One very important element of John Adams’s decision to defend the soldiers after the Boston Massacre of March 1770, especially as he described it while looking back from the next century, was that he did so in the face of public disapproval. He was "hazarding a Popularity very general and very hardly earned," he wrote in his Autobiography more than thirty years later.
In fact, Adams’s political popularity went up shortly after he agreed to take the case. As Adams recalled, “A Town Meeting was called for the Choice of a Successor to Mr. [James] Bowdoin” in the General Court in June 1770. “I was chosen by a large Majority.” (Indeed, 418 votes out of 536.) This was the highest office he'd held up to that time. Adams’s public career didn't suffer because of his military clients.
But agreeing to defend the soldiers was one thing. Actually helping to get most of them acquitted and the last two convicted of manslaughter rather than murder might have been more than Adams’s supporters had wanted. Perhaps he suffered from popular resentment after the verdicts in late 1770.
Again, Adams’s own words imply otherwise. According to his diary, on 29 Dec 1772 selectman Samuel Pemberton and town representative Samuel Adams (also John’s second cousin) asked him to “deliver an Oration in Public upon the ensuing 5th. of March.” This was an honor reserved for leaders among the Whigs.
Adams declined on two grounds. First, “that the feeble State of my Health rendered me quite willing to devote myself forever to private Life.” He was feeling ill and trying to retire from politics. (In 1998, Profs. John Ferling and Lewis E. Braverman suggested he was suffering from a thyroid condition.)
Adams’s second reason was also the earliest evidence of his concern for the public disliking how he defended the accused:
the Part I took in the Tryal of the Soldiers. Tho the Subject of the Oration, was quite compatible with the Verdict of the jury, in that Case, and indeed, even with the absolute Innocence of the Soldiers yet I found the World in general were not capable or not willing to make the Distinction. And therefore, by making an Oration upon this Occasion, I should only expose myself to the Lash of ignorant and malicious Tongues on both Sides of the Question.As I read that passage, Adams was not saying that people had already criticized him, but rather that they would start criticizing him if he attacked the soldiers’ actions in an oration after having defended them in court.
The Boston committee found someone else to orate on 5 March 1773. Here’s what John Adams wrote in his diary that day:
Heard an Oration, at Mr. Hunts Meeting House [i.e., Old South], by Dr. Benja. Church, in Commemoration of the Massacre in Kings Street, 3 Years ago. That large Church was filled and crouded in every Pew, Seat, Alley, and Gallery, by an Audience of several Thousands of People of all Ages and Characters and of both Sexes.To me it looks like Adams was subconsciously feeling a little regret for not being the center of attention in Old South; he always did fancy himself an orator. He also seems to have been reassuring himself, perhaps a little too vigorously, that he’d done the right thing in 1770.
I have Reason to remember that fatal Night. The Part I took in Defence of Captn. 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 of Proofs of the Danger of standing Armies.
Adams’s 1773 remark about “Obloquy enough” is the earliest sign we have of anyone blaming him for defending the soldiers, and it's not a very strong sign. The diary doesn’t offer specific names or dates for that criticism. Probably there were some people who thought Adams made the wrong decision, just as Josiah Quincy, Jr., had to explain himself to his father in 1770, but there's no evidence that either attorney's practice, political standing, or person suffered as a result.
Nevertheless, by 1802, Adams wrote about his decision producing “a Clamour and popular Suspicions and prejudices, which are not yet worn out and never will be forgotten as long as History of this Period is read.” What had produced such a strong perception? By then he'd run for President twice in nasty partisan races; the Jeffersonians may well have used Adams's defense of the soldiers as evidence that he'd always been too pro-British.
But Adams had started to build up his perception of popular resentment about thirty years before, before he ever met Jefferson. In his desire to perceive himself as a "gallant, generous, manly and disinterested" servant of his country, Adams might simply have let his memories grow more stark.
None of this takes away from the principled decisions that John Adams made in 1770. He believed in the value of a fair trial—not just for the defendants' sake, but for society's sake. Despite opposing the presence of army regiments in Boston, and knowing most of his friends and neighbors did as well, he defended the accused soldiers with vigor and competence. Though he wrote about making his choice with "no hesitation," that decision was probably not easy.
And the loudest critic might really have been in the back of Adams's own mind.