Timeless Wisdom: John Adams, the ‘Boston Massacre,’ and George Floyd

April 20, 2021 Updated: April 23, 2021


“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

So said John Adams at the trial of the British soldiers involved in what, more than two centuries later, we continue to call “The Boston Massacre.”

But there’s a problem: it wasn’t a massacre; all but one of the British soldiers was acquitted; and John Adams—a Founding Father and anti-British colonial patriot—made it happen.

In short, what we call the “Boston Massacre” was anything but, thanks to an ideology-driven narrative of what took place, rather than a factual one.

Today, something similar is taking place in the case of the George Floyd trial. Some are already attempting to elevate Floyd to a status that can only be compared with sainthood. Many are equating the trial with that of Christ, with the justice system in the role of Pontius Pilate, and accused officer Derek Chauvin in the role of Barabbas. In short, they’re attempting to use this trial as a tool in a larger macro-narrative about law enforcement, race, and the legitimacy of the American justice system itself.

But, as we’ll see in the case of the “Boston Massacre”—an example I have constantly cited whenever any side rushes to judgment over the latest policing tragedy—such agenda-driven narratives are rarely based on truth.

The Trial

It was the winter of 1770, in Boston, Massachusetts. Tensions between American colonists and the British government had been rising for years. Armed British soldiers patrolled the streets. Tensions were high and burst into flames on the cold, wintry evening of March 5 when a British patrol clashed with a group of angry protesters. The result was the death of five colonists at the hands of the British soldiers.

Patriot leaders such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere kicked into high gear. “Murder!” they cried. For several years they had been arguing that the British Parliament and King were acting like tyrants. This, they argued, was evidence that what they’d been saying was true all along.

So the British soldiers were brought to trial. But no one could find a lawyer willing to represent the “bloodthirsty” soldiers who now faced the prospect of execution. Most people would think John Adams—a patriot leader, and second cousin of Samuel Adams—would be one of the least likely candidates, having attacked British policy for nearly a decade.

However, believing that all citizens of a free country are entitled to the presumption of innocence and the benefit of legal counsel, he agreed to represent the soldiers.

The costs were immense. His legal practice was likely to suffer, if not completely dry up, if he defended the soldiers, whether he was successful or not. But, despite being faced with one of the most spoiled jury pools in history, he earned the acquittal of all but two of them, who were found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder. Adams argued that, faced with an angry mob who began attacking them, the troops reasonably feared for their lives and fired in self-defense.

That was not what many colonists wanted to hear. Some saw him as a traitor to the colonial cause he had so ardently defended. Adams called on the jurors to focus not on their narrative of the bloodthirsty British, but on the facts and the evidence. In the midst of an angry and resentful time, Adams asserted that true justice is first and foremost based on truth, not ideological narratives—even if the truth didn’t align with the narrative toward which he himself was inclined.

Human passions, Adams argued, have no power to change those “stubborn things” called facts. The law, he said (quoting 17th century British patriot Algernon Sidney), “’does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but without any regard to persons, commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich, or poor, high or low. ‘Tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible.’ On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder to the clamors of the populace.”

He was despised for what he did. His legal practice temporarily suffered.

But when the time came for the convocation of the first Continental Congress four years later, everyone in Massachusetts knew they wanted to be represented by, among others, John Adams. They realized in 1774 what they didn’t in 1770: Far from abandoning the ideals of the colonial cause, Adams had defended them, showing that the very rights the colonists were struggling for were the patrimony of all British citizens, whether we liked them or not.

In defending the British soldiers and proving that a fair trial was possible even among increasingly rowdy colonists, he was, in fact, defending the cause of the patriots.

Lessons of the ‘Boston Massacre’

What ought we learn from this?

I trust many of the lessons are clear. It shouldn’t for a second be presumed that by using this example, I’m assuming that Derek Chauvin or the other policemen involved in George Floyd’s death were innocent. Far from it.

The lesson of the “Boston Massacre” trial isn’t that those entrusted with enforcing law and order are always, or even mostly, right. The lesson is that in all matters of justice, and particularly in times when so many have made ideological narratives and political gamesmanship the standard of their actions rather than truth and justice, it’s essential that we judge by facts and evidence.

This is especially true given that one of the dearest rights every American citizen enjoys is the presumption of innocence—a right all the more important when the weight of the law grows all the heavier, up to and including the death penalty.

To this day, it remains false to say that what happened in Boston on March 5, 1770, was a “massacre.” The name itself is a vestige of a false narrative—a narrative perpetrated by men who, while deserving of our respect and honor for their services to our country, were temporarily overcome by their own passions; men who, if not restrained by the integrity of others (like John Adams), would easily have ended up throwing their own integrity away.

When it comes to the case of George Floyd, the facts of the case are not nearly as clear cut as some partisans like to pretend. I have my opinions about what the law requires given this set of facts. But at this moment, I don’t know how it will turn out. Neither do you. Nor does anyone else.

But I do know this: everyone is owed their day in court, due process of law, and the verdict should follow wherever the stubborn facts lead.

We owe it to these men—George Floyd and Officer Chauvin—to ourselves, our society, and especially to those minorities who have been denied justice because of assumptions, narratives, and prejudices leveled at them because of the color of their skin, to ensure that the presumption of innocence remains intact and inviolate, giving way, as John Adams said, to nothing but facts and evidence, “whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions.”

Joshua Charles is a historian, speaker, and #1 New York Times bestselling author of several books. His work has been featured or published by numerous outlets. He has published books on topics ranging from the Founding Fathers, to Israel, to the impact of the Bible on human history. He was the senior editor and concept developer of the “Global Impact Bible,” published by the D.C.-based Museum of the Bible in 2017, and is an affiliated scholar of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. He is a Tikvah and Philos Fellow, and has spoken around the country on topics such as history, politics, faith, and worldview. He is a concert pianist, holds an MA in Government, and a law degree. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or visit JoshuaTCharles.com

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.