“Samuel Adams is a beer.” This response appeared on countless essay exams give by instructors of American history. While funny, it typifies what most Americans know about Samuel Adams; very little, if anything.
Yet, Samuel Adams has been one of the more controversial and debated figures in American history. Some historians have classified him as little more than a demagogue, while others consider him to be one of the more important actors in the American War for Independence. Adams suffers from some of the same problems as Patrick Henry. He never had a major role in the federal government under the Constitution, and politically correct historians typically don’t like champions of limited government. Adams fits that bill. He should be ranked above his cousin, John Adams, on a list of important Americans. In fact, it was Samuel who encouraged John to become more actively involved in the fight for independence.
Samuel Adams was born on 27 September, 1722 in the American Colonies. He was a fifth generation American descended from Henry Adams, the first of the Adams family to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century. His grandfather was a sea captain and his father, Samuel Adams the elder, was a deacon in Boston’s Old South Church who owned considerable property and maintained a fine house in the city, along with a prosperous brewery. He also served in various elected capacities in his community and had a prominent role in society. Adams’s mother was considered a woman of “severe religious principles.”
Little is known of Adams’s early life. According to family tradition, he attended the famous Boston Grammar School, and was admitted to Harvard in 1736 where he studied the classics. Though the faculty considered him a lazy student, he was graduated in 1740. He received a Master of Arts in 1743 and began the study of law. His mother persuaded him to abandon the pursuit, and Adams soon became a shiftless soul in search of a career. He started his own business, thanks to a large loan from his father, but went bankrupt. Adams then tried his hand at the brewery, though he did little to help the business. When his father died in 1748, he inherited most of his property, but tax obligations and poor financial decisions cost him most of the estate. He was married twice in this period, and had two children survive beyond the age of two. By his forties, Adams was living off the thrift of his second wife and the generosity of others. In short, in spite of his well-heeled rearing, Adams was irresponsible and unreliable. He once told John Adams that “he never looked forward in his life; never planned, laid a scheme, or formed a design for laying up anything for himself or others after him.”
But Samuel Adams was well known in his community as a writer, and while he did not possess his father’s business acumen, he inherited his political talent and the ability to manage local affairs. He started a newspaper in 1748, The Public Advertiser, which quickly became the leading outlet for anti-Parliamentary sentiment in Boston. Adams dedicated the paper to the pursuit of liberty, and the crisis with Great Britain catapulted Adams into the spotlight. For years he had worked with a group known as the “popular party” in Massachusetts politics, and when Parliament passed the Sugar Act and Stamp Act in 1764 and 1765 respectively, Adams and the members of the “popular party” had an issue to confront the more powerful “aristocratic party” led by future royal governor Thomas Hutchinson. He was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1765 and “stirred the pot” of resistance.
Samuel Adams argued that both the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act were unconstitutional and called men like Hutchinson the “enemies of liberty.” He authored a series of resolutions that declared, “All acts made by any power whatever, other than the general assembly of this province, imposing taxes on the inhabitants, are infringements of our inherent and unalienable rights as men and British subjects, and render void the most valuable declarations of our charter.” Violence erupted in Boston when the Stamp Act went into effect. Hutchinson’s house was destroyed by a mob; tax collectors were harassed and threatened with tar and feathers, and, to the British, Massachusetts appeared to be in a state of rebellion. Adams favored resistance but denounced the more violent protests and called them the result of the “mobbish” element in Boston. He appealed to English merchants to oppose the Stamp Act, claiming that the law would harm British commerce.
The economic pressure worked, and the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. Adams was returned to the legislature in 1766 and served continuously until 1774. When the Parliament reasserted its taxing authority over the colonies through the Townshend Duties in 1767, Adams again led the opposition. He authored a “circular letter” that refuted Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies. Adams insisted, as did most patriots, that the colonists were loyal to the crown, but they possessed all of the rights and privileges of Englishmen; therefore, without representation in the Parliament, which they did not have, taxes could not be levied without their consent. This unlawful and unconstitutional taxation their rights as free Englishmen.
Samuel Adams helped organize the Non-Importation Association and acted as the catalyst for anti-British sentiment in Massachusetts. As in 1765, Adams never openly supported violence, but he defended some violent resistance to the Townshend Duties in neighboring towns. 1770 proved to be the most violent year of the opposition to the British before the Revolution. The British sent four regiments of regulars to Massachusetts to enforce the Townshend Acts in 1768. This move was universally denounced in the colony. Adams had continued his assault of the British through anonymous letters in newspapers, possibly including a number of incendiary claims of rape and assault by British troops under the title of The Journal of Occurrences. Tensions reached a boiling point in 1770 when five Bostonians were killed by British soldiers. Adams labeled the event the “Boston Massacre” and along with other patriot leaders demanded that the British remove their troops from the colony.
He informed acting royal governor Hutchinson that, “If you . . . have the power to remove one regiment you have the power to remove both. It is at your peril if you refuse. The meeting is composed of three thousand people. They have become impatient. A thousand men are already arrived from the neighborhood, and the whole country is in motion. Night is approaching. An immediate answer is expected. Both regiments or none!”
No retribution occurred, and after the trial and acquittal of the principal officers involved in the “massacre,” tensions subsided. (Of course his cousin, John Adams, served as the defense counsel for the British soldiers.) The conflict over representation and taxation ebbed to its lowest level in years. Adams was returned to the legislature in 1772, but by significantly fewer votes than previous elections. He found this unacceptable. Adams continued his “full court press” against the British through the Boston newspapers.
He authored no fewer than forty articles critical of the royal government in Massachusetts and the British in general. The tone also insinuated that the people of Massachusetts were being duped by the tranquility of the period and in short order would be made slaves by the British government.
Samuel Adams attempted to stoke the fires of opposition in 1772 with the creation of the Committees of Correspondence, which had the stated purpose of announcing “the rights of the Colonists and of this Province in particular as men, as Christians, and as Subjects; and to communicate the same to the several towns and to the world.” He drafted a declaration of rights for the committee that emphasized the natural state of liberty, the rights of Englishmen, and American legislative independence from Parliament. Adams listed among these “natural rights . . . First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.” Adams argued in other writings that property, being the basis of a just society, created happiness. This is what Jefferson meant by, and how the other Founders understood, the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.
His perseverance finally bore fruit when patriot leaders in the colony obtained, through Benjamin Franklin, a series of letters written by Hutchinson that advocated the suppression of colonial liberty and, in modern terms, the creation of a police state in Boston. Adams faithfully adhered to Franklin’s wishes to keep the letters private, but the governor caught wind that the legislature possessed his letters and demanded to see them. The legislature refused and in short order printed them in the local press and circulated them in the committees of correspondence. Adams used this political capital as a “See, I told you so!” moment. He had been vindicated. Adams participated in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The Tea Act of that year essentially created a monopoly for the British East India Company by exempting it from an increased tax on tea. Adams declared that anyone caught selling the untaxed tea was an “enemy of America.”
When ten ships carrying the untaxed tea arrived in Boston harbor, the citizens of Boston refused to let the captains offload their cargo. Adams organized the resistance with the stated purpose of destroying the tea. On 16 December 1773, Adams gave the signal for the Boston Tea Party, after an all-day meeting of patriot leaders. “This meeting,” he said, “can do nothing more to save the country.” At that point, the men filed out of the meeting hall, disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, gathered on the wharf, boarded the ships, and threw the tea into the harbor.
Parliament responded with the Coercive Acts of 1774. In typical fashion, Adams led the charge against these new violations of the rights of Englishmen. He determined that the only course was separation and independence and called for all the colonies to adopt measures of nonimportation and resistance. The royal government almost immediately dissolved the legislature, but not before Massachusetts had selected delegates to the First Continental Congress. Adams was chosen to lead the group, and he was instrumental in securing the adoption of some of the more “radical” measures at the Congress, including the adoption of the Continental Association, a pledge of non-importation by all the colonies.
The British wanted Adams arrested as an enemy of the state. In April 1775, they attempted to capture him, along with John Hancock, on their march to Lexington. Adams, with the help of Samuel Prescott and William Dawes, evaded the army and reportedly said of the shots that day, “What a glorious morning for America!” War was at hand. He was elected to the Second Continental Congress, supported immediate independence, a confederation of the states, and the formation of independent state governments. He wrote in February 1776 that reconciliation was impossible. “The only Alternative is Independency or Slavery.” He enthusiastically signed the Declaration of Independence and served in the Continental Congress until 1781 when he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature.
This is where many “progressive” histories of Adams trail off. They note his “workhorse” abilities at the Congress, his dedicated participation on the Board of War, and his noted support of George Washington, but neglect to mention his insistence on state sovereignty and limited central authority, or claim it is inconsistent with the “true” American spirit. To them, he was quaint and amusing, and the champion of liberty before the war, but out of touch with the needs of the United States, and thus unimportant after leaving the Continental Congress. He had lost his role and influence. Now that liberty was achieved, the simple “demagogue” had nothing else to criticize and no issues to “incite” the populace. But Adams was always suspicious of a strong central authority, and in many ways, his time after the Continental Congress is more interesting than his activities leading to war with Great Britain.
Samuel Adams served as a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention in 1779 and 1780 and used his influence to garner support for the new government. This led to his election in 1781, and he served in the Massachusetts legislature in various roles until 1788. He supported vigorous action against the participants of Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, a revolt aimed at the oppressively high state taxes following the Revolution, including the recommendation to hand out death sentences. His reasoning: “In monarchy the crime of treason may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” In other words, Adams argued that republics, as elected governments, had greater legitimacy than a monarchy and therefore the laws should be applied more vigorously. The people had chosen the state government and should accept its laws.
When other states called for a revision of the Articles of Confederation, Adams accepted the idea in principle. He had signed the Articles of Confederation but thought the powers of commerce and defense could be enhanced. He did not anticipate the wholesale changes produced by the Constitutional Convention. He was selected as a delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, and though he played a minor role during the debates, he was one of the principal leaders opposed to the adoption of the Constitution without the addition of amendments.
He believed the most pressing need was an amendment expressly clarifying sovereignty of the states, the effect of which would be to remove “a doubt which many have entertained respecting the matter, and gives assurances that, if any law made by the federal government shall be extended beyond the power granted by the proposed Constitution, and inconsistent with the constitution of this state, it will be an error, and adjudged by the courts of law to be void.” Adams argued states’ rights should be explicitly maintained as “the strongest guard against the encroachments of power. . . . ” This demand appeared at the top of the Massachusetts list of proposed amendments. It is curious how it dropped to ten in the final version of the Bill of Rights.
Samuel Adams wrote to Virginian Richard Henry Lee in 1788 that when he entered the convention, “I meet with a national government instead of a Federal Union of Sovereign States. I am not able to conceive why the Wisdom of the Convention led them to give the Preference to the former instead of the latter.” He believed a consolidated government was impossible in a territory as large as the United States. “Is it expected that the General Laws can be adapted to the Feelings of the more Eastern and the more Southern parts of so extensive a Nation?” he asked. “It appears to me difficult if practicable.” Legislation attempting such amalgamation would necessitate a strong standing army and would produce the potential of “Wars and fighting” between the different sections. Prophetic? Adams argued that, on the other hand, a confederated government of sovereign states united under the principle of “mutual Safety and Happiness,” and no more, would offer greater protection of liberty than the United States Constitution because the laws of each state were better to “its own Genius and Circumstances.”
Massachusetts ratified the Constitution by a slim majority, and Adams tried unsuccessfully to serve in the House of Representatives in 1788. He was elected lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts in 1789 and assumed the position of governor after John Hancock’s death in 1794. He was elected as governor on his own in 1795 and committed to let the legislature conduct official business with little interference from the executive office. He received 15 Electoral College votes in the 1796 presidential election and was identified with the Republicans after his opposition to Jay’s Treaty in 1795. Adams wrote Jefferson a warm letter of congratulations in 1801 for winning the presidency and expressed hope that the “ship will be rigged for her proper service.” He died two years later at the age of 81.
Samuel Adams defended liberty and the rights of Englishmen throughout his life. Friends considered him a “priest in his religious observations” and a dedicated partisan of “Republican principles.” He often followed an independent course and freely spoke his mind. In contrast to men like John Dickinson, Adams continually antagonized the crown and viewed talk of conciliation foolish, but he always believed he was fighting for the natural rights of Englishmen and the maintenance of the British constitution.
He typifies most Americans in the Founding generation who regarded the states as sovereign political entities, and who jealously protected the rights of local sovereignty. Most of the men who favored the Constitution would not have supported it without limitations on its power, and Adams would not have voted for it if not for a guarantee of a bill of rights, the most important being a protection of state sovereignty. So when savoring your favorite Sam Adams brew, remember Adams as a resolute defender of American liberty.
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