Boston Massacre Historical Society


Speech by John Adams at the Boston Massacre Trial

This speach is taken verbatim from the Legal Papers of John Adams, No. 64. Rex v. Wemms, pp. 260-270. 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,224 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 bad 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 bad done so much, they would proceed farther?

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