography more than thirty years after the event he described. (In contrast, Quincy’s comments came within three weeks of the shootings, well before the trial.) Adams was still smarting from having been voted out of the presidency in 1800, his bitterness obvious in his remarks on “the Memory of Malice.” He was also, his biographers have noted, psychologically attracted to the idea of standing up for one’s principles in the face of popular disapproval.

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