Harbottle Dorr and the Boston Massacre

One of the American Revolution’s more obscure figures to have left a good record is the memorably named Harbottle Dorr, a merchant and selectman of colonial Boston with a gift for political diatribes. (For more information, see Bernard Bailyn’s classic essay on Dorr, collected in Faces of Revolution; an earlier version is archived on JSTOR.) His lasting legacy is the 3,280-page “Index and Commentaries of Harbottle Dorr”—-a kind of proto-blog in which he assembled, indexed, and marked up decades of newspapers and assorted print materials.

Like most Boston residents, Harbottle Dorr was deeply upset by what became known as the “Horrid Massacre” of May 1770, in which British soldiers stationed in Boston fired on a crowd of civilians. Here, Bernard Bailyn records Dorr’s reaction to an editorial Samuel Adams wrote about the eventual trial and acquittal of the soldiers:

Power, “especially in times of corruption, makes men wanton; … it intoxicates the mind; and unless those with whom it is entrusted are carefully watched, such is the weakness or the perverseness of human nature, they will be apt to domineer over the people, instead of governing them according to the known laws of the state.”

Dorr marked the passage, and wrote beneath it: “This is orthodox, and is my political creed.”

From a newspaper account of the funeral for victims of the Boston Massacre

The use of armed troops as a police force in peacetime—an even more severe form of what colonists called a “standing army”—had now done worse than compete for jobs and take up space. It had proved fatal to life and destructive of liberty. There was no other way for a steadfast “Son of Liberty” to see it, no matter what had happened before the soldiers fired.

What Bailyn does not say, and perhaps missed, is that Harbottle Dorr was called to be a jury member for the trial of the soldiers involved. The enlisted men were accused of murdering five colonists, for which the punishment would have been death. John Adams, the defense lawyer, successfully argued the jury down to a conviction of manslaughter for two of the soldiers, and then reduced their sentence from death to thumb-branding. (Adams managed to reduce the sentence by proving that the men could read the Bible, invoking the now-defunct benefit of clergy.)

As in modern times, people got out of jury duty. The trial of the soldiers involved in the Massacre was a huge event, politically charged and controversial. Sentencing British soldiers to death could have brought harsh retaliation from Parliament—not to mention the other troops quartered in Boston Harbor—and would have alienated political moderates in the city. In stepping up to defend the killers, John Adams and Josiah Quincy went against the inclinations of radicals like Dorr, who would likely have demanded the death penalty. Harbottle Dorr was “excused for cause” from serving on the jury, which means that some member of the court thought he wouldn’t contribute to a fair trial.

Hiller Zobel mentions this decision briefly in his The Boston Massacre:

But other [jurors] were challenged: … Harbottle Dorr, an avid Son of Liberty, who saved all the issues of the Gazette and carefully annotated them, attributing all the anonymous articles and cross-referencing the various propaganda strokes… Only nine jurors, not one of them from Boston, had been duly seated when the pool of eligibles ran dry.

Harbottle Dorr, like many politically active Bostonians, would have wanted to get in on this event. He was no doubt frustrated to leave without influencing the outcome of the case. Perhaps, reading Samuel Adams’ later editorial about “the weakness or the perverseness of human nature” leading to abuses of power, he endorsed it with thoughts of the officials who had sent him home in their quest for a fair trial.