We are about to observe the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As is so often the case with holidays, the ways we celebrate will not have much to do with the original events. As we indulge in a weekend of family reunions, sporting events, cookouts, libations and fireworks – along with hours sitting in traffic – we are unlikely to give much thought to the conditions that led to the promulgation of that remarkable document. So as we prepare to hit the roads, let’s take a moment to acknowledge two of the remarkable risk takers who helped make this all possible.
Let’s begin with John Adams. He trained at Harvard to become a minister, but chafed at being told what to believe and what to think, so he became a lawyer instead. On March 5, 1770, six years before the formal break from England, an unruly mob gathered in front of Boston’s Customs House. After pelting British troops with snowballs and rocks, the crowd surged forward; the troops fired into the mob, killing five people. From the colonial viewpoint, this was the “Boston Massacre.” As far as the British were concerned, it was a riot. Both views are credible.
Captain Thomas Preston and 12 soldiers were charged with murder. No Boston lawyer would take their case, so the plea was made to John Adams, who at the time was practicing law (not all that successfully) in Quincy, about 15 miles from Boston. Adams took on the case, at considerable personal risk. His words at the time should be taken to heart by any politician seeking a vote:
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Under Adams’ skillful defense, six of the soldiers were acquitted. Two who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder, but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid eighteen guineas by the British soldiers, or about the cost of a pair of shoes. Beyond the fee, Adams wanted to prove to the world that American justice was balanced and fair.
Just six years later Thomas Jefferson wrote – and Adams helped edit – the Declaration of Independence. After ratification of the final language (which, to Jefferson’s chagrin, excluded a ban on the importation of slaves), a prayer was said and in silence the delegates to the convention applied their signatures to the document.
In the entire history of risk taking, there are few events of greater magnitude. The document would be considered treason by the most powerful government in the world; should the revolution fail – and that itself must have seemed highly likely – each signer would pay with his life, .
The Perspective of Time
One month before his death, Adams wrote of the upcoming July 4, 1826, festivities:
My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.
Somber thoughts from one who was there at the beginning – and who would likely be appalled by some of the subsequent uses and abuses of his work.
As most Insider readers probably know, Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the Declaration was issued. Adams desperately wanted to outlive Jefferson; just before he died, he said – perhaps bitterly – “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Ironically, word had already gone out from Monticello that Jefferson had died earlier the same day. It is perhaps reassuring that such great souls could also be small minded and petty. There is still hope for us all.