Note: The following piece was written to honor John Adams on Law Day, May 1. Somehow it never got posted. Knowing that John Adams – and Thomas Jefferson – died on July 4, 1826, it seems appropriate to rescue the piece from the “to be deleted” file and resurrect Adams’ memory in anticipation of the 4th which today is much more about picnics and fireworks than about remembering the deeds of our forefathers and mothers.
Resistance leader and patriot, advocate and diplomat, constitutional theorist and political activist, John Adams became our nation’s first lawyer-president in 1797. Just five years before the American Revolutionary War began, he represented the British officer and soldiers charged with firing into a crowd of protestors and killing five civilians in the “Boston Massacre.”
Already a prominent leader in the American colonial resistance to British parliamentary authority, Adams agreed to take on the cases and ably defended the accused at trial. His role in the 1770 Boston Massacre trials has come to be seen as a lawyerly exemplar of adherence to the rule of law and defense of the rights of the accused, even in cases when advocates may represent unpopular clients and become involved in matters that generate public controversy.
Although each is unique in circumstance and significance, there have been other such noteworthy cases in American history. These cases range from Adams and the Boston Massacre trial to the 1846 “insanity” defense of William Freeman by William Seward, later Lincoln’s Secretary of State, to Sigmund Ziesler’s and William Perkins Black’s 1886 representation of the Haymarket 8 accused of killing a Chicago police officer (marking its 125th anniversary in 2011) to Samuel Leibowitz’s 1930s defense of nine black Alabama teenagers, the Scottsboro Boys, accused of rape to the representation by Michael Tigar and Brian Hermanson of Terry Nichols in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case to contemporary efforts by lawyers to represent Guantanamo detainees in the global war on terrorism. It is important to recognize that the passage of time can bring historical and legal perspective to passions of the day.
The 2011 Law Day theme provides us with an opportunity to assess and celebrate the legacy of John Adams, explore the historical and contemporary role of lawyers in defending the rights of the accused, and renew our understanding of and appreciation for the fundamental principle of the rule of law.