The Massachusetts Lawyers Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

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Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence 25 were lawyers.

Massachusetts had five representatives.  Two of them–Robert Treat Paine and John Adams–were prominent attorneys in the Commonwealth.

Robert Treat Paine

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Paine graduated from Harvard College in 1749 and began studying law in 1755.

He joined the Massachusetts Bar in 1757.

After receiving his law license, Paine briefly opened a law office in Taunton before permanently moving his practice to Boston.

After the Boston Massacre in March, 1770, Paine conducted the criminal prosecution of Captain Thomas Preston, the British officer who led the soldiers involved in the incident. Capt. Preston was successfully defended by his attorney, John Adams.

From 1777 to 1790 Paine served as Massachusetts Attorney General.  During that time his most-notable case was the prosecution of the citizens involved in Shays’ Rebellion.

Paine ended his legal career by serving as a Justice on the Supreme Judicial Court from 1790 to 1804.

Below is a quote from Paine on July 6, 1776:

The day before yesterday the declaration of American independency was voted by twelve colonies agreeable to the sense of the constituents, and New-York was silent, till their new convention (which sits next week) express their assent, of which we have some doubt. Thus the issue is joined; and it is our comfortable reflection, that if by struggling we can avoid the servile subjection which Britain demanded, we remain a free and happy people; but if, through the frowns of Providence, we sink in the struggle, we do but remain the wretched people we should have been without this declaration. Our hearts are full, our hands are full; may God, in whom we trust, support us.

John Adams

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Adams graduated from Harvard in 1755.  He became a school teacher in Worcester but left the profession to pursue a legal career.

In 1759, after a short apprenticeship with one of Worcester’s leading attorneys,  he was admitted to the bar.

According to one of his biographers, “Adams faced several years of struggle in establishing his practice. He had only one client his first year and did not win his initial case before a jury until almost three years after opening his office.”

Eventually, Adams’ practice became one of the most prominent in Boston.

As mentioned above, he successfully represented the British soldiers put on trial after the Boston Massacre.  Adams considered his legal defense of the soldiers to be one of his greatest achievements.

The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. 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. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

The Continental Congress selected Adams to serve on the “Committee of Five” chaired by Thomas Jefferson.  The group was charged with drafting and proposing the text of the Declaration of Independence.

In a letter to his wife on July 3, 1776, Adams wrote the following regarding Independence Day.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

 

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