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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Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Defense’s Closing Arguments

At nine o’clock in the morning on 3 Dec 1770, 250 years ago today, Josiah Quincy, Jr., began his closing argument in the trial of eight soldiers for the Boston Massacre.

While acknowledging how locals were upset that the royal government had sent soldiers to the town in the first place, Quincy tried to excite the jurors’ sense of empathy. He described the confrontation through his clients’ eyes and ears:
“You lobster,” “You bloody-back,” “You coward,” and “You dastard,” are but some of the expressions proved.—What words more galling? What more cutting and provoking to a soldier? To be reminded of the colour of his garb, by which he was distinguished from the rest of his fellow citizens; to be compared to the most despicable animal, that crawls upon the earth, was touching indeed a tender point, To be stigmatized with having smarted under the lash, at the halbert, to be twitted with so in famous an ignominy; which was either wholly undeserved, or a grievance which should never have been repeated:—I say to call up and awaken sensations of this kind, must sting even to madness.

But accouple these words with the succeeding actions,—“You dastard,” “You coward!”—A soldier and a coward! This was touching, (with a witness) “The point of honour, and the pride of virtue.” But while these are as yet fomenting the passions, and swelling the bosom, the attack is made: and probably the latter words were reitterated at the onset; at lest, were yet sounding in the ear. Gentlemen of the jury, for heaven’s sake, let us put ourselves in the same situation! Would you not spurn at that spiritless institution of society, which tells you to be a subject at the expence of your manhood?

But does the soldier step out of his ranks to seek his revenge? Not a witness pretends it: Did the people repeatedly come within the points of their bayonets, and strike on the muzzels of the guns?—You have heard the witnesses.
After Quincy ended, his senior colleague, John Adams, stood and made his own closing argument.

Adams was more logical, trying to break down the prosecution’s case, anticipate counterarguments, and most of all emphasize how threatening the crowd was.
Now suppose you should have a jealousy in your minds, that the people who made this attack on the Sentry, had nothing in their intention more than to take him off his post, and that was threatened by some; suppose they intended to go a little farther, and tar and feather him, or to ride him, (as the phrase is in Hudibras) he would have a good right to have stood upon his defence, the defence of his liberty, and if he could not preserve that without hazard to his own life, he would be warranted, in depriving those of life, who were endeavouring to deprive him of his; that is a point I would not give up for my right hand, nay, for my life.

Well, I say, if the people did this, or if this was only their intention, surely the officer and soldiers had a right to go to his relief, and therefore they set out upon a lawful errand, they were therefore a lawful assembly, if we only consider them as private subjects and fellow citizens, without regard to Mutiny Acts, Articles of War, or Soldiers Oaths; a private person, or any number of private persons, have a right to go to the assistance of their fellow subject in distress and danger of his life, when assaulted and in danger from a few or a multitude.
Both men provided the jurors with lots of precedents from British common law and reviewed the testimony in depth. But in the end their argument came down to a plea of self-defense, which anyone could understand.

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