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Following the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, Captain Thomas Preston, eight British soldiers, and five British civilians were indicted for murder, thus, facing possible execution. Unfortunately for the accused, it was very difficult to find a defense team that would agree to defend them in the very anti-British city of Boston. John Adams realized that much was on the line for colonial America, not the least of which was its international reputation. He realized it was critical for the accused to have a fair trial, lest other nations view colonial America as a place where justice and due process are not respected or applied to all. A fair trial might also prevent retaliation from the British. Furthermore, Adams had gained a personal reputation as incorruptible, and firmly believed that the accused had the right to a fair trial and a competent defense, even though he bitterly hated their cause.
Branded on the Thumbs?
In the trial that ensued, Adams argued that Captain Preston had never issued the order for his soldiers to "fire," and that those who had shot into the crowd did so entirely in self-defense. Adams called those within the mob that provoked the soldiers "outlandish Jack tarrs," among other things. Adams' persuasion won the day, and Preston and six of his soldiers were acquitted of all charges. Two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter and were punished by having their thumbs branded.
Ultimately, Adams was proud of his service to the British soldiers. Later in his life he wrote:
"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. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies."