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Kevin Cullen

Winthrop House dean isn’t first Harvard guy to represent a horrid client — just ask John Adams

A John Adams statue unveiled in Quincy in the fall.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

So apparently there is a group of Harvard students who want law professor Ronald Sullivan tossed out of Winthrop House because he is part of Harvey Weinstein’s defense team.

Sullivan is not the first Harvard Law School prof who has taken on an odious client. Alan Dershowitz was part of O.J. Simpson’s dream team of lawyers who got the football legend acquitted of murder. No doubt those students who want Sullivan gone won’t be amused to learn that the Dersh had signed onto Weinstein’s legal team, too.

But almost 250 years ago another Harvard-educated lawyer took on clients even more repulsive than Simpson and Weinstein. And it made me wonder what would have happened if the mob baying for Ron Sullivan’s expulsion from Winthrop House had been around back in 1770, when another Harvard guy took on that controversial case. It would have gone something like this . . .

A group of Harvard students protested outside the president’s office in Harvard Yard this week, demanding that the administration remove the library privileges of John Adams, the Harvard graduate who defended the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre.


“It is totally morally unacceptable that Harvard would allow someone who defended the King’s murderers to use Harvard facilities to protect the Crown’s killers,” said a Harvard freshman who lives at Stoughton Hall, which is named for William Stoughton, who as a judge presided over the Salem Witch Trials and the execution of 19 women and men. “Harvard can do better.”

Adams, who graduated from Harvard in 1755, and was admitted to the bar after earning his master’s from Harvard in 1758, has a law practice but has regularly used the Harvard library to conduct legal research. Adams served as defense counsel for eight British soldiers who were part of a group that opened fire on civilians on King Street, killing five of them. Adams won the acquittal of six soldiers but two were convicted of manslaughter.


Adams has said no one should be denied the right to a fair trial and competent counsel. Adams’ argument to the jury also gave a hint at why he took on the case.

It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished,” Adams said. “But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘Whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizens that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

But Adams’ ringing defense of due process rights fell on deaf ears among student protesters. Student residents of Dunster Hall, named for Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard who was forced out in 1659 when he converted from the Puritan faith to English Baptist, held signs denouncing Adams as “A Disgrace to Harvard,” and “Traitor” and “King George’s Lawyer.”

They were joined in chanting “Traitor!” by residents of Mather House, named for Harvard President Increase Mather, who when he took over in 1692 instituted a requirement that all Harvard graduates be able to read the Old and New Testament in Latin.


Edward Holyoke, who stepped down last year after 32 years as Harvard president, and who conferred a degree on Adams in 1755, paused to watch the demonstration but did not take an opportunity to defend Adams. Juba, one of Holyoke’s slaves, accompanied him.

Samuel Locke, who succeeded Holyoke as president, and a classmate of Adams, could not be reached, and it was unclear whether he was in Wadsworth House, the president’s residence, while the protest took place. Since fathering a child by one of his maids, Locke has been keeping a low profile.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.