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Why John Adams Defended British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials

April 2, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

The future American president represented Redcoats accused of murdering American patriots in an incident that helped spark the Revolution.

The blood remained fresh on the snow outside Boston’s Custom House on the morning of March 6, 1770. Hours earlier, rising tensions between British troops and colonists had exploded into violence when a band of Redcoats opened fire on a crowd that had pelted them with not just taunts, but ice, oyster shells and broken glass. Although the soldiers claimed to have acted in self-defense, patriot propaganda referred to the incident as the Boston Massacre. Eight British soldiers and their officer in charge, Captain Thomas Preston, faced charges for murdering five colonists.

Not far from the Custom House, a 34-year-old Boston attorney sat in his office and made a difficult decision. Although a devout patriot, John Adams agreed to risk his family’s livelihood and defend the British soldiers and their commander in a Boston courtroom. At stake was not just the fate of nine men, but the relationship between the motherland and her colonies on the eve of American Revolution.

In the new book John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial, Dan Abrams and coauthor David Fisher detail what they call the “most important case in colonial American history” and an important landmark in the development of American jurisprudence. Abrams, who is also the chief legal affairs correspondent for ABC News and host of “Live PD” on A&E, recently talked about the case with History.com.

READ MORE: Did a Snowball Fight Start the Revolution?

HISTORY: At the time of the Boston Massacre, John Adams was a patriot grieving the loss of a child with a new baby on the way. Why did he risk his family’s livelihood to represent the British soldiers?

Dan Abrams: The main reason was that he felt everyone was entitled to a defense. But I also think he learned a little about the case and thought there was a legitimate defense—because the events were not as clear cut as some patriots wanted to make them out to be. He also knew there were a couple of attorneys who said they would take the case as long as he was part of the team.

The Boston Massacre, in which British redcoats killed five American civilians.

Adams defended the British officer Thomas Preston and his soldiers in …read more


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