It was an event so explosive that the trial to settle the matter was delayed six months to let tempers cool. It is remembered today as one of the signature moments of the American revolution, but beyond the mythology is a revelatory tale of one of the men without whom America as we know it today might never have gotten off the ground. 

With unrest simmering in colonial Boston on the heels of the Townshend Acts (yes, more tax hikes), British troops occupied the city. Months of tension and petty skirmishes came to a head on present-day State Street in the spring of 1770.

"A passerby, a wig-makers apprentice, insults a British army officer as he’s walking by," explained Amanda Norton, an assistant editor with the Adams Papers project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. "And the sentry on duty outside the customs house strikes the man who insults this officer."

As the crowd swelled and reinforcements arrived, insults–and items–were hurled, and tensions rose until, finally, one of the officers was struck by a club. As he fell, his gun went off and a volley of gunfire erupted. When the smoke cleared, five American colonists were dead. It was an unmitigated tragedy, and an opportunity for the burgeoning Patriot movement in America.

"The Patriot leaders in Boston know a good story when they see it," Norton said.

The propaganda machine immediately went into high gear, and the Bloody Massacre–known today as the Boston Massacre–was born. The fire was stoked by the likes of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, whose engraving of the event is still ubiquitous today. "Which makes it look as if an orderly line of British soldiers just stood there and fired into a peaceful crowd of protestors," said Norton. "Which was–of course–not the truth, but made a really good and compelling case against the British occupation."

Not among those swept up in the fervor was the 35-year-old country lawyer who would defend the soldiers in court and–in time–become one of the fiercest advocates for American independence and our second president: John Adams.

"In 1770 nobody knows which way the wind is going to blow," Norton said. "He doesn’t want to commit himself to the crown side. But he’s not willing to commit himself to the Patriot side either, and really sees himself as committing himself to the law–and he really did believe these soldiers were innocent."

In a spirited defense, Adams would get the commanding officer and six soldiers fully acquitted, and the other two soldiers’ offenses reduced to manslaughter. Norton says his powerful closing argument reveals an outlook that would help shape the foundation of our nation in the coming years.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence ... The law in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm will preserve a steady, undeviating course. It will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations and tempers of man.

Norton says we see here not an idealist, not an advocate, but a fierce pragmatist.

"He supports the Patriots cause but he really doesn’t like a lot of these mobs that are harassing customs officers, breaking into homes, because even though they’re right that the British are wronging them, this isn’t the way to go about it," she said. "And he really wants to see that things are really done the right way."

Adams would carry this pragmatic, lawyerly viewpoint with him to Philadelphia, where he pushed for a declaration of independence as a legal framework for the revolution. And it would drive him as he wrote the Massachusetts Constitution; the world’s oldest functioning, which would serve as a model for our national charter.

"It wasn’t his phrase but he uses it to describe the government that he wants to form, 'It is a government of laws and not of men,'" Norton said. "That [sense that] law was connected more to 'that divine perfection' than it is to the whims and wishes and fluctuations of men."

And so it was–245 years ago this week–that advocate of the law, burgeoning revolutionary, author of the world’s oldest functioning constitution, and future President John Adams secured the acquittal of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.