Americana Corner: John Adams, Boston’s Leading Lawyer
When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, John Adams was single, living on a small farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, and enjoying a thriving law firm just up the road in Boston. The following year his marital status changed, most would say improved, when he married Abigail Smith. A profitable business and a quiet family life seemed to be in her future, but that quickly changed.
The British treasury had been terribly depleted by the recently ended war with France. To replenish their coffers, English rulers looked to their American colonies as a source of income. The ministry reasoned that since much of the cost of the war was spent protecting the colonies, the colonies should pick up part of the bill.
Consequently, in 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act and followed with the Stamp Act in 1765. Colonial leaders like Adams recognized that these bills were more than just a drain on the revenue of the Crown. There was the larger constitutional issue of whether Parliament had the right to tax American settlers since they were not represented in that legislative body.
In a series of articles under the pen name “Humphrey Ploughjogger”, Adams argued that the Stamp Act was invalid due to the lack of colonial representation in Parliament. These writings which were printed in the Boston Gazette, as well as in London, brought Adams notoriety in Massachusetts and other parts of North America. To fight against this legislation, American leaders organized the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765 and nine of the thirteen colonies sent representatives. Because of this unexpected united resistance, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 and emotions cooled.
With the death of prominent Boston lawyer Jeremy Gridley in 1767 and the continued decline of his peer James Otis, there was an opportunity for an ambitious lawyer like Adams to make his mark. Consequently, he moved his family to Boston in 1768 and his practice began to grow.
In October of the same year, British troops occupied Boston against the will of the inhabitants.
Unsurprisingly, tensions rose over the next year and came to a head on March 5, 1770, in an incident known to history as the Boston Massacre.
It all started when a lone British sentry keeping watch was confronted by a crowd of angry Bostonians. Other soldiers came to help their brother in arms and the crowd also gained many supporters. Boston’s men began shouting obscenities and bombarding the soldiers with ice, rocks, and oyster shells. Some even attacked the redcoats with sticks. Predictably, shots were fired, resulting in the deaths of five members of the cheering crowd.
The soldiers were arrested and charged with murder. When no one else wanted to take their case, John Adams advanced the reasoning that all men deserved a lawyer when they appeared in court. Adams was brilliant in his defense of these men. During the trial, he said, “Facts are stubborn things; whatever our wishes, our inclinations or the precepts of our passion, they cannot alter the state of the facts and the proofs. He obtained their acquittal.
Although Adams was unpopular for a brief time, his principled stance and forceful arguments bolstered his reputation as a competent, honest, and upright man. Many cases came his way, his star began to rise, and the future of his private legal practice looked bright. However, within three years, the race for what is known as the American Revolution would change all that.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does John Adams’ time as a lawyer in private practice matter to us today?
John Adams was one of the most conscientious of our founding fathers and this characteristic was on full display when Adams was a private attorney.
Adams risked his reputation and lost clients defending the soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre. But this principled man did it on purpose because he thought it was the right thing to do. This kind of admirable behavior says a lot about Adams’ character.
Additionally, Adams refined his legal reasoning regarding colonial rights while in private practice.
He wrote several articles that clearly spelled out the constitutional parameters Parliament was required to follow. Adams’ logical argument against legislative oppression planted the seeds of independence in the minds of his fellow citizens and helped pave the way for our separation from England.
SUGGESTED READING: John Adams, A Life by John Ferling is an excellent book about our second president. Published in 1992, this account is a readable and interesting account by John Adams. It is highly recommended.
PLACES TO VISIT Boston’s Freedom Trail is truly one of our national treasures. This 2.5-mile path through downtown Boston features sixteen colonial-era historic sites. From churches and cemeteries to famous homes, there is an incredible amount to see and learn.
Until next time, let your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country guides me.
Tom Hand is a resident of Ford Field & River Club, a West Point graduate, and an Army veteran. He has his own website, americanacorner.com.
Check it out.