Why did John Adams defend British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre?

John Adams was an American politician, attorney, and Founding Father who served as the second president of the United States. 

Adams led the American Revolution before his presidency and was the first vice president of the USA. Under President George Washington, Adams was elected as vice president two times.

He was the only president from the Federalist Party, signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built an army and navy in the undeclared Quasi-War with France. He was also the first president to live in the White House.

Adams was dedicated to the right to counsel and the belief in innocence. He successfully defended British soldiers against murder charges in the Boston Massacre.

He was a delegate from Massachusetts who became a leader of the revolution.

What role did John Adams play in the Boston Massacre Trial?

John Adams was the judge hearing the case. He represented the British soldiers.

Why is the Boston Massacre so important?

This event encouraged the uniting of the colonies against Britain. The reason for the fight became the beginning of the American Revolution. It sparked the colonists’ desire for colonists’ dependence, and the dead rioters became martyrs for liberty.

Early Life

A portrait of the second president of the United States, John Adams
A portrait of the second president of the United States, John Adams

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735. His mother belonged to a medical family, and his father was a deacon in the Congregational Church and a lieutenant in the military. 

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As a sixteen-year-old, he joined Harvard College in 1752 and obtained his formal education. He studied Latin, rhetoric, logic, and arithmetic. He studied the works of ancient writers Plato, Cicero, Tacitus, and Thucydides.

Adam temporarily taught in Worcester, counteracting his father’s wish for him to be a minister. Later he pursued becoming a lawyer as he started seeking prestige and honor despite having an opposing view against Puritanism.

Boston Massacre

A portrait depicting a scene from Boston Massacre
A portrait depicting a scene from Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre was a conflicting event in which British soldiers shot without orders, considering them a mob because many people were injured and killed. It took place in Boston on March 5, 1770. Leading patriots, including Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, heavily publicized this event.

Boston, the capital of the Massachusetts Bay, was a crucial shipping town where various everyday items manufactured in Britain were imported. The British Parliament enforced the Townshend Acts in the Thirteen Colonies in the 1760s.

The prices on the items were set as per the Acts. The colonists objected to the Acts, and the Massachusetts House of Representatives began a campaign against those Acts.

The British soldiers were deployed in the Province of Massachusetts Bay to support the officials appointed by the crown and enforce the unwelcomed Parliamentary legislation amidst the campaigns and objections.

 In such a tense situation between the soldiers and the civilians, a group of people cornered a soldier and started verbally abusing him. Understandably, seven soldiers led by Captain Preston came to his support.

They were all hit by clubs, stones, and snowballs. When things got out of hand, two of the soldiers fired shots at the civilians without order, resulting in three people getting shot, of which two died, and several others were injured.

After such a devastating incident, Thomas Hutchinson, the Acting Governor, assured to make an inquiry which calmed and dispersed the aggravated crowd but later re-grouped, resulting in the drawback of the soldiers from the scene.

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Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were arrested in charge of murder. They were all defended by John Adams, out of which two were convicted of manslaughter.

Boston massacre trial

An image depicting one of the incident from Boston Massacre
An image depicting one of the incidents from the Boston Massacre

Captain Thomas Preston and his team of eight British soldiers and five British civilians were charged with murder.

As they were in Boston, an anti-British city, it was almost impossible for them to find a lawyer to defend them.

Then, John Adams stepped up to defend the accused British people. He believed that the trial process had to be fair for them.

He did so that other countries would perceive America as peace with justice and respect for its processes. It would also possibly prevent the risk of revenge from the British.

John Adams’ role in the Boston Massacre trial

A portrait of John Adams
A portrait of John Adams

In the trial, Adams defended the accused reasonably. He focused on the point that Captain Preston had not given orders to fire, and those shots fired were solely for self-defense. Instead, he blamed the mob who provoked the soldiers, calling them outlandish Jack tars.

He managed to win the case to release Captain Preston and his six soldiers. But two of the soldiers were guilty of manslaughter.

Adams was firmly convinced that everyone had the right to a fair judgment, ultimately leading him to defend the British soldiers.

Though he was a devout patriot, he felt responsible for his Country and for protecting its integrity. He was a man of honor and defended, considering them no less than their countrymen, although he despised them.

Later, he reflects upon this matter with a lengthy statement. The gist of the statement was he was procured with Obloquy and anxiety for being part of Captain Preston’s defense.

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Though it was manly and generous, the action was against his interest, but it did good, and he considered it one of the best services he had rendered to his country.

He made a selfless and vital decision of his life, risking his and his family’s livelihood. It earned him a reputation of being incorruptible.

He also thought it to be a very justifiable defense from his side and learned little about such a case.

The event did not seem as clear-cut as some patriots wanted to make them out to be, and he knew an attorney who tried to take the case as long as Adams was a part of the team.

Balancing Act of John Adams to defend his clients without distancing his fellow Bostonians

A photo of old state house
A photo of an old statehouse

John Adams’ defense of the British soldiers set such a remarkable example that criminal defense lawyers took it as a reference when representing some clients. He was a very brilliant mind and a crucial diplomat for the Country.

He was careful while stating specific facts to avoid offending his Country’s people. He focused his facts based on what happened and the people involved.

He blamed only the specific group of people for starting the chaos and not the city itself.

This case became a sensation from a legal perspective as it could not be looked at from a single point of view. Various things had to be taken into consideration, including British law.

The colonists wanted to enact their laws on the case but were unsuccessful and annoyed. Ultimately, they also realized it to be a fair trial.


The Boston Massacre trial is a genuinely exceptional case in the history of America. Although it might not have brought a satisfying result, it has proven to be an enthralling example.

The Boston Massacre is a revolutionary event but is not accepted as people believe it to be a controversial verdict.

Due to the lack of proper Evidence involving the case, the jury might not have been able to convict the soldiers for shooting without orders or the mob that began the whole scene in the first place.

This alone is a beautiful demonstration of a fair verdict to the jurors of the day.

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