Boston Massacre Trial (1770)
Troops had been stationed in Boston and other cities in the colonies as a result of growing resistance by the colonists against imperial laws, especially the hated Townshend Acts. Ironically, on the same day as the Acts were repealed, March 5, 1770, a fight erupted with fatal consequences. Citizens constantly harassed the troops, and during a demonstration, a squad of British soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston was struck by missiles thrown by the colonists. The soldiers fired into the crowd and killed five men, including an African American, Crispus Attucks, who was leading the group. Only the withdrawal of troops from Boston prevented a major riot.
The eight soldiers and their commanding officer were tried for murder and were defended by John Adams, later the second president of the United States. Adams was a leader of the popular resistance to the British government, but he did not condone violence or mob action. When Adams was asked to defend the British soldiers who were charged with murder as a result of this clash, he promptly accepted. With the help of two other lawyers, he won acquittal for all but two of the men. Those two were declared guilty of manslaughter and, after claiming benefit of clergy, were branded on the thumb.
Despite the high tensions of the period, most patriots applauded the trial as evidence that the colonists remained wedded to the rule of law, and that the right of trial by jury should not be abandoned.
MELVIN I. UROFSKY
References and Further Reading
- Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: Norton, 1970.