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Jul 4, 2000

Spark of Revolution: A Biography of Samuel Adams

Samuel Adams was an important popular agitator and organizer during the American Revolution.

Samuel Adams was more effective than anyone else at popularizing ideas which inspired the American Revolution.

He had a clear understanding about the perennial threat to liberty: “that ambition and lust of power above the law are…predominant passions in the breasts of most men…in all nations combined the worst passions of the human heart and the worst projects of the human mind in league against the liberties of mankind.”  Political power, he declared, is “known to be intoxicating in its nature…too intoxicating and liable to abuse.”

Historian Thomas Fleming observed that “Without Boston’s Samuel Adams, there might never have been an American Revolution.  His skill at combining agitation and propaganda put the British constantly on the defensive.  He created committees of correspondence to link the colonies and was the chief organizer of the Boston Tea Party.”

The British governor of Massachusetts Francis Bernard snarled, “Every tip of his pen stung like a horned snake.”  Thomas Hutchinson, British-appointed chief justice, snapped that there wasn’t “a greater incendiary in the King’s dominion, or a man of greater malignity of heart who has less scruples any measure however criminal to accomplish his purposes.”

But Adams was revered by American colonists.  Thomas Jefferson called him “my very dear and ancient friend.”  John Adams described Sam, his older second cousin, as “cool, abstemious, polished, and refined…when his deeper feelings were excited, he erected himself, or rather nature seemed to erect him, without the smallest symptoms of affectation, into an upright dignity of figure and gesture, and gave a harmony to his voice which made a strong impression…the more lasting for the purity, correctness and nervous elegance of his style.”

Harvard University historian Samuel Eliot Morison acknowledged that “He was no orator — he had a quavering voice and a shaky hand; so he let other Sons of Liberty like Joseph Warren and the firebrand [James] Otis make the speeches, while he wrote provocative articles for the newspapers and pulled political strings.”

Biographer Cass Canfield added, “Nor was Sam at his best as a writer, though he wrote voluminously.  He had a clear style based on the classics, but the intensity of his conviction sometimes made him narrow.  It was as a…manager of men that he starred; the world has seldom seen a man so able in his methods of swaying a meeting.  His sense of timing — when to advocate controversial action — was extraordinary, and Adams, though emotional and passionate by nature, knew just when it was necessary to conciliate rather than press.”

When he led successful resistance to the Stamp Act in 1765, reported Canfield, he “was a middle-aged fellow, already stricken with palsy, wearing clothes rusty from the years…[he] lived frugally and took pride in his poverty.”  Historian Page Smith: “Samuel Adams, mild as milk, quiet, prudent, with a strange delicacy of manner, a soft persuasiveness, had the keenest grasp of the temper and character of the people.”

He was born in his family’s Purchase Street home fronting Boston Harbor, the South End of Boston, September 16, 1722.  His mother Mary Fifield was reported to be an intensely religious woman.  His father Samuel Adams Sr. was Deacon of the Congregational Church and a merchant who prepared barley for brewing into beer.

Young Sam studied natural law philosophers John Locke and Samuel Pufendorf at Harvard.  In a debate, he defended the affirmative view of the question “whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved.”  His father lost his savings in a bad investment, and Sam had to pay expenses by working as a waiter in Harvard’s dining hall.  Following graduation (1740), he ended up working at his father’s brewery.

Adams married 24-year-old Elizabeth Checkley, a clergyman’s daughter, on October 17, 1749.  After seven years and five pregnancies, she died, leaving a son Samuel and daughter Hannah.  Sam Adams married again: Elizabeth Wells, 24, on December 6, 1764.  She didn’t have much money, but she helped stretch his meager income and provided moral support.

He tried his hand at politics, and 1756 he was elected a tax collector.  As Cass Canfield noted, “His easygoing attitude was popular with the taxpayers, to whom he listened sympathetically when they pleaded for delay, but he failed to collect what was due …the citizens of the town liked Sam so much that they enthusiastically reelected him.”

Meanwhile, England had concluded a succession of wars with France, the last being the Seven Years War (1756-1763) — in the American colonies, it was known as the French and Indian War.  Britain, though victorious, ended up with a debt which strained its taxing capacity.  According to some modern estimates, British taxes per capita were the highest in the world. British politicians demanded that American colonists help pay a portion of war costs.  Hence, new or higher tariffs on imported cloth, coffee, indigo and various wines.  Rum was banned unless it came from British-controlled islands in the West Indies.  The list of colonial exports which must go only to Britain was expanded to include hides and potash.  Adams, James Otis and others staged protests against the new taxes.  Then came the Stamp Act (1765) which imposed taxes on all newspapers, pamphlets, almanacs, college diplomas, licenses, bonds, playing cards and dice.

Adams formed a group of tax resisters known as “Sons of Liberty.”  According to biographer John C. Miller, they “met in a counting room on the second floor of Chase and Speakman’s distillery.  This building stood in Hanover Square near the Tree of Liberty — a huge oak that had been planted, it was significantly pointed out, in 1646, three years before the execution of [British king] Charles I.”   

He became the most exciting publicist for liberty.  Biographer Miller reported that “Sam Adams’ journalism was so lively that the Gazette became practically the only newspaper read outside of Boston.  Although it was packed with sedition and libel, it could not be suppressed by the Crown officers; when Hutchinson attempted to induce the Suffolk Grand Jury to indict the author of a particularly ‘blasphemous Abuse of Kingly Government,’ Sam Adams brought so much pressure to bear upon the jury that the indictment was promptly quashed.”  Adams was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and he helped pass the “Massachusetts Resolves” against the Stamp Act.

On August 14th, Adams led Sons of Liberty who hung Massachusetts Bay stamp tax collector Andrew Oliver in effigy from the Liberty Tree.  Then they hauled down the effigy, and an estimated 5,000 people, about a third of Boston’s population, marched to Oliver’s Fort Hill house, chanted “Liberty, property and no stamps” and beheaded the effigy.  They burned a new building which was intended as a headquarters for Stamp Act tax collection.  Thanks to Adams’ efforts, the Stamp Act was ignored, and goods came into Boston tax free.  Before things got much farther, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. 

Adams aggressively sought new recruits.  He talked with shipyard workers and artisans in North Boston.  He visited shops, taverns, lodges and volunteer fire companies.  “He could explain political science to an illiterate sailor without condescending,” explained historian A.J. Langguth.  He sought out influential people, too, like 31-year-old John Hancock, the Boston smuggler who employed a thousand people around Boston.  With money and connections, Hancock became the leading angel of the American cause.  He provided free rum for rallies and paid the bills for banners and publications.  He named his smuggling ship Liberty.

Sam encouraged John Adams to join the political struggle.  Biographer Page Smith reported that “From his cousin Samuel he had already learned to evaluate a man in terms of future dependability, to measure his orthodoxy and assess his firmness.  How might he be useful?  What were his loyalties, his talents, his attachments, his vanities and foibles?  Resistance to authority was not work for boys or mobs.”

The principal villain was King George III, the most powerful monarch in Europe.  England had the world’s largest navy.  George III presided over England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, India, the Duchy of Hanover (Germany) and colonies in Africa, the West Indies and North America.  Although Parliament dominated the government when George III ascended to the throne in 1760, he achieved dominance over Parliament through his shrewd political manipulation and distribution of boodle.

Colonial resolve was tested in 1767 when Parliament enacted the Townshend Acts, another attempt to extract revenue from the colonies — this time by taxing imported glass, lead, paint, paper and tea.  Adams helped persuade members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to adopt their Circular Letter which condemned the Townshend Acts.

At an October 1768 Fanueil Hall gathering, Sam Adams declared that British soldiers must go.  John Adams remembered the occasion: “With a self-recollection, a self-possession, a self-command, a presence of mind that was admired by every person present, S.A. arose with an air of dignity and majesty, of which he was sometimes capable, stretched forth his arm, though even quivering with palsy, and with an harmonious voice and decisive tone said, ‘If the Lt. Gov. or Col. Darymple, or both together, have authority to remove one regiment, they have authority to remove two, and nothing short of the total evacuation of the town by all regular troops will satisfy the public mind or preserve the peace of the province.  These few words thrilled through the views of every man in the audience, and produced the great result.  After very little awkward hesitation, it was agreed that the town should be evacuated…These troops were called with humor and sarcasm ‘Sam Adams’ regiments.’”

On March 5, 1770, some British soldiers fired into a hostile crowd of about 60 people gathered in front of the State House.  Five civilians were killed.  Adams was outraged, and he resolved that “Where there is a spark of patriotic fire, we will enkindle it.”  Accordingly, he wrote more than 40 articles for the Boston Gazette between August 1770 and December 1772.  Many articles were reprinted in New York and Philadelphia newspapers.  Some of his articles were even published in England where they provided arguments for Members of Parliament opposed to the government’s get-tough colonial policy. 

Sam Adams formed the Boston Committee of Correspondence for establishing a network of communications throughout the colonies.  Twenty-one people attended the first meeting, November 3, 1772.  They prepared a declaration of the rights of colonists, a list of grievances against England and a letter encouraging other towns to form similar committees which would keep in touch with one another.  One British official singled out Adams, calling him “the foulest, subtlest and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition.”

Meanwhile, colonists were aggravated that the British government moved to bail out the financially-troubled British East India Company by enforcing its monopoly of the American market.  Colonists boycotted its tea and made their own less savory “Liberty Tea” from sage, currant or plantain leaves.  In the fall of 1773, British East India Company ships sailed for Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, the biggest colonial ports.  In New York and Charleston, public pressure led tea agents to quit. 

The Boston tea agent, however, insisted on accepting the shipments which arrived in the ships Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver.  Adams called a meeting at the Old South Church, and some 8,000 people showed up.  He thundered, “Fellow countrymen, we cannot afford to give a single inch!  If we retreat now, everything we have done becomes useless!”  As many as 150 colonists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, went to Griffin’s Wharf, boarded the tea ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.  British outrage transformed the Boston Tea Party into a pivotal event.  Lord North, the British Prime Minister, proposed a series of harsh measures against Massachusetts. 

New York Sons of Liberty supported the idea which Adams had suggested in the Boston Gazette, “that a Congress of American States be assembled as soon as possible; to draw up a Bill of Rights, and publish it to the world; choose an Ambassador to dwell at the British Court to act for the united Colonies.”  The Virginia House of Burgesses embraced the idea.  A Boston meeting elected Samuel Adams, John Adams, James Bowdoin, Thomas Cushing and Robert Treat Paine as their representatives at the First Continental Congress, the purpose of which was to express grievances against the British.  The First Continental Congress included representatives from every colony except Georgia, and they gathered in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia from September 5th to October 26, 1774. They approved the formation of a Continental Association to help maintain a boycott of British goods.

On April 19, 1775, General Thomas Gage dispatched several hundred British soldiers to Concord, 21 miles away, where they planned to capture American gunpowder and arrest Adams and Hancock.  Dr. Joseph Warren, who took charge of colonial resistance in Boston when Adams was away, asked silversmith Paul Revere to alert as many people as he could.  He reached Lexington in time, and Adams and Hancock escaped.

The American Revolution began as 16-year-old William Diamond rolled his drums, and Captain John Parker assembled about 70 Minutemen on the Concord village common to face British soldiers marching toward them.  The skirmish left eight dead Minutemen and 10 wounded vs. only one wounded British soldier.  Hundreds of colonists were inspired to join the fight, and during subsequent encounters around Concord, Minutemen adopted guerrilla tactics and fired at marching British soldiers from behind rocks and trees.  The British retreated as quickly as they could to Boston. 

The Second Continental Congress began meeting May 10, 1775 to decide what should be done next, and Adams was there.  Biographer Canfield noted that Adams “normally wore shabby clothes, stained as well.  For this occasion, however, his friends had put up money to outfit him properly.  So he looked resplendent in new suit, wig and cocked hat, and a gold-headed cane.”  

He anticipated that a high priority for the British must be to cut off New England from the other colonies, and that would likely be done by having an army march to Lake Champlain, then down the Hudson River into New York City.  Accordingly, two boats with 83 militiamen stormed Fort Ticonderoga, a base of British opoerations, and captured it.

The Second Continental Congress authorized the creation of a colonial army.  John Adams persuaded his compatriots to name 43-year-old Colonel George Washington as commander-in-chief.  Washington, who headed the Virginia militia, could help win Southern support for the Revolution.  Sam Adams seconded the nomination, and it was approved.

More Americans realized that it wasn’t enough to rebel against England.  The issues of arbitrary power made it clear that a new form of government was needed, one which better-controlled political power.  Sam Adams was among those who signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.   

Historian Pauline Maier commented that “He was fifty-four in 1776…ten years the senior of George Washington, thirteen of John Adams; he was twenty-years older than Thomas Jefferson, twenty-nine than James Madison, thirty-three than Alexander Hamilton.  Yet he served tirelessly on committees of the Continental Congress from its outset until 1781, a period in which the administrative as well as legislative burden of the new nation was borne by a handful of hard-worked delegates.”

Sam Adams emerged as a legendary figure.  When, in 1778, John Adams reached France as the American representative, people asked if he was “the famous Adams” — meaning Sam.  “All that I could say or do,” he wrote in his diary, “would not convince any Body, but that I was the fameux Adams.”  Eventually the French accepted his denials, but then he lamented that he had become “a Man whom Nobody had ever heard before…” 

Sam Adams helped draft the Articles of Confederation, a great experiment with limited government which collapsed amidst the crises caused by Revolutionary War debts and inflation.  When the Constitution was debated in 1788, Adams spoke out as an Anti-Federalist who demanded a Bill of Rights.  He was a delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention.  He was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1789, then following the death of governor John Hancock, Adams was elected governor and served for three terms.

During his last years, he was by turns conservative and radical.  He seemed to be conservative when he denounced Shays Rebellion against unjust taxes.  But he also defended the ideals of the French Revolution.  He criticized Federalists who favored repression to curb revolutionary zeal.  His influence was waning, though, and he failed in his bid to prevent John Adams, who had become a staunch Federalist, from being elected President in 1796.  Sam watched helplessly as President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) which were intended to crush Jefferson’s Republican party by, among other things, empowering the federal government to suppress dissent. 

Sam lived to see Jefferson win the 1800 presidential election and stop the Federalists from further undermining civil liberties.  Reflecting on the tumultuous election campaign and on their friendship, Jefferson wrote him in March 1801: “there exists not in the heart of man a more faithful esteem than mine to you, and that I shall ever bear you the most affectionate veneration and respect.”  Adams replied, “The storm is over, and we are now in port…May Heaven grant the principles of liberty and virtue, truth and justice, may pervade the whole earth.”

By 1803, Sam Adams was feeling his years.  He had trouble taking more than a few steps, and his mind seemed to wander.  He slipped away peacefully around 7:00 AM, Sunday, October 2, 1803, in the humble house where he and his wife lived on Boston’s Winter Street.  He was 81.  Church bells tolled for a half-hour.  Four days later, reported biographer William V. Wells, friends and dignitaries formed a funeral procession which “passed up Winter Street, down West and through Washington, around the old State House, and thence by Court and Tremont Streets to the Granary Burying-ground, where the body was placed in the family tomb.”

John Adams did as much as anyone to uphold Sam’s reputation. “You say Mr. S. Adams ‘had too much sternness and pious bigotry,’” he told one critic.  “A man in his situation and circumstances must possess a large fund of sternness of stuff, or he soon will be annihilated.”

Since then, Sam Adams was long neglected and then increasingly disparaged.  The first major biography of him didn’t appear until 1865 when a descendant, William V. Wells, produced three substantial volumes.  Two decades later, James K. Hosmer’s Samuel Adams still treated Adams as a hero while expressing regret that he “stooped now and then to a piece of sharp practice.”  But Abraham Lincoln had fought the Civil War because he believed rebellion was illegitimate, and this view hardened during the “progressive” era.  Ralph Volney Harlow’s Samuel Adams: Promoter of the American Revolution (1923) portrayed Adams’ rebellion as irrational, unjustified by any acts of the British, driven by Adams “tiresome mental problems.”  John C. Miller’s Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda (1936) similarly belittled the idea that the American Revolution was a struggle for liberty, by presenting Adams as a Machiavellian manipulator.  The low point occurred when Clifford Shipton poured out 45 pages of abuse in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates (1958) — among other things, Shipton asserted, Adams “preached hate to a degree without rival…”

Adams began to get better treatment in Stuart Beach’s biography, Samuel Adams: The Fateful years, 1764-1776 (1965).  Murray N. Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, Advance to Revolution, 1760-1775 (1976) hailed Adams as “the great popular leader of the Massachusetts liberals…[who rebelled] on constitutional and libertarian principles.”  Historian Thomas Fleming, in his 150,000-copy seller Liberty! (1997), a lavishly-produced companion to the popular TV documentary, affirmed that the American Revolution was a struggle for liberty and that Sam Adams played a key role in it.  Now, hopefully, he will be able to rest in peace.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.