February 15, 2021 (President's Day)
Today is Presidents’ Day. As I sit at my desk (actually at my computer) and ponder the events of the past week -- which included the highly unusual Senate impeachment trial of a president no longer in office -- my mind turns to something barely mentioned in the media which causes me great sadness and concern. It involves outrageous and unacceptable acts which, like those of January 6, 2021, threaten the very foundations of our system of justice and protections our Constitution guarantees to each and every one of us. Acts so very un-American that they should be denounced by everyone and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But how many in our country today know enough about the history of the founding of our nation to appreciate the extent to which these acts and others like them damage our national soul and threaten our most cherished liberties?
Here is what I am referring to: shortly after the Senate trial ended, one of the lawyers for the former president revealed that during the trial, in clear attempts to intimidate, interfere with and deter his effective representation of his client, his home had been attacked and vandalized, he and his family had received “nearly 100” death threats, and his law office was targeted by demonstrators calling him a traitor and “fascist.” While these acts are clearly not equivalent to those of January 6, they do have something in common: violent action committed by a few with the clear intent to interfere with the proper operation of our systems of law and government in direct challenge to historical practice and foundational principles enshrined in our Constitution.
A bit of history may be in order.
On March 5, 1770 (just over 250 years ago next month), what started out as a street brawl involving American colonists and a lone British soldier who was guarding “the king’s money” stored in the Custom House on King Street in Boston, quickly escalated into a full-scale confrontation with a group of British soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston. At some point, someone reportedly said the word “fire,” after which a soldier fired his gun (possibly unintentionally), at the sound of which other soldiers opened fire, killing five colonists. The event came to be known as the “Boston Massacre.”
As History.com notes: “The conflict energized anti-British sentiment and paved the way for the American Revolution. … Within hours, Preston and his soldiers were arrested and jailed and the propaganda machine was in full force on both sides of the conflict.“ Sons of Liberty leaders such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere fanned the flames of colonial anger, encouraging anti-British sentiment, with Revere creating and distributing his famous engraving of the event depicting the British soldiers as instigators even though it was actually the colonists who started the fight.
It is not hard to imagine the depth of emotions raging at the time and directed against those British soldiers. The colonies were ripe for revolution, and public opinion was overwhelmingly convinced of the soldiers’ guilt. Some likely felt it unnecessary to even hold a trial. In any event, who in their right mind would represent the British?
Enter John Adams, a 34-year-old Boston attorney (and future second President of the United States). Adams was a true patriot, committed to the colonial cause, yet he offered to risk his professional career and his family’s livelihood in order to defend the British soldiers. Why in the world would he do that?
Simply put, Adams believed in justice and the rule of law. He felt everyone was entitled to a defense. He understood that, in order for the colonial legal system to function fairly and equitably, it was essential that each side in a dispute (especially a capital criminal case) be able to present its position in full with the active assistance of competent counsel. But beyond that, he wanted to show the distant British government that the colonies deserved respect and were ready for self-determination. To show the world that they could deliver fair and impartial justice even in the midst of extreme public passion. To prove the commitment of their people to the principles which they would in a few short years claim as justification for independence.
Adams also believed that the soldiers had a legitimate defense, that all was not as cut-and-dried as the Sons of Liberty had promoted and others believed, that reasonable doubt existed as to the facts, actions and motives of the parties involved (this case was actually the first in which the newly developed reasonable doubt standard was used). Captain Preston was acquitted. The other solders claimed self-defense and were acquitted of murder, though two of them were found guilty of manslaughter and branded on their thumbs (per British law).
The verdicts were deeply unpopular in the colonies but were generally respected as fair. As Dan Abrams, author of “John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial” notes, “I think the verdicts [were] almost exactly what we would see today. It’s obvious that Captain Preston didn’t order his men to fire, and he was acquitted. They could have convicted all of the soldiers for the actions of one or two of them, but they didn’t – because there simply wasn’t evidence that the others were involved in the shooting. And I think that’s an amazing testament to the jurors of the day.”
Adams must have been deeply unpopular during the trial and for some time thereafter. Yet there is no record that his family was threatened, or his property or business attacked. Adams’ principled actions did not prevent him from becoming our country’s first Vice President and second President. What, then, has changed from his time to ours?
I believe that we have lost our sense of community, and by that, I mean a sense of accountability to and for each other. The current “cancel culture” is both cause and symptom of that loss. We have separated into camps or “tribes” of belief and thought which countenance or tolerate nothing and no one considered “outside” the preferred orthodoxy. Worse yet, that separatism has become the impetus of and justification for the shunning of others, excommunicating them from social and political discourse, even threatening their security in forms physical, emotional and economic. This is hate in action. It should be beneath any of us to act this way. It must be resisted and overcome, or it will bury us as a society.
(Congress Voting for Independence, by Edward Savage and Robert Edge Pine)
As history relates, John Adams was not exactly a popular person, even among the Founders and Framers. The musical “1776” depicts him as a bit of a pain-in-the-neck, stridently (and constantly, and ultimately successfully) lobbying his contemporaries to support the cause for “independency.” His lack of tact is on full display in the song “Sit Down, John!” (the title of which is enough to make my point), in which Adams addresses the assembled members of the Continental Congress with the following undiplomatic opening lines: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress. And by God, I have had [enough of] this Congress!”
In honor of Presidents’ Day, let us all take a moment to reflect on the group of men (and someday women) who have held the highest office in our land. Not just “the usuals” of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, but the Adamses (of which there were two) and others, of varying abilities, personalities and temperaments, who are ineluctably part of our history. Perhaps as a tribute to their accomplishments and service to our nation we can all work a bit harder to repair our lost sense of community and become, once again, a nation united.