For my sins, no doubt, I have been an attorney for 27 years. Few closing arguments by a lawyer have been better reasoned or more eloquently delivered than the closing given by John Adams in his successful defense of the British soldiers accused of homicide in the Boston Massacre of 1770. It should be read by all attorneys and by anyone interested in effective oratory and tight reasoning.
Tuesday, NINE o’Clock, the Court met according to adjournment, and Mr. ADAMS proceeded:
May it please your Honours, and you Gentlemen of the Jury,
I yesterday afternoon produced from the best authorities, those rules of law which must govern all cases of homicide, particularly that which is now before you; it now remains to consider the evidence, and see whether any thing has occurred, that may be compared to the rules read to you; and I will not trouble myself nor you with laboured endeavours to be methodical, I shall endeavour to make some few observations, on the testimonies of the witnesses, such as will place the facts in a true point of light, with as much brevity as possible; but I suppose it would take me four hours to read to you, (if I did nothing else but read) the minutes of evidence that I have taken in this trial. In the first place the Gentleman who opened this cause, has stated to you, with candour and precision, the evidence of the identity of the persons.
The witnesses are confident that they know the prisoners at the barr, and that they were present that night, and of the party; however, it is apparent, that witnesses are liable to make mistakes, by a single example before you. Mr. Bass, who is a very honest man, and of good character, swears positively that the tall man, Warren, stood on the right that night, and was the first that fired; and I am sure you are satisfied by this time, by many circumstances, that he is totally mistaken in this matter; this you will consider at your leisure. The witnesses in general did not know the faces of these persons before; very few of them knew the names of them before, they only took notice of their faces that night. How much certainty there is in this evidence, I leave you to determine.
There does not seem to me to be any thing very material in the testimony of Mr. Aston except to the identity of McCauley, and he is the only witness to that. If you can be satisfied in your own minds, without a doubt, that he knew McCauley so well as to be sure, you will believe he was there.
The next witness is Bridgham, he says he saw the tall man Warren, but saw another man belonging to the same regiment soon after, so like him, as to make him doubt whether it was Warren or not; he thinks he saw the Corporal, but is not certain, he says he was at the corner of the Custom house, this you will take notice of, other witnesses swear, he was the remotest man of all from him who fired first, and there are other evidences who swear the left man did not fire at all; if Wemms did not discharge his gun at all, he could not kill any of the persons, therefore he must be acquitted on the fact of killing; for an intention to kill, is not murder nor manslaughter, if not carried into execution: The witness saw numbers of things thrown, and he saw plainly sticks strike the guns, about a dozen persons with sticks, gave three cheers, and surrounded the party, and struck the guns with their sticks several blows: This is a witness for the crown, and his testimony is of great weight for the prisoners; he gives his testimony very sensibly and impartially. He swears positively, that he not only saw ice or snow thrown, but saw the guns struck several times; if you believe this witness, of whose credibility you are wholly the judges, as you are of every other; if you do not believe him, there are many others who swear to circumstances in favour of the prisoners; it should seem impossible you should disbelieve so great a number, and of crown witnesses too, who swear to such variety of circumstances that fall in with one another so naturally to form our defence; this witness swears positively, there were a dozen of persons with clubs, surrounded the party; twelve sailors with clubs, were by much an overmatch to eight soldiers, chained there by the order and command of their officer, to stand in defence of the Sentry, not only so, but under an oath to stand there, i.e. to obey the lawful command of their officer, as much, Gentlemen of the jury, as you are under oath to determine this cause by law and evidence; clubs they had not, and they could not defend themselves with their bayonets against so many people; it was in the power of the sailors to kill one half or the whole of the party, if they had been so disposed; what had the soldiers to expect, when twelve persons armed with clubs, (sailors too, between whom and soldiers, there is such an antipathy, that they fight as naturally when they meet, as the elephant and Rhinoceros) were daring enough, even at the time when they were loading their guns, to come up with their clubs, and smite on their guns; what had eight soldiers to expect from such a set of people? Would it have been a prudent resolution in them, or in any body in their situation, to have stood still, to see if the sailors would knock their brains out, or not? Had they not all the reason in the world to think, that as they had done so much, they would proceed farther? Their clubs were as capable of killing as a ball, an hedge stake is known in the law books as a weapon of death, as much as a sword, bayonet, or musket. He says, the soldiers were loading their guns, when the twelve surrounded them, the people went up to them within the length of their guns, and before the firing; besides all this he swears, they were called cowardly rascals, and dared to fire; he says these people were all dressed like sailors; and I believe, that by and bye you will find evidence enough to satisfy you, these were some of the persons that came out of Dock-square, after making the attack on Murray’s barracks, and who had been arming themselves with sticks from the butchers stalls and cord wood piles, and marched up round Corn-hill under the command of Attucks. All the bells in town were ringing, the ratling of the blows upon the guns he heard, and swears it was violent; this corroborates the testimony of James Bailey, which will be considered presently. Some witnesses swear a club struck a soldier’s gun, Bailey swears a man struck a soldier and knocked him down, before he fired, “the last man that fired, levelled at a lad, and moved his gun as the lad ran.”
You will consider, that an intention to kill is not murder; if a man lays poison in the way of another, and with an express intention that be should take it up and die of it, it is not murder: Suppose that soldier had malice in his heart, and was determined to murder that boy if he could, yet the evidence clears him of killing the boy, I say admit he had malice in his heart, yet it is plain be did not kill him or any body else, and if you believe one part of the evidence, you must believe the other, and if he had malice, that malice was ineffectual; I do not recollect any evidence that assertains who it was that stood the last man but one upon the left, admitting he discovered a temper ever so wicked, cruel and malicious, you are to consider his ill temper is not imputable to another, no other had any intention of this deliberate kind, the whole transaction was sudden, there was but a very short space of time between the first gun and the last, when the first gun was fired the people fell in upon the soldiers and laid on with their weapons with more violence, and this served to encrease the provocation, and raised such a violent spirit of revenge in the soldiers, as the law takes notice of, and makes some allowance for, and in that fit of fury and madness, I suppose he aimed at the boy.
The next witness is Dodge, he says, there were fifty people near the soldiers pushing at them; now the witness before says, there were twelve sailors with clubs, but now here are fifty more aiding and abetting of them, ready to relieve them in case of need; now what could the people expect? It was their business to have taken themselves out of the way; some prudent people by the Town-house, told them not to meddle with the guard, but you bear nothing of this from these fifty people; no, instead of that, they were huzzaing and whistling, crying damn you, fire! why don’t you fire? So that they were actually assisting these twelve sailors that made the attack; he says the soldiers were pushing at the people to keep them off, ice and snow-balls were thrown, and I heard ice rattle on their guns, there were some clubs thrown from a considerable distance across the street. This witness swears he saw snow-balls thrown close before the party, and he took them to be thrown on purpose, be saw oyster-shells likewise thrown.-Mr. Langford the watchman, is more particular in his testimony, and deserves a very particular consideration, because it is intended by the council for the crown, that his testimony shall distinguish Killroy from the rest of the prisoners, and exempt him from those pleas of justification, excuse or extenuation, which we rely upon for the whole party, because he had previous malice, and they would from hence conclude, he aimed at a particular person; you will consider all the evidence with regard to that, by itself.
Hemmingway, the sheriff’s coachman, swears he knew Killroy, and that he heard him say, he would never miss an opportunity of firing upon the inhabitants: this is to prove that Killroy had preconceived malice in his heart, not indeed against the unhappy persons who were killed, but against the inhabitants in general, that he had the spirit not only of a Turk or an Arab, but of the devil; but admitting that this testimony is litterally true, and that he had all the malice they would wish to prove, yet, if he was assaulted that night, and his life in danger, he had a right to defend himself as well as another man; if he had malice before, it does not take away from him the right of defending himself against any unjust aggressor. But it is not at all improbable, that there was some misunderstanding about these loose expressions; perhaps the man had no thoughts of what his words might import; many a man in his cups, or in anger, which is a short fit of madness, hath uttered the rashest expressions, who had no such savage disposition in general: so that there is but little weight in expressions uttered at a kitching fire, before a maid and a coachman, where he might think himself at liberty to talk as much like a bully, a fool, and a madman as he pleased, and that no evil would come of it. Strictly speaking, he might mean no more than this, that he would not miss an opportunity of firing on the inhabitants, if he was attacked by them in such a manner as to justify it: soldiers have sometimes avoided opportunities of firing, when they would have been justified, if they had fired. I would recommend to them, to be tender by all means, nay, let them be cautious at their peril; but still what he said, amounts in strictness, to no more than this, “If the inhabitants make an attack on me, I will not bear from them what I have done already;” or I will bear no more, than what I am obliged by law to bear. No doubt it was under the fret of his spirits, the indignation, mortification, grief and shame, that he had suffered a defeat at the Rope-walks; it was just after an account of an affray was published here, betwixt the soldiers and inhabitants at New York. There was a little before the 5th of March, much noise in this town, and a pompous account in the news-papers, of a victory obtained by the inhabitants there over the soldiers; which doubtless excited the resentment of the soldiers here, as well as exultations among some sorts of the inhabitants: and the ringing of the bells here, was probably copied from New York, a wretched example in this, and in two other instances at least: the defeat of the soldiers at the Rope-walks, was about that time too, and if he did, after that, use such expressions, it ought not to weigh too much in this case. It can scarcely amount to proof that he harboured any settled malice against the people in general. Other witnesses are introduced to show that Killroy had besides his general ill will against every body, particular malice against Mr. Gray, whom he killed, as Langford swears.
Some of the witnesses, have sworn that Gray was active in the battle at the Rope walks, and that Killroy was once there, from whence the Council for the Crown would infer, that Killroy, in King-street, on the 5th of March in the night, knew Gray whom he had seen at the Ropewalks before, and took that opportunity to gratify his preconceived malice; but if this is all true, it will not take away from him his justification, excuse, or extenuation, if he had any. The rule of the law is, if there has been malice between two, and at a distant time afterwards they met, and one of them assaults the other’s life, or only assaults him, and he kills in consequence of it, the law presumes the killing was in self defence, or upon the provocation, not on account of the antecedent malice. If therefore the assault upon Killroy was so violent as to endanger his life, he had as good a right to defend himself, as much as if he never had before conceived any malice against the people in general, or Mr. Gray in particular. If the assault upon him, was such as to amount only to a provocation, not to a justification, his crime will be manslaughter only. However, it does not appear, that he knew Mr. Gray; none of the witnesses pretend to say he knew him, or that he ever saw him. It is true they were both in the Rope-walks at one time, but there were so many combatants on each side, that it is not even probable that Killroy should know them all, and no witnesses says there was any encounter there between them two. Indeed, to return to Mr. Langford’s testimony, he says, he did not perceive Killroy to aim at Gray, more than at him, but he says expressly, he did not aim at Gray. Langford says, “Gray had no stick, was standing with his arms folded up.” This witness, is however most probably mistaken in this matter, and confounds one time with another, a mistake which has been made by many witnesses, in this case, and considering the confusion and terror of the scene, is not to be wondered at.
Witnesses have sworn to the condition of Killroy’s bayonet, that it was bloody the morning after the 5th of March. The blood they saw, if any, might be occasioned by a wound given by some of the bayonets in the affray, possibly in Mr. Fosdick’s arm, or it might happen, in the manner mentioned by my brother before. One bayonet at least was struck off and it might fall, where the blood of some person slain afterwards flowed. It would be doing violence to every rule of law and evidence, as well as to common sense and the feelings of humanity, to infer from the blood on the bayonet, that it had been stabbed into the brains of Mr. Gray after he was dead, and that by Killroy himself who had killed him.
Young Mr. Davis swears, that he saw Gray that evening, a little before the firing, that he had a stick under his arm, and said he would go to the riot, “I am glad of it, (that is that there was a rumpus) I will go and have a slap at them, if I lose my life.” And when he was upon the spot, some witnesses swear, he did not act that peaceable inoffensive part, which Langford thinks he did. They swear, they thought him in liquor-that he run about clapping several people on the shoulders saying, “Dont run away”-”they dare not fire.” Langford goes on “I saw twenty or five and twenty boys about the Sentinal-and I spoke to him, and bid him not be afraid.”-How came the Watchman Langford to tell him not to be afraid. Does not this circumstance prove, that he thought there was danger, or at least that the Sentinel in fact, was terrified and did think himself in danger. Langford goes on “I saw about twenty or five and twenty boys that is young shavers.”-We have been entertained with a great variety of phrases, to avoid calling this sort of people a mob.-Some call them shavers, some call them genius’s. -The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.-And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them: The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers.-Such things are not new in the world, nor in the British dominions, though they are comparatively, rareties and novelties in this town. Carr a native of Ireland had often been concerned in such attacks, and indeed, from the nature of things, soldiers quartered in a populous town, will always occasion two mobs, where they prevent one.-They are wretched conservators of the peace!
Langford “heard the rattling against the guns, but saw nothing thrown.”-This rattling must have been very remarkable, as so many witnesses heard it, who were not in a situation to see what caused it. These things which hit the guns made a noise, those which hit the soldiers persons, did not-But when so many things were thrown and so many hit their guns, to suppose that none struck their persons is incredible. Langford goes on “Gray struck me on the shoulder and asked me what is to pay? I answered, I don’t know but I believe something will come of it, by and bye.”-Whence could this apprehension of mischief arise, if Langford did not think the assault, the squabble, the affray was such as would provoke the soldiers to fire?-”a bayonet went through my great coat and jacket,” yet the soldier did not step out of his place. This looks as if Langford was nearer to the party than became a watchman. Forty or fifty people round the soldiers, and more coming from Quaker-lane, as well as the other lanes. The soldiers heard all the bells ringing and saw people coming from every point of the compass to the assistance of those who were insulting, assaulting, beating and abusing of them-what had they to expect but destruction, if they had not thus early taken measures to defend themselves?
Brewer saw Killroy, &c. saw Dr. Young, &c. “he said the people had better go home.” It was an excellent advice, happy for some of them had they followed it, but it seems all advice was lost on these persons, they would harken to none that was given them in Docksquare, Royal exchange-lane or King-street, they were bent on making this assault, and on their own destruction.
The next witness that knows any thing, was, James Bailey, he saw Carrol, Montgomery and White, he saw some round the Sentry, heaving pieces of ice, large and hard enough to hurt any man, as big as your fist: one question is whether the Sentinel was attacked or not.- If you want evidence of an attack upon him there is enough of it, here is a witness an inhabitant of the town, surely no friend to the soldiers, for he was engaged against them at the Rope-walks; he says he saw twenty or thirty round the Sentry, pelting with cakes of ice, as big as one’s fist; certainly cakes of ice of this size may kill a man, if they happen to hit some part of the head. So that, here was an attack on the Sentinel, the consequence of which he had reason to dread, and it was prudent in him to call for the Main-Guard: he retreated as far as he could, he attempted to get into the Custom-house, but could not; then he called to the Guard, and he had a good right to call for their assistance; “he did not know, he told the witness, what was the matter,” “but he was afraid there would be mischief by and bye;” and well he might, with so many shavers and genius’s round him-capable of throwing such dangerous things. Bailey swears, Montgomery fired the first gun, and that he stood at the right, “the next man to me, I stood behind him, &c.” This witness certainly is not prejudiced in favour of the soldiers, he swears, he saw a man come up to Montgomery with a club, and knock him down before he fired, and that he not only fell himself, but his gun flew out of his hand, and as soon as he rose he took it up and fired. If he was knocked down on his station, had he not reason to think his life in danger, or did it not raise his passions and put him off his guard; so that it cannot be more than manslaughter.
When the multitude was shouting and huzzaing, and threatening life, the bells all ringing, the mob whistle screaming and rending like an Indian yell, the people from all quarters throwing every species of rubbish they could pick up in the street, and some who were quite on the other side of the street throwing clubs at the whole party, Montgomery in particular, smote with a club and knocked down, and as soon as he could rise and take up his firelock, another club from a far struck his breast or shoulder, what could he do? Do you expect he should behave like a Stoick Philosopher lost in Apathy? Patient as Epictatus while his master was breaking his leggs with a cudgel? It is impossible you should find him guilty of murder. You must suppose him divested of all human passions, if you don’t think him at the least provoked, thrown off his guard, and into the furor brevis, by such treatment as this.
Bailey “Saw the Molatto seven or eight minutes before the firing, at the head of twenty or thirty sailors in Corn-hill, and he had a large cordwood stick.” So that this Attucks, by this testimony of Bailey compared with that of Andrew, and some others, appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night; and to lead this army with banners, to form them in the first place in Dock square, and march them up to King-street, with their clubs; they passed through the mainstreet up to the Main-guard, in order to make the attack. If this was not an unlawful assembly, there never was one in the world. Attucks with his myrmidons comes round Jockson’s [Jackson's] corner, and down to the party by the Sentry-box; when the soldiers pushed the people off, this man with his party cried, do not be afraid of them, they dare not fire, kill them! kill them! knock them over! And he tried to knock their brains out. It is plain the soldiers did not leave their station, but cried to the people, stand off: now to have this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed. And it is in this manner, this town has been often treated; a Carr from Ireland, and an Attucks from Framingham, happening to be here, shall sally out upon their thoughtless enterprizes, at the head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together, and then there are not wanting, persons to ascribe all their doings to the good people of the town.
Mr. Adams proceeded to a minute consideration of every witness produced on the crown side; and endeavoured to shew, from the evidence on that side, which could not be contested by the council for the crown, that the assault upon the party, was sufficiently dangerous to justify the prisoners; at least, that it was sufficiently provoking, to reduce to manslaughter the crime, even of the two who were supposed to be proved to have killed. But it would swell this publication too much, to insert his observations at large, and there is the less necessity for it, as they will probably occur to every man who reads the evidence with attention. He then proceeded to consider the testimonies of the witnesses for the prisoners, which must also be omitted: And conc[l]uded,
I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you.-Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defence; if it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snow-balls, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind; this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offence of killing, down to manslaughter, in consideration of those passions in our nature, which cannot be eradicated. To your candour and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause.
The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men. To use the words of a great and worthy man, a patriot, and an hero, and enlightned friend of mankind, and a martyr to liberty; I mean ALGERNON SIDNEY,who from his earliest infancy sought a tranquil retirement under the shadow of the tree of liberty, with his tongue, his pen, and his sword, “The law, (says he,) no passion can disturb. Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ‘Tis mens sine affectu; written reason; retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but without any regard to persons, commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich, or poor, high or low,’Tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible. On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder to the clamours of the populace.