On March 5, 1770, tensions were high between the colonists and the armed British soldiers stationed in Boston. That evening, following a dispute between a British sentry and a colonist, an unruly crowd of colonists confronted eight British soldiers and their captain. The volatile crowd refused to obey orders to disperse and threw oyster shells, chunks of ice, and other objects at the soldiers. The soldiers shot into the crowd, and five colonists, including Crispus Attucks, died.

Paul Revere quickly created a print of the scene (from a drawing by Henry Pelham), titled The Bloody Massacre, which depicted British soldiers firing into a crowd of peaceful colonists. Sam Adams and others distributed copies of this print, and publicized the "Boston Massacre" as a symbol of British tyranny.

The day following the "Boston Massacre," a loyalist merchant came to Adams's law office and asked that he defend Captain Preston and the soldiers against charges of murder. Although committed to freedom from British tyranny, Adams agreed. He believed that every person accused of a crime should have counsel and a fair trial.

To succeed, Adams would have to persuade the jurors that Paul Revere's print was political propaganda, and that an out-of-control mob provoked the soldiers to fire in self-defense.

Facts are Stubborn Things
Captain Preston's trial took place in October 1770. Adams and co-counsel Josiah Quincy successfully challenged the prosecution's claim that Preston had ordered his soldiers to fire, and the jury, composed of colonists, acquitted him.

The trial of the eight soldiers began in November 1770. Adams and Quincy called witnesses who testified that the unruly mob assaulted and provoked the soldiers. Adams's closing argument, which contemporaries described as "electrifying," argued to the jury that any soldiers whose lives were in danger had acted in self-defense. As to any soldiers whose lives were not threatened but who were provoked to act by blows from sticks, oyster shells, and balls of ice, Adams argued they were guilty of manslaughter but not murder.

He concluded with these words:

   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 . . . . [The law] commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich, or poor, high, or low. . . . On the one hand [the law] is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.

The jury acquitted six of the soldiers and found two guilty of manslaughter. Those two were punished by the branding of their right thumbs.

Adams's experiences in this case would guide him as he developed and articulated his philosophy of a government based on the rule of law rather than the rule of individuals. This case also reinforced his belief that the judicial branch of government should be independent and not controlled by the passions of the day. Years later, Adams described his role in defending the British soldiers charged with murder as "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered to my country."

Gravestone Memorial to Boston Massacre victims in Granary Burying Ground.
Memorial to Boston Massacre victims in Granary Burying Ground.
Location of Boston Massacre with view of [Old] State House.
Location of Boston Massacre with view of [Old] State House.