Stubborn Facts

Paula Mahar on 2014-02-21 21:40:26

John Adams was never the darling of the people, not in the early days of his political development as a defender of freedom for the colonies and separation from England, not when he represented his nation against the predatory intentions of both enemy and ally as an ambassador abroad, and certainly not when he was president.

Even when his life was recreated for the HBO series based on the biography by David McCullough, the portrayal of Adams as unlikable by actor Paul Giamatti was criticized. “There was pressure on [Paul] in some ways to make John Adams more appealing,” says Morse. “John Adams was not always likable, he was not always attractive, and I think that’s one of the great things about watching this.”

But in 1770, there was no indication Sam Adams’ second cousin would become a central figure in the story of the nation, much less the subject of a best-selling biography or a television miniseries. In 1779, attorney John Adams was 35-years old, the father of a growing family, happily married to Abigail, and quite unlike his relative Sam Adams, the rabble-rousing patriot who was a vocal proponent for liberty.

Sam Adams had an ample supply of fodder for his campaign. British troops had been occupying Boston for two years in response to the city's vehement resentment of British taxation policies. Tensions between the residents and the military were destined to erupt, and on March 5, 1770, a crowd of hecklers taunting the sentries turned into a mob. Rocks and snowballs were thrown, and the soldiers returned fire. Three Bostonians died on the scene, two others died of their wounds.

The soldiers were charged with murder in what became known as the Boston Massacre. So outraged was the city that no Bostonian soldier agreed to defend them. Adams was an opponent of the British occupation, but he was also a man who believed in the law, and the presumption of innocence. He once said,

and knew that he risked his reputation by taking the case to defend the soldiers. It was as part of his defense that Adams spoke this signature quote:

His defense was effective. Six soldiers were acquitted, two convicted of manslaughter.

Although defending the despised British soldiers took a financial toll on Adams—his law business dropped by more than half as a result—Adams could not have done otherwise but to risk his own standing for the sake of a cause he believed in. Ultimately, though, the colony of Massachusetts turned to John Adams, and not his more popular second cousin Sam, when the quest for independence meant that men of character and not popularity were needed to build a nation.

Adams never regretted his choice. Speaking later in his life on the decision, the Founding Father said, "The part I took in defense of captain 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.”
For Adams, holding true to the essence of what was right, no matter how unpopular, was the code by which he lived. It cost him friends and won him enmity, it made him a one-term president, But his character was part of the bedrock upon which a young country would build its own heritage.
comments powered by Disqus