It took seven months to arraign Preston and the other soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and bring them to trial. Ironically, it was American colonist, lawyer and future President of the United States John Adams who defended them.
Adams was no fan of the British but wanted Preston and his men to receive a fair trial. After all, the death penalty was at stake and the colonists didn’t want the British to have an excuse to even the score. Certain that impartial jurors were nonexistent in Boston, Adams convinced the judge to seat a jury of non-Bostonians.
During Preston’s trial, Adams argued that confusion that night was rampant. Eyewitnesses presented contradictory evidence on whether Preston had ordered his men to fire on the colonists.
But after witness Richard Palmes testified that, “…After the Gun went off I heard the word ‘fire!’ The Captain and I stood in front about half between the breech and muzzle of the Guns. I don’t know who gave the word to fire,” Adams argued that reasonable doubt existed; Preston was found not guilty.
The remaining soldiers claimed self-defense and were all found not guilty of murder. Two of them—Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy—were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded on the thumbs as first offenders per English law.
To Adams’ and the jury’s credit, the British soldiers received a fair trial despite the vitriol felt towards them and their country.
The Boston Massacre had a major impact on relations between Britain and the American colonists. It further incensed colonists already weary of British rule and unfair taxation and roused them to fight for independence.
Yet perhaps Preston said it best when he wrote about the conflict and said, “None of them was a hero. The victims were troublemakers who got more than they deserved. The soldiers were professionals…who shouldn’t have panicked. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”
Over the next five years, the colonists continued their rebellion and staged the Boston Tea Party, formed the First Continental Congress and defended their militia arsenal at Concord against the redcoats, effectively launching the American Revolution. Today, the city of Boston has a Boston Massacre site marker at the intersection of Congress Street and State Street, a few yards from where the first shots were fired.
After the Boston Massacre. John Adams Historical Society.
Boston Massacre Trial. National Park Service: National Historical Park of Massachusetts.
Paul Revere’s Engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The Boston Massacre. Bostonian Society Old State House.
The Boston “Massacre.” H.S.I. Historical Scene Investigation.
FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!
Subscribe for fascinating stories connecting the past to the present.