American Portraits

John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trial

This lesson will help students understand the virtue of justice in order to apply justice in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


Tensions grew throughout the American colonies following the passage of several acts of Parliament that taxed the American people in order to raise money to offset the costs of the French and Indian War. The effects of the Navigation Acts, the Sugar Act, and the Stamp Act were felt throughout the colonies, and when the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767, the colonies resisted even more. When troops were sent to Boston to ensure enforcement of the acts, the city became the hotbed of the Patriot cause. Groups like the Sons of Liberty began to boycott British goods and speak out against the British occupation of the city….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How will acting justly improve your community and country?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

This lesson will help students understand the virtue of justice in order to apply justice in their own lives.


  • Students will examine John Adams’ defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial and how Adams acted justly.
  • Students will develop ways in which they can act with justice in their own lives.


Beginning in 1768, British troops were stationed in Boston, Massachusetts to protect officials who were enforcing new taxation laws passed by the British Parliament. Many of the people in Boston were outraged by the taxes and the soldiers were posted around the city. One day in 1770, a mob of nearly fifty people formed around a soldier on duty. As the people began to harass the solider, additional military support was called to the scene. Shots were fired into the crowd, and five of the people in the mob were killed. The soldiers were arrested and indicted for murder. Many attorneys in town refused to defend the soldiers, but lawyers Josiah Quincy, Robert Auchmuty, Jr., and John Adams decided to take up the case despite their Patriot leanings. These men wanted to ensure that justice was served through a fair trial.


  • Indictment
  • Patriot
  • Prosecution
  • Riot Act
  • Sons of Liberty
  • Townshend Acts
  • Manslaughter

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was John Adams? What was his role in the trial of the British soldiers?
  • What was his purpose in defending the soldiers? How did his purpose relate to the virtue of justice?
  • What character traits did John Adams demonstrate in his role as defender of the British soldiers?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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