Why would we celebrate the legacy of John Adams who was the Vice President for George Washington and served one term as President from 1797 until 1801? After all, what could a second President do that could possibly appropriately follow the legendary “Father Of Our Country”? (Think Joe B. Hall following Adolph Rupp, for example.)
Yes, he had a famous, bright, quotable wife, Abigail (who once famously said in a letter to her husband in 1776 “remember the ladies” when making laws for the new republic and “do not put unlimited power in the hands of husbands. . .remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”) Yes, his son, John Quincy Adams became our sixth President. He actually died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—and the same date that Thomas Jefferson died. But what did John Adams himself do?
First of all, he had the courage to do what was right, even when it was politically unpopular and dangerous. In 1770, after the “Boston Massacre” where British soldiers fired into a crowd of protestors who had gathered in downtown Boston, he defended the soldiers from the criminal charges brought against them. Five colonists died in the attack and the captain and eight of his men were arrested and indicted for murder.
Even though this was five years before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Boston was politically charged and its citizens regularly protested acts of the British king. At the time, when Boston had just 20,000 residents, there were approximately 4,000 British troops in the city.
Adams was already a prominent leader in the American colonial resistance to British parliamentary authority, but he agreed to take on the cases and the jury acquitted the captain and six of the soldiers and found the other two who did fire their weapons guilty of manslaughter.
Writing in his diary three years after the event, Adams said “Judgment of
Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently.”
None of George Washington’s successors were more intelligent or had served longer or with more distinction through decades of revolutionary duties and constitution making. By the time he became President in 1797, Adams, together with Thomas Jefferson, was the young nation’s foremost expert on foreign policy.
The role that John Adams played in the trials has come to be seen as a lawyerly example of adhering to the “rule of law” and the “zealous defense” of the rights of the accused, even in cases where advocates may represent unpopular clients and become involved in matters that generate public controversy. His able defense was motivated by his faith in due process of law, in what he later called “a government of laws, not of men.” He firmly believed that the rule of law was the foundation for our new democratic republic form of government as well as the basis for political liberty. The “government of laws, not of men” was subsequently incorporated into the 1780 constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written principally by Adams, and was a model for the U.S. Constitution of 1787.
One of the ways that our government continues to be the strongest democracy in the world is that lawyers have continued to take on unpopular cases and have zealously represented their clients, into the present time. This is true locally and nationally.
On this Law Day all Americans have the opportunity to reflect on the legacy of John Adams: the enduring meaning of a “government of laws, not men” and the vital role our legal institutions—including our adversarial legal system, citizen juries, and independent courts—play in our system. By appreciating our legal rights and valuing our civic responsibilities, Americans can work together to sustain our national commitment to a democratic society under law—even in the midst of partisan disagreements on what some of those laws ought to be.
Let’s celebrate the Rule of Law together May 1.