Lesson in Legal History and Negotiation – John Adams and Samuel Quincy

August 29th, 2009

Boston - Freedom Trail: Old State House
Image by wallyg via Flickr

I grew up outside Boston, though I have not been back there in a long time.  Last week at the tail end of a family vacation we stopped in Boston to follow the Freedom Trail and show my kids a slice of American history.

On the trip, we walked past Boston’s old State House, the site of the Boston Massacre in 1770.  Five civilians were shot by British troops following a riot and the event is cited as one of many that led to the American Revolution.

The soldiers were arrested and brought to trial.  I find it fascinating that the political environment was so charged that no lawyers could be found to represent the defendant soldiers.  Colonials were already bitterly divided between those loyal to England and Patriots seeking a higher degree of autonomy or outright independence and apparently even the Loyalists feared collateral damage to their careers if they took the case.

The solution was an elegant exercise in negotiating strategy.  John Adams, whose credentials as a lawyer and a Patriot were unimpeachable, represented the soldiers.  Loyalist Samuel Quincy, the colony’s Solicitor General, acted as prosecutor.

The legal history here is interesting.  The compromises required to get the case to trial are fascinating.  Adams the Patriot defended the British soldiers; Quincy the Loyalist worked to convict them.  The trial depended on both men putting their full efforts into pursuing cases that (on some level, at least) ran against their personal convictions.  I’m sure that must have been a tremendously difficult assignment for both sides.

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