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



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.


  1. 1.
    Hooper, Tom (director). 2008. John Adams. PBS, Television Series.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. 1993. The age of federalism. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Adams, John. 1965. Legal papers. Ed. L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller Zobel. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Pencak, William. 2006. Chief Justice Peter Oliver. Massachusetts Legal History 1–25.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Zobel, Hiller. 1970. The Boston Massacre. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Reid, John Phillip. 1974. A lawyer acquitted: John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trials. American Journal of Legal History 18: 189–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    McCullough, David. 2001. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Zobel, Hiller. 1968. Newer Light on the Boston Massacre. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 78: 119–128.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ellsworth, John. 1965. John Adams: The American Revolution as a change of heart? The Huntington Library Quarterly 28: 293–300.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Lax, John, and William Pencak. 1976. The Knowles Riot and the Crisis of the 1740s in Massachusetts. Perspectives in American History 10: 163–214.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Hutchinson, Thomas. 1936. History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay. Ed. Lawrence S. Mayo. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Originally published and written in 1760–1779.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Adams, John. 1850–1856. Works. Ed. Charles Francis Adams. 10 vols. Boston, Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Clark, Dora Mae. 1931. The Impressment of Seamen in the American Colonies, in Essays Presented to Charles McLean Andrews by His Students, 198–224. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Pencak, William. 1982. America’s Burke: The Mind of Thomas Hutchinson. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Frese, Joseph R. 1957. James Otis and Writs of Assistance. New England Quarterly 30: 496–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Adams, John. 1819. Novanglus or Massachusettensis. Boston: Hews and Goss. Several online editions. Originally published 1775.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Boorstin, Daniel. 1941. The mysterious science of the law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Carson, Clayborne. 1993. Editing Martin Luther King, Jr.: Political and Scholarly Issues. In Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities, ed. George Bornstein and Ralph G. Williams, 305–316. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Zobel, Hiller. 1997. Memorandum and Order, Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Louise Woodward, Superior Court, Middlesex County. Criminal No. 97–0433,
  20. 20.
    Maytal, Anat. 2003. Two-decade Veteran of the Middlesex Courthouse gains a reputation for independence and immortality on ‘The Practice’. Harvard Crimson, June 2.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Zobel, Hiller. 2001. Why we love to hate judges. American Heritage 52.3: 74–82.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Pencak, William. 2000. John Adams. American National Biography Online
  23. 23.
    Biddle, Alexander. 1892. Old Family Letters. Philadelphia: Lippincott.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History and Jewish StudiesPennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations