The Lawyer, the Judge, the Historian: Shaping the Meaning of the Boston Massacre, American Revolution, and Popular Opinion from 1770 to the Present Day

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Abstract

Both the Kevelson Seminar topic, ‘Lawyers as Makers of Meaning,’ and the appearance of a highly-publicized television series in the United States dedicated to the life of President John Adams (1735–1826) invite inquiry into Adams’ role as a lawyer who shaped the meaning of the American Revolution (and his role in bringing it about). Three trials from Adams’ early legal career illustrate that he presented both himself and fellow resistance leader James Otis, Jr., as heroic loners struggling for the rights of Americans against British injustice. Although he did not call it that, in 1970 lawyer and future Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Hiller Zobel, in his book The Boston Massacre, undertook what we would consider a semiotic approach that investigated the relevant codes and contexts—both the legal complexities and the audiences, other lawyers, judges, and posterity about which Adams spoke, simplifying and minimizing their roles as he maximized his own (and Otis’s). Zobel’s own relationship with Adams’ legal career appeared in his own tenure on the bench, especially in the famous ‘Nanny’ (discussed by Denis Brion, in this issue) case in which he explicitly presented the Boston Massacre Trials as a relevant precedent. Despite Adams’ willingness to subordinate his clients’ welfare to the patriot cause early in his career, it can be argued that HBO television and historian David McCullough, by presenting him to the public only flawed by his outspoken, stubborn honesty, have nevertheless performed a public service. Their version of Adams offers Americans in the twenty-first century an alternative role model to the dishonest, ill-informed politicians who use public opinion polls rather than political theory, moral philosophy, and historical knowledge as the basis of their decisions.