These boys were young, not liked and above all, not in their native land. They were not surrounded by their countrymen, but a whole city of angry colonists crying for their blood to run in the streets. They were scared and no one wanted to help them. They were the "Lobsterbacks" the "Red Coats", in short, the enemy. The war for America's independence had not officially begun, but one of its first battles was about to begin in a courtroom in Boston Proper. Their only advocate was a man dedicated to the preservation of liberty at all costs, John Adams.
John Adams, the "younger years"
Adams was a young lawyer who had struggled to make a living. He knew that by taking this case, he was not only subjecting himself to peril from the incensed city, but his law practice and his family would also be thrown into the hazard. The gamble for the lives of 8 lowly infantrymen had begun.
The prosecutors started their case, painting the gory picture of 5 patriots, innocent and harmless men, killed in that cobbled square. They presented evidence of the British troops harassing the "peaceful" assembly of colonists, attempting to rile the crowd to violence with murderous intent. The whole city's rage was kindled against the 8 personifications of the tyrannical oppression of the British government. As in all wars, truth was the first casualty. fabrications and false testimony permeated the courtroom. Men that were at home, asleep in their beds testified as eye witnesses to the "massacre" as Paul Revere would deem it. The men were guilty, and anyone who thought else-wise was a traitor against God, liberty and common sense.
It appeared to all the world that John Adams had lost the case before it had even begun. Might as well give up now and save the shame, but John loved a good challenge, especially when liberty was on the line. He knew that these raids on customs houses, looting, rioting and lynchings happened, just as any Bostonian did. The burned effigies of King George were still smoldering outside the courtroom from the night before, the lingering smoke and ash a testament of the common displays of the discontent. Like any Bostonian, he knew the violence that happened and knew how a dog reacts when backed into a corner. The truth was there, but he had to bring it to light, or 8 unfortunate boys would see the gallows and have their bodies paraded through the streets.
Adams found his redemption in two unlikely places. His witnesses were not high standing members of society as the prosecution had called, but simple men, hard men, workers and patriots, ropers and dock-hands. His key witness was a black man, Holmes, bore witness that the shots were not fired into the crowd until after snowballs, rocks, clubs, oyster shells and chunks of ice were thrown at the customs house guards, clearly showing that this "peaceful gathering" had quite the opposite intention. His other key witness was a man by the name of Richard Palms, a roper by trade. Palms testified that Preston, the Captain of the 8 men, was not behind his men screaming "Fire, Damn your blood FIRE!" as the prosecution's key witness alleged, but that he was in front of them, making a fire command counter-productive to a long and happy life.
Roper's club used to beat the slack out of rope under tension, or to throw at Red Coats!
All but two of the soldiers were acquitted. Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Killroy were let go with a branding on their right thumbs.
Though Adams would count the defense of the patrol as one of the highlights of his legal career, it carried terrible consequences for his practice as his clientele dropped by half and, as seen in an entry in his journal depicts after leaving the courthouse after the sentencing hearings:
"a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes, and mulattos, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars...shouting and hazing and threatening life...whistling, screaming, and rending an Indian yell... throwing every species of rubbish the could pick up in the street."
Next week, we'll discuss the opening moves of the revolution. The pot finally boils!
For your viewing pleasure:
John Adams - Courtroom scene - HBO Series staring Paul Giamatti