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Boston Massacre Trials

British soldiers occupied the city of Boston for a tension-filled 18 months before mutual hatred turned to outright violence. The events of March 5, 1770, which resulted in the deaths of five Americans, were described as the Boston Massacre by patriot propagandists.

Charges of murder were brought against Captain Thomas Preston and eight soldiers in his command. Patriot public opinion looked forward to a fair trial ending in the conviction of all of the redcoats, while loyalist Bostonians and royal officials hoped for dismissal of the charges or a pardon. The case was to be heard in the Massachusetts Superior Court, but Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson removed himself from the proceedings. A number of months were allowed to pass before the matter came to trial, sufficient time perhaps for popular passions to cool.

John Adams, Boston’s leading attorney, overcame understandable misgivings and agreed to head the defense. Working with him were Robert Auchmuty, a prominent loyalist, and Josiah Quincy Jr., an ardent patriot and brother of the court-appointed prosecutor, Samuel Quincy.

Captain Preston was tried first and separately from the others — the prerogative of an officer and a gentleman. The trial began on October 24 and lasted for five days, a highly unusual amount of time for proceedings in that era. The conflicted testimony of numerous witnesses took days to hear; some testified that they had heard Preston issue an order to fire and others swore to the contrary. Adams’ arguments from the trial have not been preserved, but the defense played up the simmering detestation that had existed between the townspeople and the soldiers. Preston’s fate was not seriously in doubt because of the highly sympathetic jury, which returned a not guilty verdict.

The trial of the eight soldiers began on December 3 and lasted only two days. The court attempted to determine if the soldiers’ fire was motivated by malice or by fear, and who had fired the fatal shots. Adams’ remarks in this case survived; he rejected the advice of Josiah Quincy Jr. to try the city of Boston, a clearly inflammatory tactic based upon a recounting of recent hostile acts. Instead he argued that the real fault was with the British policymakers who had stationed soldiers in the city, not with the soldiers themselves.

One interesting aspect of the second trial was the admission of the hearsay evidence of Patrick Carr, one of the victims of the incident. Carr’s physician was allowed to present his version of his patient’s last words, which absolved the soldiers because Carr believed they fired in self defense. Such second-hand testimony was common in that day because it was believed that anyone on a deathbed would speak only truth. Samuel Adams, who attended this trial, acerbically noted that the word of Roman Catholic Carr carried little weight in Protestant Boston.

The verdict was delivered on December 5; six of the soldiers were acquitted and two found guilty of manslaughter, not of murder. Sentencing occurred several days later and the two convicted soldiers were allowed to avoid lengthy prison sentences by pleading “benefit of clergy.” Their thumbs were branded with the letter “M” — a token punishment, but one leaving a permanent mark so that they would never again receive such lenient treatment — and then released to their units.

The Boston public took the verdicts in good order. There were letters expressing outrage in the local newspapers — the work of Sam Adams and other disappointed agitators — but no public demonstrations. This calm reflected the feelings of many that mob action had gotten out of hand and that British soldiers, hated as they were, could not be blamed for defending themselves.

As for John Adams, his law practice did indeed suffer a decline after the trial and he was the object of some scalding newspaper rhetoric, but over the longer term he emerged as a highly respected figure for doing the right thing under trying circumstances. Adams, a dedicated diarist, gave himself high marks for his virtuous conduct.

Following the trials, Boston settled somewhat uncomfortably into a period of relative calm, but passions would be inflamed again by the Tea Act of 1773.


See timeline of the American Revolution.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Boston Massacre Trials.

By Benjamin Church
Breach of trust in a governor, or attempting to enlarge a limited power, effectually absolves subjects from every bond of covenant and peace; the crimes acted by a king against the people are the highest treason against the highest aw among men.
By John Adams
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
In defense of British soldiers, accused in the Boston Massacre
By Samuel Adams
If you, or Colonel Dalrymple under you, have the power to remove one regiment you have the power to remove both. It is at your peril if you refuse. The meeting is composed of three thousand people. They have become impatient. A thousand men are already arrived from the neighborhood, and the whole country is in motion. Night is approaching. An immediate answer is expected. Both regiments or none!
Address to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, the day after the Boston Massacre