The Boston Massacre.

In 1768, the British government sent army troops to Boston, Massachusetts, to support the civil authorities in enforcing unpopular new laws.  The troops were equally unpopular as the laws.  On 5 March 1770, a crowd harassed a lone British sentry posted in the street before Boston’s Old State House.  An officer brought other soldiers to his support.  The crowd grew in size and emotional mobilization.  Long story short: the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five.  We remember this tragedy as “The Boston Massacre.”

The bloody events came at a moment of intense political polarization in Massachusetts.  The political middle ground had disappeared as the people of Massachusetts divided into a large majority opposed to the policies of the Crown and a minority who supported those policies.  By the end of March, the British soldiers and four civilian employees of the Customs House—who were alleged to have fired into the crowd from the windows of the building—were indicted for murder.

A pamphlet campaign—part of the larger pamphlet war that preceded the American Revolution—told strikingly different stories about the Boston Massacre.  That media war was full of curiosities.  For example, one of the most inflammatory—and untrue—portrayals of the events came in an illustration by Henry Pelham.  The illustration showed the British officer ordering his men to fire into the crowd and a musket fired from a window.  Paul Revere copied that illustration and presented it as his own.  Pelham himself turned into a Loyalist who left Boston with the British troops and the other Loyalists in March 1776.

John Adams, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and future President of the United States, defended the British soldiers when they were tried for murder.  Adams argued that the soldiers had the right to fight to defend themselves against the mob.  If any of the soldiers were provoked but not actually in danger, then they were guilty of manslaughter.  His argument persuaded the jury.  The officer commanding and six of his men were acquitted; two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter.  They escaped the death penalty by pleading “benefit of clergy” (i.e. they could read and write, which was enough to escape the gallows in literate-deficient colonial America.)  Instead, they were branded.  On the thumb.

The four civilians who were alleged to have fired from within the building were tried later.  All were acquitted and the man who had testified against them was later convicted of perjury.

In retrospect, Adams concluded that “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. 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[1] or Witches[2] anciently.”

I butcher History in this fashion because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recently analogized his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation to John Adams’ defending the British soldiers.[3]    The related analogies will suggest themselves.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

[3] Katie Benner, “Rosenstein Answers Critics In an Impassioned Speech,” NYT, 27 April 2019.

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