J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2020

“Complete victory obtaind over the knaves & foolish villains of Boston”

On 31 Oct 1770, the day after he was acquitted of murder, Capt. Thomas Preston wrote a letter from Castle William to Gen. Thomas Gage in New York.

Soon after being arrested, Preston had written a letter to Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette praising “the Inhabitants in general of this Town” for being fair-minded.

But then it turned out he had sent to London a long description of how poorly Bostonians had treated the king’s soldiers since 1768 and how violent the crowd at the Boston Massacre had been.

In his post-trial letter, Capt. Preston made clear that the essay was a more accurate reflection of his feelings. He told Gage:
I take the liberty of wishing you joy, of the complete victory obtaind over the knaves & foolish villains of Boston, the triumph is almost complete, & the Kings servants now appear with double lusture. . . . on Tuesday morn the 30th, the Jury brought in a verdict in my favour Not Guilty, to the entire satisfaction of every honest mind, & great mortification of every blood thirsty & malicious Bostonian.

The Counsel for the Crown or rather the town [Robert Treat Paine and Samuel Quincy] were but poor and managd badly, my Counsel on the contrary were men of parts, & exerted themselves with great spirit & cleverness, particularly Judge [Robert] Auchmuty; The Judges also were determind & showd much firmness, but none more than Judge [Peter] Oliver, he informd the Court that he had been abusd in some prints, & his life threatened, but that nothing should daunt him, or prevent his doing his duty.

’Twas provd, that a Sentrys post is his Castle, & whosoever attacks him does an illegal action, & if the Sentry should kill him there can be no redress; If a party is sent by their Commanding Officer to his relief, they are a body legally assembled, & if assaulted may defend themselves even to the death of their opponents, that if any of them does an illegal action, he alone is answerable for it, whereas they who attack them are illegally assembled, and the whole accountable for each ones actions. These were points of law & right they had no notion of, & seemd much confounded at, so that the like tis probable will never happen again in this or any other part of America.
In fact, the same issues were to be argued again when eight enlisted men of the 29th Regiment went on trial for the Massacre.

The rest of the 29th Regiment had moved on to New Jersey months before, leaving behind Preston and that handful of soldiers caught up in Massachusetts’s legal system. That put the captain in the position of managing and paying for the defense of the soldiers. Preston told his commander:
The mens tryals will come on about three weeks hence, when if the Judges are but steady, my verdict will determine for them; I have prepair’d every thing for their defence, & shall continue to do so ’tho I find it very expensive, but in such a Case as this & so material to the Military, I thought a saving on a Lawyers fee very impolitick.
Just a few weeks before, some of those soldiers had objected to being tried separately from the captain, worried that by claiming he gave no order to fire he would pin all the blame on them. Preston had indeed succeeded in that claim, but in this letter he emphasized the argument that none of the soldiers had done anything wrong, either.

It’s notable that Preston praised Auchmuty in particular and didn’t name his other lawyers, John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr., who appear to have done more of the courtroom questioning. Auchmuty was a friend of the royal government, close to Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and seeking advancement within the imperial bureaucracy. (His title “Judge” came from the Vice Admiralty court.) Preston understood he could help Auchmuty by praising him to higher-ups. Adams and Quincy were on another path.

Preston also had a favor to ask from Gen. Gage for himself:
If then Sir I have not entirely exhausted your regards, let me once more entreat your favouring my cause & broken fortunes, by a letter of your approbation of my conduct to some of the Ministry. If I should be luckey enough to get any thing it will be entirely owing to you, whose kindness has already exceeded that of my nearest relations. Should you grant me this, I must then beg you will add one favour more to the many preceding, & that is, words to express my gratitude, for at present I am totally at a loss on that account, however you may rest assurd that my heart is truly grateful & that I am with the utmost truth & sincerity.
Playing the eighteenth-century patronage game could get a bit fulsome.

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