Quote Files: John Adams on Innocence, Guilt, and Punishment


“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”
– John Adams

Verdict: MOSTLY ACCURATE (paraphrased).

I’ve seen this quote floating around Facebook a bit recently, and I thought it read a bit modern for a Founding Father. After some digging around (and a few paywalled archives later), I found the original source at Archives.org: a contemporary short-hand record of the 1770 trial of William Wemms and seven other British soldiers accused of murder after the Boston Massacre.

Though a slightly modernized, the quote comes from John Adams’ opening statement for the defense, a ringing endorsement of the rights of the accused and the presumption of innocence:

I am for the prisoners at the bar, and shall apologize for it only in the words of the Marquis Beccaria: “If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport, shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind.” …

We find, in the rules laid down by the greatest English Judges, who have been the brightest of mankind; We are to look upon it as more beneficial, that many guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should suffer. The reason is, because it’s of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in the world, that all of them cannot be punished; and many times they happen in such a manner, that it is not of much consequence to the public, whether they are punished or not.

But when innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, it is immaterial to me, whether I behave well or ill; for virtue itself, is no security. And if such a sentiment as this, should take place in the mind of the subject, there would be an end to all security what so ever.

The trial also marked the first time that the phrase “reasonable doubt” was used in court. Justice Peter Oliver instructed the jury, “If upon the whole ye are in any reasonable doubt of their guilt, ye must then, agreeable to the rule of law, declare them innocent.”

The jury agreed with Adams that the soldiers had acted in self-defense and could at most only have committed manslaughter by recklessly firing their weapons. Six defendants were acquitted. Two who were proven to have fired into the crowd were found guilty of manslaughter, and after essentially pleading for leniency as first-time offenders, they were branded “M” for “murderer” on their thumbs to prevent any future claims for leniency. They returned to their regiment and departed Boston.

John Adams, for his part, declared his decision to defend the soldiers to be one of his proudest moments, writing in his diary, “The Part I took in Defense of Captn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgement of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Execution of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”

The trial was on the whole a triumph for the rule of law against the passions of mob vengeance. As Adams concluded in his statement at the trial, “The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men. .. On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder to the clamours of the populace.”