Most people with an interest in the American Revolutionary War have heard of the Boston Massacre, in which Captain Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment of Foot, commanding a contingent of British soldiers, fired into a crowd, or a mob depending on one’s point of view, harassing/threatening a guard outside the Customs House. Both sides in the growing dispute between Britain and its colonies rapidly turned the event, which occurred 250 years ago, to their political ends. Several books have been written about the massacre and tried to sort fact from propaganda, at least in the context of revolutionary Boston. In their latest book, John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial, Dan Abrams and David Fisher tackle the trials of Captain Preston and his soldiers that followed.
Abrams and Fisher are not historians. The former is an attorney, chief legal correspondent for ABC News, co-founder of the Live PD television show, and radio host. The latter is free-lance writer who often helps celebrities turn their ideas and stories into books. Nevertheless, the two have taken a unique approach to various episodes in American history by writing about important trials, producing three books on widely disparate topics at the frenetic pace of one a year. So, I started their latest book with a healthy dose of skepticism, but was pleasantly surprised. By focusing on Adams and the trial, Abrams and Fisher introduce the reader to the education of a young lawyer, 18th century Boston, jurisprudence in the Bay Colony and how it differed from that of England, attempts to professionalize the practice of law, and several of the individuals who played important roles in polarizing Massachusetts. Abrams’ expertise as an attorney shines through in these portions of the book, which make it unique.
Captain Preston and his troops were tried separately. The easiest legal strategy was for Captain Preston to throw his soldiers under the bus by claiming they had fired without order. Of course, the best legal strategy for the soldiers was to throw Captain Preston under the bus, defending their actions by stating he had ordered them to fire. Because he represented both clients, Adams had a conflict of interest. He could also argue that the townspeople gathered about were threatening the soldiers, but that risked creating an unfavorable portrait of the town and its citizens—Adams’ neighbors at a time when he agreed with their sentiments, if not their means of expressing them. Adams’ task was complex. In a politically charged trial he had to convince the people of Massachusetts—and Britain—that justice had been done, no matter the verdict. Of course, as the defense attorney, he also needed to prevent the conviction of his clients, without blaming the town lest Boston itself be put on trial.
Trial transcriptions were uncommon, even late into the 19th century. But, the importance of these court cases meant that contemporaneous records were kept. Transcripts of Preston’s trial were apparently created at the time, but no longer exist—barring some document lost in musty archive or attic trunk. In their absence, Abrams and Fisher rely on Adams’ notes and those of Thomas Paine, one of the prosecutors, as well as Preston’s letters explaining events and a summary of the trial. A transcript of the soldiers’ trial does exist. That document proved controversial in its own day as portrayals of the town and some participants were less than flattering. Yet, Abrams and Fisher found that it held up well when compared to Adams’ notes and their book is partially an edited version. There is no need to rehash the trials here. Simply read the book. Abrams and Fisher draw attention to how the twists and turns of each trial differ from the more modern practices 21st century readers might be accustomed to, which gives their slim volume its real value. Strikingly, in taking several days, the trials were noticeably longer than New Englanders were accustomed to, and mercifully short by 21st century standards.
John Adams Under Fire is a work of popular history, lacking footnotes, source citations, and deep archival research. Abrams and Fisher do not wrestle with the historiography of the massacre and trials or tackle the broader politics of British soldiers firing on English colonials. While some might hold that against it, Abrams’ and Fisher’s narrow focus on the trials make for a good tale as they bring a fresh perspective to their topic, an ease in writing, and a unique legal angle to the matter. It is will not be the definitive history, but it is a nice introduction to those who want to dip their toes in the legal waters of 1770 Boston.
Dan Abrams and David Fisher, John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial, (Toronto: Hanover Square Press, 2020), 313 pp, $28.99.