Charges of murder were brought against Captain Thomas Preston and eight soldiers in his command. Patriot public opinion looked forward to a fair trial ending in the conviction of all of the redcoats, while loyalist Bostonians and royal officials hoped for dismissal of the charges or a pardon. The case was to be heard in the Massachusetts Superior Court, but Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson removed himself from the proceedings. A number of months were allowed to pass before the matter came to trial, sufficient time perhaps for popular passions to cool. John Adams, Boston’s leading attorney, overcame understandable misgivings and agreed to head the defense.
Captain Preston was tried first and separately from the others — the privilege of an officer and a gentleman. The trial began on October 24 and lasted for five days, a highly unusual amount of time for proceedings in that era. The conflicted testimony of numerous witnesses took days to hear; some testified that they had heard Preston issue an order to fire and others swore to the contrary. Adams’ arguments from the trial have not been preserved, but the defense played up the simmering detestation that had existed between the townspeople and the soldiers. Preston’s fate was not seriously in doubt because of the highly sympathetic jury, which returned a not guilty verdict.
The trial of the eight soldiers began on December 3 and lasted only two days. The court attempted to determine if the soldiers’ fire was motivated by malice or by fear, and who had fired the fatal shots. Adams argued that the real fault was with the British policymakers who had stationed soldiers in the city, not with the soldiers themselves.
The verdict was delivered on December 5; six of the soldiers were acquitted and two found guilty of manslaughter, not of murder. Sentencing occurred several days later and the two convicted soldiers were allowed to avoid lengthy prison sentences by pleading “benefit of clergy.” Their thumbs were branded with the letter “M” — a token punishment, but one leaving a permanent mark so that they would never again receive such lenient treatment — and then released to their units.
The Boston public took the verdicts in good order. There were letters expressing outrage in the local newspapers — the work of Sam Adams and other disappointed agitators — but no public demonstrations. This calm reflected the feelings of many that mob action had gotten out of hand and that British soldiers, hated as they were, could not be blamed for defending themselves.
As for John Adams, his law practice did indeed suffer a decline after the trial and he was the object of some scalding newspaper rhetoric, but over the longer term he emerged as a highly respected figure for doing the right thing under trying circumstances. Adams, a dedicated diarist, gave himself high marks for his virtuous conduct.
Why did John Adams decide to help the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre?
Who was in charge of the British troops at the Boston Massacre and how did court find him guilty or innocent?
How many soldiers were placed on trial for the murders of the men at the Massacre and why did some of the men get a harsher penalty than the other soldiers?
After the Trial ended, what happened to John Adams’ law practice? Did he eventually become an important person in American society?
When Paul Revere first began selling his color prints of "The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street” in Boston, he was doing what any like-minded patriot with his talents in 1770 would have done.
Notice how the British Grenadiers are shown standing in a straight line shooting their rifles in a regular volley, whereas when the disturbance actually erupted both sides were belligerent and riotous.
Notice also that Revere's engraving shows a blue sky. Only a wisp of a moon suggests that the riot occurred after nine o'clock on a cold winter night.
Notice too the absence of snow and ice on the street, while Crispus Attucks — a black man lying on the ground closest to the British soldiers — is shown to be white. As an aside, it should be noted that as a result of his death in the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks would emerge as the most famous of all the black men to fight in the cause of the Revolution, and become its first martyr.
In his rush to produce his engraving Revere employed the talents of Christian Remick to colorize the print. Remick's choice of colors is simple yet effective. Notice the use of red for the British uniforms and the blood. The other colors — blue, green, brown and black — all contribute to make this print what is arguably the most famous in America.
Few historians would deny that the "Boston Massacre" proved to be a milestone in America's road to independence. By popularizing the tragic event, Paul Revere's print became "the first powerful influence in forming an outspoken anti-British public opinion," one which the revolutionary leaders had almost lost hope of achieving.