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John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trial: The Moment That Defined A Man And A Nation

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 26, 2024 3:04 am

John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trial: The Moment That Defined A Man And A Nation

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 26, 2024 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, what we are about to do now is precise. Instead of telling the all-encompassing story of John Adams, we are going to dial it in on one specific moment in his life; one that best captures this man’s humanity and ideals more than any other. And as you will soon learn, Adams himself will agree with our selection.

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What's up? This is your boy Lil Duval and check out my podcast, Conversations with Unk, on the Black Effect Podcast Network. Each and every Tuesday, Conversations with Unk Podcasts feature casuals and in-depth talk about ebbs and flows of life and the pursuit of happiness. Unlike my work on stage, I tap into a more serious and sensitive side to give life advice and simply offer words of encouragement, yet remind folks to never forget to laugh.

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Visit This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. We tell stories about everything here on this show from sports to arts and from business to history.

And this story, well, it's the latter. It's history. In the nation's capital, the sun glitters on stone monuments to our first president, George Washington, and our third, Thomas Jefferson. John Adams, the second president of the United States, was every bit as brave as the former and as brilliant as the latter, but there is no such monument for him. Yet no one, not even Washington or Jefferson, did as much to convince the colonies to break from England.

Perhaps this is fitting because stone is cold and he was anything but. Alas, we must see that the United States alone serves as the proper living monument to this intense, cranky, warm heart on his sleeve founding father. What we're about to do now is precise. Instead of telling the all-encompassing story of John Adams, we are going to dial it in on one specific moment in his life, one that best captures this man's humanity and ideals more than any other. And as we will soon learn, Adams himself will agree with our selection. Here to give us a quick overarching Reader's Digest-like version of Adams is none other than author and historian David McCullough, the man who's written a definitive biography of John Adams, the book in which HBO based its 2008 award-winning miniseries. Here's McCullough answering the question, what event most personified the life and character of John Adams? I think it's the his defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial.

That's where you see what that man's made of. Here was a man who was on the political rise. He was brilliant. He was well read. He was tenacious.

He was a very skillful practicing lawyer and young still. And then the soldiers were captured and they were everybody in the whole commonwealth were looking forward to having them executed, but they had to be represented in the trial and no one would represent them. No one would defend them. And Adams said, if we really believe that everybody deserves a legal defense in a trial, we better live up to what we say we believe.

I'll defend them. And he did so certain that it was going to ruin any ambitions he had to play a part. And he had a terrific wife. He's the only founding father.

Most people don't know this, but I think it's so important. The only founding father who never owned a slave as a matter of principle. And his wife felt the same way. She saw that slavery was a sin, evil, unjust, un-American. And they never changed in that point of view whatsoever. Let's now take a deep dive into the story of John Adams and his legendary defense of the British soldiers at the 1770 trial of the Boston Massacre.

Here's Greg Henry. By 1760, 130 years after being founded by the Puritans, Boston is thriving. While in theory its commerce is regulated by the British trade laws, in fact these laws are rarely enforced. That changes in 1761 with England's economy struggling thanks to the 10,000 British troops protecting their American colonies from the French.

Here's historian Andrew O'Shaughnessy and screenwriter of the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, Kirk Ellis. The reason that they taxed America was because of the French and Indian War. It so bankrupted the British Treasury that there had to be ways in which they could make up for this lost revenue.

And they decided that they couldn't. And they decided to tax the colonies. But as they've always done, Americans ignore the taxes. So Britain takes action. New tax laws and anti-smuggling searches turn revenue collection into combative encounters.

Here's historian Andrew Nelson. And this includes something called the writs of assistance, which is essentially a warrant where the British can search anyone's family. The British army is no longer in America to protect colonists. It has become an occupying force. Along with invasive laws allowing search and seizure, England responds with the Stamp Act of 1765, a broad tax targeting every American colonist.

The Stamp Act required that all official correspondence from newspapers to documentation, even playing cards, had to be produced on paper that bore an official stamp purchased from a customs agent. Even though it isn't described as a tax, it's of course a tax. And this leads to opposition. When most people think of the founding fathers, they envision wig-wearing politicians debating on the floor of some legislative body. But they in fact did their organizing in a bar, a tavern in Boston called the Green Dragon. The Boston Tea Party was planned here, and Paul Revere was sent from the Green Dragon to Lexington on his famous ride. It is here where their fight begins, not yet for independence, but for the equal treatment under the law as the British citizens they believe they are.

Behind the power of these laws, English customs agents begin ransacking homes and houses. A group of patriots formed to fight British oppression, most notably the Stamp Act. They call themselves the Sons of Liberty. Sons of Liberty is an association of men who are looking to prompt situations that will lead to a disturbance that will force the attention of the crown. The Sons of Liberty weren't just in Boston. They were very quickly organized and operated throughout the original 13 colonies. The founder of what could be called General of the Sons of Liberty is John Adams' cousin, 43-year-old Samuel Adams.

Here's colonial historian Marvin Kipman. Sam Adams was a real rebel with a cause, and the reason for it was in his personal life. He had been a failure in everything that he did until the revolution. His father gave him a lot of money to start a business. He lost all the money.

He's one of these people who become obsessed with a cause and just put their personal life aside. If Sam Adams is the general of the Sons of Liberty, his colonels are John Hancock, the wealthiest man in Boston and the second in the colonies, and goldsmith Paul Revere. Legend relegates Revere as a mere lookout who shouts from the top of a horse, but Paul Revere is both a salesman and a strategist, a multi-talented patriot who organizes tough men into a force for liberty. As the atmosphere in Boston turns incendiary, Paul Revere leads something about guerrilla army that uses tactics of fear and violence intent on intimidating the king's tax collectors out of existence. What is known as the Stamp Act Riots spread quickly throughout the 13 colonies.

Here's historian extraordinaire Tony Williams. They were tearing down the stamp collector's homes. They were burning these customs officials and the royal governor in effigy, and so there's a great deal of popular enthusiasm and even violence. The Stamp Act Riots renders the man enforcing British rule in Massachusetts, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, powerless to collect taxes. With no colonial taxes being collected, the British parliament is in a state of panic.

Here's historian David Eisenbach. You have to remember at parliament they're dealing with an empire that is stretching all around the world. If they allow the abuse of tax collectors in Boston, that would encourage lawlessness all around. They decided we've got to make an example by putting more troops in Boston to kind of clamp down on the troublemakers. And what a story. And when we come back, this story is setting up well like a showdown, like high noon, and we're putting you where we always put you, right there on the streets, in the context, in the history itself. When we come back, more of John Adams' story, more of the story of the Boston massacre trial and the circumstances that brought us there.

John Adams' story here on Our American Stories. There's a lot happening these days, but I have just the thing to get you up to speed on what matters without taking too much of your time. The Seven from The Washington Post is a podcast that gives you the seven most important and interesting stories, and we always try to save room for something fun. You get it all in about seven minutes or less. I'm Hannah Jewell. I'll get you caught up with The Seven every weekday. So follow The Seven right now. Hosted by IndieWire's Craft Team, Toolkit is an award-winning podcast that gets at the heart of what really matters for filmmakers, like Spike Lee.

It comes back to this story telling, what can I use in my toolbox? Asking the right questions can greatly impact your future, especially when it comes to your finances. So if you're looking for a financial advisor you can trust, certified financial planner professionals are committed to acting in your best interest. That's why it's gotta be a CFP.

Find your CFP professional at Let' This is Our American Stories and we return where we last left off. Boston is under military occupation by the British troops trying to clamp down on colonial troublemakers. Here's Greg Hengler.

Oh there's no turning back for me. England dispatches two military regiments to Massachusetts from New York to keep order, adding fuel to the fire. Boston is now under military occupation. In 1768, four more regiments sail from England to Boston. By 1770, 2,000 British troops occupy this city of 15,000. For Paul Revere, the occupation of British military presents an opportunity.

He creates a propaganda piece he calls, landing of the troops. As it travels throughout the colonies, so does the fear of military occupation. With a British army camp in the center of their city, Bostonians have a constant reminder of their own repression. While rank and file British soldiers start to wonder, who has it worse? Here's historians H.W.

Brands, Andrew Nelson, and Denver Brunswick. These British soldiers are a long way from home. Young men who are frightened, most of them have hardly the slightest idea of what the political debate is. They're told by their officers, you need to keep the peace. For many of the soldiers arriving, America had been a faraway place that you read about in the newspaper. But when they get there, they see what all the fuss was about.

This really is a suggestion of a much better life than America. So desertion becomes a serious problem. One hallmark of a professional army at this time is a high state of discipline, physical corporal punishment for various crimes. And the punishment of choice was the lash. Punishment for desertion could bring up to 250 lashes. Contrary to popular history, the derogatory term of lobsterback for British soldiers doesn't have anything to do with the red coats they wear.

The term comes from the welts and the scars many men have on their backs from being whipped. The flame that will ignite the American Revolution is lit on Thursday morning, February 22nd, 1770, when, according to the Boston Gazette, a barbarous murder was committed on the body of a young lad of about 11 years of age. Christopher Sider is a young rebel in a Sons of Liberty offshoot group known as the Liberty Boys. So Sam Adams' idea to protest the taxes is to get all of the colonies together to join in on a boycott against English merchants. The Sons of Liberty proclaims that no British goods will be sold. Not everybody adheres to that boycott. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty are not above marking that place with manure on the door. They're not above breaking the windows of that place. That dark morning, Sider and a crowd of 60 young men marched defiantly through Boston's cobblestone streets with a cart overflowing with rotten fruit used to mark the windows of those merchants who refused to respect the boycott of all British goods.

These British sympathizers are known as loyalists or Tories. Walking down the street, the mob sees Ebenezer Richardson, who was an informant to the customs house about various merchants who were not paying their taxes. Stopping in front of Ebenezer Richardson's house, the young men begin throwing rubbish into his yard. The rubbish is thrown back by Richardson's wife, Keziah, but soon rocks are hurled and the Richardsons retreat into their secure home. As the intensity grows, windows are shattered and an egg hits Keziah. Richardson grabs his musket loaded with swan shot and stands defiantly musket high at his second story window. He fires once. It is intended to be a warning, he later swears, but Christopher Sider is hit in his chest and abdomen by 11 pieces of shot the size of large peas. Most people believe the revolutionary war is triggered by a shot from a British soldier on Lexington Green, but the conflict is actually set into motion five years earlier when Liberty boy Christopher Sider becomes the first American martyr to die for the cause of freedom.

There's nothing I can do. Samuel Adams made this into a huge public spectacle and there was a great deal of anger in Boston. They staged an incredibly elaborate funeral with a bedecked coffin that gains mourners as it passes through town. Among the more than 2,000 Bostonians who attend the funeral is John Adams.

Here he is from his diary. Mine eyes have never seen such a funeral. This shows that there are many more lives to be spent if wanted in service to their country. This shows too that the faction is not yet expiring and that the auger of the people is not to be quelled by the slaughter of one child. It's in full view, this outpouring of sentiment over the loss of one individual who symbolizes the promise of what many people think should be an independent nation. This boy's death becomes propaganda for Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty and this is like a match to light the fuse that will explode into the American Revolution. In the days that follow the funeral, tension in Boston reaches a climax. On the frigid moonlit evening of March 5th, 1770, less than two weeks after Sider's burial, an angry boisterous and mostly intoxicated citizen mob roams through the snow-covered cobbled streets hurling insults and threats at British soldiers. Two Bostonians break into two meeting houses and begin ringing the church bells. They alarm for fire and almost at once crowd come pouring into the streets.

The city is alive with danger. By eight o'clock, two British soldiers are attacked and beaten. Then, a large mob of colonists, as many as 200 strong and armed with sticks and clubs, gather in front of the Custom House on King Street, guarded by a lone British sentry.

The time is shortly after nine. Words are exchanged and the sentry strikes a Bostonian with the butt of his musket, knocking him to the ground. The British want to demonstrate that we hold the power and you guys better do what we tell you to do. Captain Preston leads out the guard. They form around the front of the Customs House and at that point the situation escalates and a mob starts to grow.

British Captain Thomas Preston dispatches seven men to the Custom House too, as he says, protect the sentry and the king's money. The more force the British bring to bear, the more radical the situation gets. The mob launches oyster shells and rocks packed in snowballs at the soldiers and dare them to shoot, yelling, fire, fire! The soldiers with muskets drawn and fixed bayonets are in a state of panic when suddenly a British private receives a severe blow to the head with a club and falls to the ground, causing his musket to discharge.

In the melee, the soldiers open fire. Just days after Christopher Sider is buried, five more American colonists join him as martyrs in the struggle for freedom. What will be known as the Boston Massacre will be the rallying cry for colonists to fight for the unalienable rights we cherish today. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We will all regret this day. And when we come back we'll continue with the final segment of this remarkable story and we're picking the Boston Massacre trial and honing in on this one particular point in John Adams life because it reveals so much about his nature, about his character, and what he really believed in. In the end, the deep principles that helped him and so many like him formulate the founding principles of our country.

Hard ones to live by at the time though when we continue the life of John Adams, the Boston Massacre trial, and the story of our nation's founding here on Our American Story. I bet you're smart. Yeah, and you like to hold your own in the group chat. We can help you drop even more knowledge. My name is Martine Powers.

And I'm Elahe Isadi. We host a daily news podcast called Post Reports. Every weekday afternoon Post Reports takes you inside an important and interesting story with the kind of reporting that you can only get from The Washington Post. You can listen to Post Reports wherever you get your podcasts. Go find it now and hit follow. The Toolkit Podcast is where your favorite filmmakers come to talk about their craft and process.

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It comes back to this Doyd telling, what can I use in my toolbox? Asking the right questions can greatly impact your future, especially when it comes to your finances. So if you're looking for a financial advisor you can trust, certified financial planner professionals are committed to acting in your best interest. That's why it's gotta be a CFP.

Find your CFP professional at And we continue with the story of John Adams. Just days after Liberty Boy, Christopher Sider is buried, five more American colonists join him as martyrs in the struggle for freedom. What will be known as the Boston Massacre will be the rallying cry for colonists to fight for the unalienable rights we cherish today, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Here's Greg Hengler. We will all regret this day. The Boston Massacre becomes a huge propaganda effort for Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty. You've got an immediately famous engraving by Paul Revere. It is one of the most inaccurate pieces of propaganda ever produced by an American press.

Almost nothing in it is correct. This is an early instance in the colonies of the power of what we now call media to shape the public opinion. Paul Revere's sensationalized engraving is considered one of the most effective pieces of propaganda in American history, showing an orderly line of redcoats firing and using and carrying an unison into an unprovoked and unarmed crowd of patriots with blood spurting out of their bodies.

Boston newspapers are quick to print and distribute Revere's version. John Adams is a short, chubby, and very pious fifth-generation descendant of Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632. After 12 years of practicing 34-year-old Adams is working in his office when a prosperous merchant named James Forrest knocks on his door the day after the massacre. Mr. Adams, my name is Forrest.

What happened to you? With tears streaming in his eyes, as Adam writes years later, the Loyalist desperately asks Adams to defend Captain Preston and his men against the murder charges. Not even a single Loyalist would take the case.

No one else would take this case. As Boston's most respected attorneys and political leaders, it would appear inconceivable that he would risk his reputation and his own safety, as well as the safety of his pregnant wife Abigail and their young son and future sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, by agreeing to defend British men who are considered cold-blooded killers of American patriots. It will be John Adams' first murder trial. On the surface, it would appear that the distinction between the Adams cousins is made clearer when John takes the case to defend British soldiers. But behind the scenes, Samuel Adams' belief in the rights of man are deeper than his in-the-open, rough-and-tumble political tactics. John Adams was not eager to take the task, but Samuel persuaded his cousin on the basis of justice that these men deserved the best defense. That was an argument that could always sway John Adams.

The trial in front of a packed courtroom begins on October 24th at Boston's new courthouse on Queen Street. John Adams draws upon his personal mistrust of mobs to construct a masterful defense of the British soldiers. Here's Kirk Ellis and John Adams from his autobiography and from the trial. He develops a defense that is based on the fact that this was a mob that was created and a situation of escalating violence was building.

The part I took in defense of Captain Preston and the soldiers was the most exhausting and fatiguing cause I ever tried for hazarding my popularity and for incurring suspicions and prejudices which will never be forgotten as long as the history of this period is read. John Adams' ace in the hole trial is a deathbed confession from Patrick Carr. And what was it he said? He said he fired to defend himself.

To defend himself! The doctor's testimony of Patrick Carr recounting a dying man's last words would be considered inadmissible, hearsay, but puritanical thinking gives John Adams an advantage. Justice Peter Oliver and the jury accept the deathbed testimony as irrefutable since it is believed that no one would dare lie so close before stepping into eternity to face God's final judgment. In instructing the jury, Justice Oliver addresses the complexities of the case when he tells them, if upon the whole ye are in any reasonable doubt of their guilt, ye must then declare them innocent.

It marks the first known time a judge has used the phrase reasonable doubt in an American courtroom. Adams' defending argument to the jury includes this statement that has echoed throughout American courtrooms for longer than two centuries. Facts are stubborn things. Facts are stubborn things.

See, whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. We the jury, the trial of Captain Preston last six days, and that of his troops last nine, not guilty. These will be the first criminal trials in the colony's history to occur. The first criminal trials in the colony's history to extend more than a single day. Adams' compelling defense wins an acquittal for six of the soldiers, and two are found guilty of manslaughter, for which they are branded with an M for murder on their thumbs.

This session adjourned. It is not only the soldiers Adams defends, but the law itself, which must remain free from man's politics, passions, and ever-shifting beliefs. Far from ruining his career, Bostonians realize that John Adams has won a victory for the colonies. He has shown England that colonists understand what justice means. The trial solidifies John Adams as the most respected and gifted legal mind in Boston, perhaps all of the colonies. For his part, Adams remembers the case with pride as, one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered. One of the most gallant, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life.

And one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. But to put that brilliant mind to use towards American independence, Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty must first convince him to join them in open rebellion. Because when their struggle turns to war, they will need John Adams to persuade a people to defy their king and to find the ideals of freedom and liberty upon which America will be built. Let's end this story with the man who started it. Here again is historian and John Adams biographer, David McCullough. I like to give credit where credit's due. In many cases, long overdue.

I felt that way with John Adams. You remember the great scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the posse is chasing them, and the posse is not only keeping up with them, it's starting to gain a little bit. And one of them says to the other, who are those guys?

And then they look again, and they're getting closer, and they're writing as well or better than Butch and Sundance are. And the other one said, who are those guys? And then who are those guys?

Well, that's the way I feel very often. Who were those founding fathers? And the more you know them, the better you know them, the more you realize how extraordinary what they did is because they were so human. And they had flaws and failings and had moments of gloom and despair, just like all of us.

And yet they kept going. I know that it lifts us in spirit. It lifts us in our love of appreciation of those to whom we owe so much. But it also lifts us in an outlook on life that, for lack of another word, I would call optimistic.

Now, it's not fashionable intellectually to be an optimist, but I am because I've seen in my work again and again and again, it works out. They do it. They get there. And if there's a problem or there's an overwhelming calamity, the nation's whole security and future is at stake. We've come through it. And so when people start saying, oh, it's a girl, country's going to hell. Well, sure, it always has been. And we're doing just fine.

And then when people say, well, the taxes are too high and the cost of this, these damn politicians, I say, would you rather live somewhere else? Oh, no, no. Of course not. Aren't we lucky? Aren't we really lucky to live in this country? And isn't it wonderful sometimes to be reminded that we are a good people and we've had great people bring us to where we are? Yes, there were terrible rotten people, of course. And there were scoundrels and scamps and crooks and murderers. But there always have been, always will be. And just don't ever let us get so down about what might be happening at the moment in the way of less than admirable human beings.

But remember how many good people there are and how much progress is being made in our own time, beneficial to a better life. And great job as always, Greg. And it's always a pleasure to hear from David McCullough. And this story, well, it tells you everything about John Adams, that one moment in your life. And it's you and your principles and how you act upon them. Well, it determines who you are. John Adams story, the Boston Massacre trial here on Our American Stories.

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