When eight British soldiers were indicted in Boston for murder in 1770 after five people were shot to death in a rioting crowd that was pelting the soldiers with projectiles, a young lawyer named John Adams took up the soldiers' case because he had a point to prove: Americans believed in -- and lived by -- the rule of law.
"The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations and wanton tempers of men," Adams said in his summation to the jury in the trial of the soldiers.
America did not disappoint Adams. Six of the eight soldiers he defended were acquitted, and two were convicted of manslaughter, not murder. The jury listened to the evidence and returned a fair verdict based on the facts. (For a good summary of the case, see the "Famous Trials" website maintained by professor Douglas O. Linder at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School.)
When President Barack Obama was coming under increasing political heat for his response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he decided to give his first-ever nationally televised speech from the Oval Office. But Obama is no John Adams, and preserving due process of law was not on his mind.
Many Americans were understandably angry at both BP and Obama, and Obama wanted to deflect the anger from himself by capitalizing on the resentment of BP. He would show, once again, he was the bully in chief.
"Tomorrow," said Obama, "I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness. And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party."
Now, the key words in this statement were "inform him." This was not a request. Indeed, the day before, The Washington Post said Obama would "demand" that BP turn over the money he wanted set up in this fund.
When considering Obama's action, it worth remembering that BP was not trying to disclaim responsibility for damage done by the oil spill, nor was it refusing to pay legitimate claims. As of this past Saturday, The New York Times reported, BP had already distributed 25,000 checks worth $63 million to people claiming damage from the spill. Company official had repeatedly insisted they would pay all legitimate claims.