Looking to the Founders: Ferguson, The Boston Massacre, and the Rule of Law

Right now, all eyes in the nation are on Ferguson, Missouri, anticipating the results of the grand jury investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.

Businesses are being shuttered and gun sales are up — the town is fearful of more rioting when the results are announced.

In moments of civil tension and passion like these, it is a good idea to reflect on our Founders, and look at what they did when faced with similar injustice and public uncertainty.

Boston, March 1770

British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768 to protect the Crown’s interests and to enforce recent unpopular acts from Parliament.

Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were charged after the Boston Massacre.
Mobs were not uncommon in Boston and a British sentry was singled out for harassment. Eight more soldiers came to his aid, with continued verbal harassment and thrown objects.

In a well known story of the American Revolution, the soldiers fired into the crowd killing three instantly and wounding several others — two more would die from those wounds and another crippled.

The mob intensified and only dispersed on the promise of acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson, ensuring a fair inquiry into the shootings.

Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were charged with the murders.

To British General Gage’s credit, he chose to withdraw the British forces from Boston, seeing that they were doing more harm than good politically and in actual security.

The Trial

The newspaper battles and protests continued for months, yet the government was committed to providing a fair trial for the accused.

John Adams convinced the jury that the crowd had incited and provoked the soldiers into firing.
Declaration signer John Adams and Sons of Liberty spokesman Josiah Quincy II acted as the defense attorneys, along with loyalist Robert Auchmuty.

As prosecutors, another Declaration signer, Robert Treat Paine, and Massachusetts Solicitor General Samuel Quincy were hired by the town of Boston. This is probably the most unique aspect of the whole affair — that it was mostly patriots who stood both as defense and accusers for the trial. It was hardly a kangaroo court set up by the British to summarily free them, and Patriots served to protect them from summary lynching.

The trial ended with only two of the soldiers being convicted of manslaughter, both with reduced sentences. John Adams convinced the jury that the crowd had incited and provoked the soldiers into firing.

While the Boston Massacre fueled the resentment of the British Crown for the Revolution, the people more or less lived with the decision of the court.

Ferguson, November 2014

Right now, the city of Ferguson is on the verge of rioting as it waits for the results of the grand jury investigation.

Should Darren Wilson be indicted?

That is almost an impossible question to answer considering the secrecy of the investigation, and it will likely be long after the grand jury’s announcement that any of this evidence will come to light. This case, regardless of the grand jury’s decision, is far from over; the federal government will likely take up this case as a matter of civil rights.

The real question is whether the people of Ferguson, as well as the hundreds of “imported” protesters, will accept the rule of law regardless of whatever the announcement might be — or will they riot?

Would we be like our Founders? Would we potentially put our careers in jeopardy to ensure a fair trial for an unpopular defendant? Would we stand by the jury’s verdict?

America works because we have faith in the rule of law. Sometimes the courts get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, but we still have to have faith that in the end the truth will come out and justice will be served.

Image: Robert Treat Paine