President's View: The past can point to the best way forward

Issue March/April 2018 By Christopher P. Sullivan

The word “attorney” means one who can act on another’s behalf. As attorneys, we are always acting for others. We serve our clients, our judicial system and our profession. We do not serve ourselves. Our ethical rules call upon us to represent “others” even when they are unpopular or even despised by the public at large. 

There is no better example of this truth than Massachusetts’ very own John Adams. As a young attorney, John Adams represented the “others.” He took on the unenviable and extremely unpopular task of representing the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre in 1770. Adams did so when few, if any, Boston attorneys would defend the hated “Redcoats.” And defend them Adams did, quite successfully. The jury of Boston citizens acquitted all the British soldiers of all charges. Just six short years later, the same John Adams would sign the Declaration of Independence, thus renouncing the British Crown. 

In 1776, significant differences existed among the various colonies. Some were slave holders and some were free. The various colonies aligned themselves with different religions. Pennsylvania was Quaker, and Maryland was Catholic, while other colonies were aligned with several Protestant sects. At that time, in Newport, Rhode Island, the Touro Synagogue was just 13 years old, but it served a growing Jewish community in the state. 

The ethnic populations of the colonies were also quite different. English, German, Irish and Scots-Irish, French, Dutch, Native Americans, and freed and enslaved Africans all lived together in these colonies. Despite these differences, the Declaration of Independence begins with the famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And even though Africans and Native Americans were probably not then understood to be included in that phrase, the overriding principle was that despite all the differences among the various religious and ethnic groups, more united them than divided them. 

What united those early Americans was an unshakeable faith in the novel idea that under the rule of law where no man was above or beyond the law, free men could govern themselves. This bold American experiment was based upon the belief that principles and core beliefs mattered more than ethnicity, race or religion. To be truly American, a person must commit to follow these core foundational ideas of freedom and equality. 

Just 13 years after the rebelling colonists signed the Declaration of Independence, all 13 original states adopted the Constitution of the United States of America in 1789. The Constitution’s authors modeled it upon our own Massachusetts Declaration of Rights authored by John Adams.   

Our constitution begins with the phrase, “We, the People of the United States of America.” Despite all the differences among the former colonies, the newly independent leaders of the United States didn’t view their fellow countrymen as “others.” They saw themselves as one united people who could confidently rule themselves without the necessity of kings or oligarchs.

In Massachusetts, we still refer to our state as the “commonwealth.” The very name speaks to the common good, our shared common interest and everything that unites us. 

Today, however, we live in a time of division. Tribalism infects our body politic. We are encouraged to see the “other” as different from us, alien and yes, inferior to us. We live in a confusing era where norms of every kind are being thrown aside and changing technologies create issues never before contemplated. Naturally, we begin to question what path we should follow.

Lawyers are not exempt from these forces, trends and questions. As a learned profession, we must emulate John Adams. We need to revert to the basic values and our core common beliefs in what it means to be an American. We must be the leaders who put our profession, our state and our nation on the right path. We must stand up for the “rule of law,” not only for our rights, but even more importantly, for the rights of “others” that are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Every one of us took a simple oath to do just that when we first became attorneys. Today, we can do no less.

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