Law Day 2011: The Legacy of John Adams

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jason DeSon
  • 8th Fighter Wing deputy judge advocate
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the first Law Day as a national day to mark our commitment to the rule of law.

Three years later, Congress issued a joint resolution designating May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day.

This year's theme for Law Day is, "The Legacy of John Adams: From Boston to Guantanamo."

The 8th Fighter Wing Legal Office "Law of the Pack" will host a presentation at 11 a.m. May 3 in the Olds Room of the Loring Club. All of the Wolf Pack is welcome to attend and learn about the legacy of Mr. Adams and his commitment to the rule of law.

This year's theme provides an opportunity to consider Mr. Adams and 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.

On the evening of March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired into a hostile crowd that had gathered in front of the Custom House in Boston, in what would eventually become known as the "Boston Massacre." The troops had been sent to Boston to help enforce the highly unpopular Townshend Acts, which were widely viewed in the colonies as an effort by the British parliament to impose taxation without representation.

Tensions were especially high throughout the colony of Massachusetts. What started as a small argument quickly turned into a mob riot. The crowd threw snow, ice, oyster shells and sticks at the soldiers. One of the soldiers was struck by a club as the crowd was heard taunting the soldiers. The soldiers fired into the unruly crowd, striking 11 and killing five. The soldiers and their commander, Capt. Thomas Preston, were arrested and scheduled for trial.

No lawyer in Boston wanted to represent the soldiers. In desperation, Captain Preston petitioned the 34-year-old John Adams for assistance. Mr. Adams took the case knowing full well that it would be an unpopular decision. His cousin, Samuel Adams, along with Paul Revere, had already publically portrayed the scene as a slaughter and an example of British tyranny.

But Mr. Adams was firm in his belief that no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. At trial, Mr. Adams argued that the soldiers had acted in self-defense, and earned acquittals for six of the eight soldiers. The other two were found guilty of the lesser offense of manslaughter and "branded on their thumbs."

During the trial, Mr. Adams was quoted as saying, "Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." This quote summarizes what this year's Law Day is all about. Our history is replete with examples of people standing up for the rule of law and due process in the face of adversity or unpopularity. Mr. Adams' defense of the British soldiers epitomized his belief: We must be a "government of laws, not of men." In other words, through our adherence to the laws of the land, we ensure continued freedom for ourselves and our posterity.

John Adams' philosophy on law and government formed the foundation of our U.S. Constitution. Not only did he become a leading figure in the founding of our nation, but he also served two terms as vice president of the United States under George Washington and one term as president. His legacy lives on.

In our legal system, the accused is entitled to a fair trial based on facts and evidence with the benefit of legal counsel. The accused is not left to be arbitrarily judged by the emotions and passions of the public. This principle exists in our military justice system as well. Even now, judge advocates represent persons accused of terrorism under the Military Commissions Act of 2009. Under this act, detainees are given certain rights, such as statements obtained through duress are not admissible against them. The spirit of John Adams and the struggle to adhere to the rule of law thus lives on.