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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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Checking John Adams's Numbers

Yesterday I quoted John Adams's recollection of how he agreed to defend Capt. Thomas Preston and the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and then wondered if that account was accurate. Adams wrote his Autobiography starting in 1802. Do documents from 1770 bear out its statements?

We know more about John Adams’s private life than we do about most of his "Founding Father" colleagues because his diaries and letters to his wife Abigail are unusually candid. Unfortunately, those sources offer no clues about how he came to take the Massacre case. Adams was so busy in 1770 that he wrote nothing in his diary between Christopher Seider’s funeral (26 February) and late June. He also wrote nothing about the Massacre trials in November and December. And when he and Abigail were living together, they didn’t need to send letters to each other.

So Adams probably wrote the passage in his Autobiography based on his memory alone. We therefore shouldn’t expect accuracy in all the details, but we should also keep in mind that Adams’s memory of March 1770 was colored and shaped by subsequent events, how he wanted others to see him, and (most important) how he wanted to see himself.

One issue is the timing. Adams wrote that he agreed to represent Capt. Thomas Preston the day after the shootings—but then he added “I think it was,” leaving a little wiggle room. According to Col. Josiah Quincy’s letter from later in the month, a British sergeant did seek lawyers on the captain’s behalf on 6 March. So it’s reasonable to accept that someone asked Adams that day as well.

But the exchange between Col. Quincy and his son Josiah also implies that it took more than a day for the soldiers to line up their defense team. Young Quincy assured his father that he consulted with many Boston Whigs before making up his mind (though, significantly, he didn't include among those reassurances that he held out until John Adams agreed to take the case as well). The elder Quincy seems to have written to his son soon after hearing about that decision, and his letter was dated 22 March. So what Adams recalled as a quick decision on 6 March may well have taken more than a week.

And what about the money Adams earned from the case? He recalled receiving one guinea as a retainer, ten more from Capt. Preston, and eight from the soldiers. A golden guinea was worth 21 shillings, so overall he said he took in £19.19s.

We have an account of what the royal army paid to defend its men, prepared in late 1770 by Lt. Col. William Dalrymple and reprinted in the The Legal Papers of John Adams. The figures are:

  • £10.10s. for a retainer in Preston’s case
  • £10.10s. for a retainer in the soldiers’ case
  • £63 for the work of Preston’s trial
  • £42 for the work of the soldiers’ trial
  • £10.10s. for an assistant lawyer (Quincy?)
  • £3.12s. “To an Attorney for taking some Affidavits” (Sampson Salter Blowers? This young lawyer investigated jurors, according to a confidential letter from Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.)
So in all, the army paid more than £140 to its lawyers. Either Robert Auchmuty, the most senior attorney, took over three-quarters of that total, or Adams actually earned a lot more from the case than he recalled.

TOMORROW: What did the “Irish Infant” have to say about convincing Adams to take the case?

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