“Everyone,” famously said the U.S. Senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Another famous quotation about facts demonstrates the point Sen. Moynihan was making.
Long before he became the second President of the United State, John Adams was a Massachusetts lawyer defending some very unpopular clients. Adams knew the opinion of almost everyone in the colony was that those clients, soldiers in the British Army, had committed criminal murder in what is still known as “The Boston Massacre.”
Against that opinion, Adams argued, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” And the fact was, he said, the soldiers were justified by the law. “If an assault was made to endanger their lives,” Adams said, “the law is clear, they had the right to kill in their own defense.” Adams won his case, the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre went free.
Is that bottom line the most important fact in the story? That an historic mass murder went unpunished? That the rights of the victims of the massacre went unrecognized? What about the facts of the confrontation between a small British military unit and a much larger angry crowd? Are they a necessary element in understanding what really happened? And the fact that one of the American victims, a sailor named Crispus Attucks, was of mixed race, killed side by side with Caucasian casualties? Is this a fact worth knowing?
Should students in the 8th through 11th grades consider why Adams, by 1770 an anti-colonial activist, would choose to defend soldiers who killed for a British Royal regime he considered oppressive and illegitimate? Why would a man who became a professional politician openly oppose widely-held public opinion? And how does it serve society to insist that even in life-and-death situations the law must go beyond “an eye for an eye?”
The backstory to John Adams’ famous quotation – which, by the way, he probably didn’t think of as his, but as “an old proverb” – is a rich nugget of American history, and a truly “teachable” moment. But the more of its facts are taught, the richer it is.
Dana Goldstein is a national correspondent for The New York Times, writing about how education policies impact families, students and teachers across the country. She is the author of the bestselling “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” and a two-time finalist for The Livingston Award.
Since joining The Times in 2017, she has covered the teacher walkout movement, changes in how students are selected for gifted programs and debates over school segregation, writing instruction, pre-K teaching methods and private school vouchers.
Previously, she was a reporter for The Marshall Project, covering criminal justice, and a contributor to Slate and The Atlantic. She began her journalism career as a writer and editor at The American Prospect, where she covered the 2008 presidential campaign. She lives in New York.