America Owes its Existence to a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Attorney
I don’t intend on giving you a full history of this great attorney, but suffice it to say he took on the most unpopular defendants in the biggest crime of his day. He was able to win acquittal for six of them and reduced charges for the remaining two. His belief in rule by law wasn’t blinded by prejudice or the anxious feelings of war.
By the way, he was also co-author of the Declaration of Independence and the sole author of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. He then helped frame the US Constitution and became the country’s second president.
John Adams – Attorney, oh and President
John Adams’ greatest act of courage in my opinion wasn’t signing the Declaration of Independence, it was when he stood up to his friends, neighbors, and even family to defend the eight soldiers arrested after the Boston Massacre in 1770. John’s own cousin, Samuel Adams was his most avid critic in speech and in print, even though he initially supported John’s role as defender. He later accused John of letting the soldiers walk away with blood on their hands.
If one reads the inflammatory writings before, during, and after the trial, one begins to realize that sometimes the only barrier between rule of law and a lynch mob is a defense attorney willing to stand between public opinion and the accused. Not unlike many trials in the media today, the public had already tried the accused and was fully ready to pass sentence.
Master of cross-examination
One of John Adams’ speeches during the trial reminded the court how he had slowly and methodically discredited the testimony of the main witnesses for the prosecution. Each detail that the prosecution produced as fact gave way to John Adams’ calm reason. He forgave one man his poor testimony in court by reminding everyone of the white-hot emotions that clouded everyone’s judgement. That move tacitly discredited a good deal of the prosecution’s facts.
The cool head that saved the colonies
The Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770; six years before the Declaration of Independence. The tensions were high enough in the colonies, particular in Massachusetts, that if John Adams had walked into court and quietly stated that he couldn’t defend his guilty clients there could have been a lynching that day. John Adams may have even been a hero on that day.
However, look at the date. The colonies weren’t ready to take on the full wrath of the crown in 1770. Disrespect for the law would have been the only excuse Britain needed to declare full martial law and dissolve all colonial governments. The outcome would have been far different from what we know now.
There may be historians who disagree with this assessment but considering that most Americans have forgotten this important aspect of the character of those who founded this country, I see it differently.