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The Forgotten Founder Part 1: The Boston Massacre

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton. These are the names we think of when we think of our founding fathers. But there was another man there, at every critical juncture of the early republic. His thinking was ahead of its time. Without him, the Declaration of Independence would not look like it did. The judicial branch, indirectly, would not have the power it does today without him. Foreign relations for the young country could have easily gone awry if not for this man. His friendship and rivalry with Thomas Jefferson brought instrumental thinking and debate as the country bloomed. But he has largely been forgotten by history, having a less than successful presidency and the misfortune of following George Washington. His name was John Adams.

In this upcoming series, I intend to not only walk you through the life of this great man, as well as the great woman, Abigail, that was with him the whole way, but through the key events in early American history for which he was present. I am not the first to do this. I merely follow historians like David McCullough and Joseph Ellis in the pursuit. But I intend to simplify what took them hundreds of pages to explain.

John Adams’ emergence onto the national scene was also a critical event in the fight for independence: The Boston Massacre. This is where we start our story.

The year is 1770. March 5 to be exact. Boston is a hotbed for patriot dissent. Colonists are angry with constant taxes being piled onto them. Every year seemed to bring another tax yet no representation in Parliament, the body that levied the taxes. Two years earlier, British soldiers were stationed in Boston and clashes between colonists and troops were common. It was only a matter of time until a tipping point.

On the evening of March 5, Private Hugh White was stationed outside of the Custom House. A 13-year-old apprentice stopped by and shouted to Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch that he’d yet to pay the apprentice’s master for work done. In the midst of an argument, White hit the young boy on the side of the head and he shouted out in pain, attracting a crowd. Another young man named Henry Knox, a future general in the Revolutionary War, arrived to aid the young man. The crowd kept growing around Private White. More than 50 people were throwing things at him and challenging him to fire his weapon. A former slave named Crispus Attucks led the protest. Captain Thomas Preston arrived with more soldiers to control the situation. Knox warned Preston to control his men as the crowd grew too more than 300. Preston’s men loaded their guns and arranged into formation. The protesters continued to taunt the soldiers, yelling “fire” and throwing snowballs. A private named Hugh Montgomery was knocked over at some point. Angered, he got up and said, “damn you, fire!” though no command had been given. He began to shoot into the crowd. A quick struggle ensued before a brief pause. Then the soldiers opened fire. Crispus Attucks and two others died instantly. Eight others were shot, three of whom would later die from their injuries.

 

A crowd would appear again the next day which forced the acting governor to withdraw his troops from the city. Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were arrested and charged with murder. But the tragedy had a far-reaching impact, becoming a rallying point for independence. It was key in turning colonists against the British. John Adams said that it was the “foundation of American independence was laid.” Its reach across the colonies was aided by publications created by leading patriots Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, John’s cousin.

You may be asking, what does any of this have to do with John Adams? He was not there. At the time, Adams was a prominent lawyer in Boston and a noted supporter of independence. Surely, he was on the side of the protesters. At the same time, no lawyer wanted to represent the accused killers…British soldiers. It was unthinkable for almost anyone, career suicide. But John Adams was not just anyone. He was about to risk his reputation in the name of justice. John Adams was about to defend the alleged