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Liberty once lost is lost forever - John Adams
Liberty once lost is lost forever - John Adams

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In December of 1770, a young lawyer began his closing arguments for what may have been the most important trial in his career. Certainly it is an important trial in American history. The laywer's name was John Adams, well-known Whig and no fan of the British soldiers occupying Boston. On the docket stood a handful of British soldiers, their lives staked on his defense. In the eyes of the Bostonians, the men were bloody butchers and deserved death.

Nine months earlier, a local mob had cornered these soldiers and dealt them severe harassment, pelting them with chunks of ice, rocks, and oyster shells. In fear for their lives, the panicked soldiers fired into the crowd and killed five. Paul Revere and Sam Adams named it the Boston Massacre, and news of it swept through the colonies. No lawyer would consent to defend them in court, until John Adams stepped forward. He was not a likely candidate. John Adams was a local selectman in Boston and already well known for his patriot leanings, having written much in the defense of English rights. But Adams was a man of principle as well as patriotism; rights belonged to all men, not just popular ones. He took the case, and staged a magnificent defense in the courtroom that winter.

A lawless man in a mob was no hero, he said firmly, and deserved no special treatment. Of course the attacked soldiers had their right to self-defense, for it was the oldest and most precious of human rights. Would not anyone have fired back? Could they be blamed and hanged for it? “Facts are stubborn things,” he told the jury, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

It was a risk to his career, his political ambitions, even to himself. There is no evidence that the liberty ringleaders in Boston disapproved of his defense; it is most likely Sam Adams was pleased the soldiers were getting their fair trial, for that was good politics. But as the Boston Massacre itself proved, the lower classes could be prone to angry mob activity. However angry the people of Boston might have been, though, they too believed in a fair trial and little criticism was lobbied against Adams. The jury, taken by his reason and his eloquence, acquitted most of the soldiers of murder and found just two of them guilty of manslaughter. None of them would be hanged. Weeping with joy, they blessed John Adams and declared he had been sent to them from God. And Adams never suffered the negative whiplash he had feared.

He would go on to be chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, sit on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, serve as American ambassador to France, Holland, and England, and eventually be elected vice-president and then president. He was widely known for his integrity, a reputation that began with this trial. In the end, by doing the right thing, he did the right thing.