Wednesday, March 7, 2018
March 7, 2018: Boston Massacre Studying: John Adams
[On March 5th, 1770, the events that came to be known as the Boston Massacre took place on King Street. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that pivotal pre-Revolutionary moment, leading up to a special Guest Post from my sons based on their elementary school studies of the massacre.]
On a Founding Father’s frustrating role in the Massacre’s aftermath, and why it matters.
The British soldiers who shot and killed Crispus Attucks and his compatriots on King Street were tried for murder (their leader, Captain Thomas Preston, individually; the eight others collectively) but acquitted of all charges, thanks in no small part to their lawyers, a 35 year-old Boston barrister named John Adams and his colleague Josiah Quincy. Much later in life Adams reflected on both the challenges yet what he saw as the paramount professional and historical importance of this legal assignment, writing, “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, 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 my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”
Perhaps Adams was correct; but when I called his role in the Massacre’s aftermath frustrating, I was referring not to his role in defending the soldiers (and certainly not to his success in doing so, as I don’t believe any further death would have benefitted anyone), but to how he chose to make his case. Adams did so most especially by attacking Crispus Attucks and his peers, calling Attucks in his closing statement “a stout Mulatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person,” and then arguing, “This was the behaviour of Attucks; to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed. And it is in this manner, this town has been often treated; a Carr from Ireland, and an Attucks from Framingham, happening to be here, shall sally out upon their thoughtless enterprises, at the head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together, and then there are not wanting, persons to ascribe all their doings to the good people of the town.” Adams could not have been clearer here about his separation of Attucks (and the Irish immigrant Carr), along with the “rabble of Negroes, etc.” to whom he linked them, from “the good people of the town,” his exclusion of these King Street protesters from the Bostonian and American identity for which he wanted to argue.
That attitude is deeply problematic, and not just for how we understand Crispus Attucks and the other Boston Massacre protesters. In many ways, after all, John Adams would come to embody the Federalists, the group of Revolutionary leaders and Founding Fathers who emerged as one of the first political parties and were most fully responsible for the Constitution (it’s not a coincidence that the opposition movement to the Constitution came to be known as the Anti-Federalists). I know our historical understanding of the Constitution has come a long way from theses that it was drafted by a group of elitist white male property owners for their own personal benefit, and I’m not here to suggest that such simplistic narratives are adequate to the document and moment’s complexities. Yet just because an explanation isn’t comprehensive doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the equation—and in a period when the current dominant image of the Federalists is Hamilton’s depiction of that Federalist leader as a working-class hero and champion of the common people, it seems to me more important than ever that we remember the very different side of Federalists, and of the nation’s founding, captured by Adams’ closing statement in the Boston Massacre trials.
Next massacre studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?