A Question of Justice: The Boston Massacre

A Question of Justice: The Boston Massacre
Abigail Adams: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Class periods over five days


On March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd of colonists protesting both British taxes and the British presence in Boston.  Five colonists died, including the first African American to die in the lead-up to the Revolution—Crispus Attucks.  Thomas Preston, British Captain at the scene, was tried for murder, along with eight of his men. Asked to assist in the defense of the accused British soldiers, John Adams discussed the matter at some length with his young wife, Abigail, and together they decided that his acting in defense would be a courageous act, one that would show colonial impartiality in the matter. Captain Preston and six of his men were acquitted; two soldiers were found guilty, punished, and dismissed from the army.


In this lesson, students will learn about the Boston Massacre and its subsequent trial, consider the positive and negative arguments from both sides, and produce a simulation of the trial.  This simulation can take the form of a play, or a debate, a series of newspaper accounts, or even a recreation of the actual event.  In producing the simulation, students will critically study and analyze primary source documents and pictures, as well as organize and synthesize second-hand accounts and commentary about the Massacre and the trial.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Books and other materials about the Massacre from the school library.


Day 1:  Students should have time to find information on the people and events of the Massacre and Trial.  In order to maximize time spent, students can be divided into five groups:  
  • one will research the events of the Massacre from timelines and contemporary accounts;
  • one will research the people involved on the colonial side;
  • one will research the people involved on the British side;
  • one will research the events of the Trial;
  • one will research the role of the prosecuting and defense attorneys at the trial.

Day 2:  Each group will share what they have learned with the other groups in a class discussion.  Suggestions for questions to keep the discussion going are as follows:
  • What exactly happened on March 5?
  • Were the colonists justified in taunting the British soldiers?
  • Were the soldiers justified in shooting into the crowd?
  • How do contemporary accounts of the incident differ?
  • If you had been a member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston at the time, what would you have thought about Adams acting in defense of British soldiers who had killed colonists?
  • What happened at the Trial?
  • What is the basis for Adams’ plea for the acquittal of the accused?

At the end of this discussion, ask the students how they would like to demonstrate what they have learned.  A play?  A series of newspaper accounts?  A debate on the issues?  A recreation of the Trial?
Day 3:  Depending on their selection, students will work to create the simulation.  If the class chooses a play (or a recreation of the Trial, which would be a play) or a series of newspaper accounts, various teams should be appointed to work on different parts of the project.  If a debate is chosen, teams should also be appointed to lay out the issues, the terms of the debate, and the arguments.
Day 4:  Students continue creating the simulation.
Day 5:  Students present their simulation.  Since all students will have been involved in the production of the simulation, perhaps other classes could be invited to witness the presentation.  Evaluation sheets can be given to the audience for feedback to the students presenting.

Extending the Lesson:

1.  A natural extension of this lesson might be an investigation of other famous trials in American history, e.g., the Salem Witchcraft Trials, the John Peter Zenger Trial, or the Amistad Trial.
2.  Another extension of the lesson would be the creation of a series of displays—posters or collages or handbills or cartoon—that describe the events of the Massacre and Trial and could be posted in the hall for other students in the school.

Sources & Resources:

The two most complete web sites on the Boston Massacre are:

                The Boston Massacre Historical Society

                Famous Trials, Boston Massacre

Additional material on Crispus Attucks can be found at the PBS Africans in America series.


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.