On Saturday, Harvard University announced that it would not be permitting law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. to stay on as faculty dean of Winthrop House, an undergraduate residence where he has served in that position since 2009 (along with his wife Stephanie R. Robinson, who also teaches at Harvard Law School). When I heard news of this, my mind rushed back to a guided tour I’d once taken of Boston’s Freedom Trail, a two-and-a-half mile path that features numerous historical landmarks, including the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s home and Bunker Hill Monument. At the time, I’d just arrived from Canada as a student at Harvard Law School. And I was eager to bring myself up to speed on America’s revolutionary history.
The most memorable story I heard during that tour was of a young John Adams, a future U.S. president, successfully defending Thomas Preston, a Captain of a redcoat British regiment who’d been accused of ordering the aforementioned massacre after British soldiers were hit with rocks and snowballs. When the administration of Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson put Preston and his men on trial, Adams agreed to serve as defence counsel, despite the fact he’d already staked out a reputation as a leading Patriot. Years later, he would declare that “the part I took in defence of [Captain] 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.”
The story of Adams fighting to ensure that even his enemy’s rights were protected has special resonance for lawyers and law students, because it portrays the noble side of a profession that often is shown in a less than heroic manner. More broadly, the story reflects America’s larger, evolving national project of creating a democratic society in which popular passions would be tempered by the rule of law. Central to that project are due process and the right of all accused persons to zealous legal representation. It is ironic that these foundational principles should be forgotten by a place such as Harvard, from which Adams himself graduated in 1755.