05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Defending "Terrorists": What Would the Founders Do?

In the midst of all the "Tea Party" chatter these days, it is a tad surprising that the anniversary of another significant Boston event went largely unnoticed last week. It was, after all, 240 years ago on March 5, 1770, that the Boston Massacre took place.

And what was the "Boston Massacre," class?

A mob of unemployed, angry (and probably three-sheets to the wind) dockworkers got into a shouting match with some of the much-hated British soldiers, then quartered in Boston and competing for jobs at the port in their off-duty hours. Curses were exchanged, snowballs thrown, then rocks. In an instant, shots rang out and several of the Boston men fell dead. A Paul Revere engraving of the event quickly became a patriot icon and a propaganda coup - a graphic image of the brutality and tyranny of British rule.

Then came a trial of the men accused of murdering these "townies." Undoubtedly, these eight British soldiers and the officer in command were as reviled as "jihadists" and "Guantanamo detainees" are in America today. Which brings us to the question at hand.

What sort of man would possibly defend such heinous "killers?" It is a question that has taken on new poignancy with the recent controversy over the attacks by Elizabeth Cheney and other "conservatives" from "Keep America Safe" on the attorneys who have defended some of the Guantanamo detainees.

The attorney who defended those British soldiers was also assailed in his time. He knew his business would suffer from taking on such unpopular clients. But he did it - and for very little compensation, the colonial equivalent of a Legal Aid attorney. His name was John Adams.

In spite of the public grief he took - including some from his more radical and outspoken cousin, Samuel - the 34-year-old attorney John Adams took the case of defending the soldiers on principle. And he stated that principle himself at the time:

"The reason is, because it's of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished."

Adams was successful in the two trials. In the first, the officer in command was found not guilty. In the second, six soldiers were completely acquitted and two were found guilty of manslaughter for which they were branded on their thumbs.

Adams would be publicly assailed over his decision and later said he lost half of his business. For his part, Samuel Adams mostly kept quiet about the case realizing that this very public display of fairness looked good for the then-blossoming patriot cause. A lynch mob might well have been a disaster for the Americans.

In his old age, Adams looked back at the case and wrote that his part in the defense of the British soldiers was

"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."

True, Conservatives have traditionally professed to respect the rule of law, honor the ideals of the "Founders," and hold high the notion that individual rights are to be protected against the possible tyranny of a despotic government. The so-called "conservatives" attacking the Guantanamo attorneys might want to brush up on their middle school American History. As John Adams himself told the jury back then,

"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."