John Adams Under Fire

John Adams Under Fire

I do not intend this as an indictment of recent presidents, but in reading “John Adams Under Fire” one cannot help but be struck by the man’s towering intellect and foresight.

Long before he became our second president, he was a lawyer in Boston. His controversial involvement in two of the most seminal cases in the history of American jurisprudence are the basis for “John Adams Under Fire” by Dan Abrams and David Fisher.

Most readers are cursorily familiar with The Boston Massacre as an event that escalated roiling tensions between the colonies and England, and ultimately led to the American Revolutionary War. British troops killed five people on that March night in 1770, but what is seldom touched upon in history books is the fate of the British officer, Capt. Thomas Preston, and the eight soldiers who were charged with murder for firing upon the crowd gathered in King Street. After the Massacre, many patriots, including Samuel Adams, wanted vengeance in the form of death sentences for the soldiers. What John Adams saw was a pressing need to establish “justice for all” if the colonies were to truly become the nation of freedom and liberty the founders envisioned.

The two trials (Capt. Preston’s occurred separately and before that of his soldiers) were remarkable for a number of reasons, including the fact that they were one of the first to introduce “reasonable doubt” into the lexicon and legal system as part of jury instructions. And in an era when most trials were concluded within a few hours or a day, these two trials each took many days and featured countless witnesses and sweeping oration—much of it provided by Adams in his defense of Preston and the soldiers. At 34, he certainly could not have envisioned his future legacy, but he did sense the import of the trials.

“Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”

The authors do a remarkable job of spinning the court transcripts into a fascinating tale of intrigue and underscoring the men and the issues at play. Adams’ decision to represent Preston and the soldiers was not one that he took lightly, for he knew it would cost him business and reputation. Ultimately, though, a much larger reputation emerged from that courtroom and onto the pages of American history.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania.

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