Father of the American Revolution: pious, principled, and passionate for liberty, Samuel Adams championed the cause of independence with his unique ability to communicate, motivate, and organize. (History: Greatness of the Founders).
Howe emphasized the word "decided" because the British admiral had brought with him from England a list of arch-patriots who could not be pardoned under any circumstance. Persons on that list would have to hang; their fate had indeed been decided in England if the patriotic cause were to fail. And John Adams was near the top of that list. Higher still on the list was John's second cousin, Samuel Adams of Boston, who had labored more than anyone else in the nation to bring the colonies to the brink of independence. At the time, John Adams was less well-known as a proponent of American independence than his cousin Samuel. When John Adams journeyed as a diplomat in France several years later, he was constantly confused with "le fameux Adams."
Samuel Adams has rightly come to be known as the "Father of the American Revolution" for his ability to organize Boston tradesmen, clergymen, politicians, and militiamen in favor of the cause of independence. By September 1776, he had been at the top of the British crown's most wanted list for more than a year. British General Thomas Gage fixed the blame for the revolution squarely upon "arch-rebels" Adams and his Boston lieutenants. "This province began it," Gage said of Massachusetts, adding, "I might say this town" of Boston. The "shot heard 'round the world" was fired partly because of Gage's attempts to arrest Samuel Adams and his friend John Hancock in Lexington on April 19, 1775. Tory Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson admitted that his arch-rival Samuel Adams had acquired a power to use his writing so persuasively that it was "beyond any other man I ever knew." Hutchinson said bitterly of Samuel Adams that "I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the King's dominions." "Every dip of his pen," Hutchinson's predecessor, royal Governor Francis Bernard, wrote, "stung like a horned snake." Although John Adams had been given the title of "Colossus of Independence" by Thomas Jefferson, John instead credited Samuel for laying the groundwork: "Without him, in my opinion, American independence could not have been declared in 1776."
Samuel Adams' father, Samuel Adams Sr., was a wealthy businessman and an influential leader in Boston town politics when Sam was born in 1722. Young Samuel also had the benefit of a good classical education. He studied at the renowned Boston Latin School and at the age of 14 was admitted to Harvard University, where his mother wanted him to study for the ministry. But he was soon studying other subjects, although he prayed daily and strictly adhered to his Congregationalist faith throughout his life. Adams' master's thesis at Harvard was "whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved."
While the manuscript is lost to history, Adams' attachment to the theories of John Locke (which he studied at Harvard) can lead one to guess the content of the thesis.
Young Samuel quickly proved incompetent as a businessman after graduation, despite his father's help. Sam was let go from his first job in a counting house after only a few months because -- his employer informed Sam Sr. -- he was training people for business and not for politics. Samuel Sr. then loaned young Sam 1,000 pounds to start a business for himself. The money was soon gone; Sam loaned half to a friend who squandered it. When Sam inherited his father's brewery in 1748, he allowed the business to run down completely from mismanagement. The brewery failed entirely by 1764. Only when he was able to win one of the four positions as tax collector for the town of Boston in 1756 did Sam finally have a regular source of income to support his wife Elizabeth, a Congregationalist minister's daughter he married in 1749, and their children.
Elizabeth died in 1757 and was survived by only two of their five children. Sam remarried in 1764 to Betsy Wells, who proved a loyal wife politically as well as an astute manager of household and family finances.
A tax collector position might seem like an unlikely position for Adams, who became famous for protesting taxes and who had a personal history that demonstrated he was marginally qualified to handle money. And it is true he was a poor tax collector; he was such a mark for hard-luck stories that his accounts gradually fell thousands of pounds behind schedule. (In his defense, the three other Boston tax collectors also fell behind in their collections.) But Adams' penchant for mercy as a tax collector also made him extremely popular in the city, and he was soon found spending evenings at Boston Town Meetings, or at the Caucus Club meetings at Tom Dawes' estate on Purchase Street.
The Caucus Club had been an influential private group of Whiggish legislators since the days of Samuel Adams Sr., though the rise of Tory party power throughout the empire caused the organization's influence to wane in the years leading up to the 1760s. In 1761, Samuel had hitched his political wagon to a rising star, James Otis, the leader of the patriotic faction in the Town Meeting and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. As Otis' able lieutenant, Adams was soon filling the local newspapers with information about threats to liberty on issues such as the Writs of Assistance. Samuel became a regular contributor to the Boston Gazette, usually under Latinized pen names such as Vindex, Candidus, and Populus.
The Stamp Act
When the British won the French and Indian War in 1763, English taxpayers found themselves saddled with heavy taxes to pay off the war debt. Before long, British politicians were finding ways to placate British taxpayers who complained about having to pay taxes for debt believed to be acquired solely to protect the untaxed colonies.
Stepping up to make the colonists pay taxes to fund the British army was George Grenville, Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his Sugar Act. The 1764 act of Parliament was technically a cut in a longstanding but unenforced tax on molasses, but the colonies erupted with the prospect that they would actually have to pay taxes without their consent for the first time. Adams exclaimed of the Sugar Act: "If our trade may be taxed, why not our lands and everything we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves. It strikes at our British privileges, which we hold in common with our fellow subjects who are natives of Great Britain." The royal governor, Francis Bernard, claimed that the Sugar Act produced "a greater alarm in this country than the taking of Fort William Henry [by the French] did in 1757." In reality the petition by Massachusetts General Court (legislature) to repeal the tax was tame when compared with later demonstrations.
That same year, Grenville proposed that a different tax be laid in Parliament. Grenville's plan was for a Stamp Act that would tax legal documents, newspapers, and commercial papers. The news of the new, first-time-ever direct tax on the colonies scheduled to take force in 1765 ran up and down the Atlantic coast like wildfire. Nine of the 13 colonies sent delegates to a convention called by Massachusetts on October 1765 in New York and issued a "Declaration of Rights" to announce that Parliament had no right to tax Americans: "[I]t is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives."
Boycotts of British goods were announced in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, enforced by clubs of anti-tax activists formed under the general name "Sons of Liberty." The name had been taken from the speech of Isaac Barre, a friend of the colonies in Parliament. Many Sons of Liberty organizations were formed out of a core of pre-existing organizations. A mechanics' organization formed the nucleus of the "Sons" in Baltimore, and the "Sons" were organized from fire organizations in Charleston and Philadelphia. The Sons of Liberty in Boston were formed out of an odd collection of dockworkers, Caucus Club members, and even neighborhood toughs. As a result, Boston became the hotbed of unlawful resistance to the Stamp Act. Customs Commissioners were threatened, intimidated, roughed up and otherwise persuaded to resign their commission. Tory Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson's house was ransacked by a drunken mob, which robbed it of any valuables that could be carried off and destroyed his furniture.
Though it is unclear how much of the violence Adams winked at, he genuinely condemned the naked robbery of his rival Hutchinson. Violence and intimidation by patriots did nothing to satisfy the outraged voters in Massachusetts. The year 1766 saw the Patriot's Whig party take control of the Massachusetts House, to which Sam Adams was elected. Adams and Otis were elected Speaker and Clerk of the General Court (House of Representatives), respectively. Adams also took effective control of the Boston Town Meeting as well, nominally as Otis' lieutenant. As Adams' biographer John C. Miller reveals, it was not long before Sam was ruling the roost and "at the Caucus Club, moderators, selectmen, assessors, tax collectors, wardens, fire wards, and representatives were picked by Adams and his friends several weeks before the elections."
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but it was not long before the British were trying to find another way to have Americans help pay for the British military establishment. In 1767, Charles Townshend won Parliament's approval to tax importation of paper, paint, tea and lead into the colonies. The Townshend Act set off a new wave of nationwide protest.
More than any other man in America, Samuel Adams was up to the task of organizing opposition to Parliament's unjust and illegal act. John Adams described Samuel as "a plain, simple, decent citizen, of middling stature, dress and manners." Samuel Adams was the perfect organizer for the time, since he fit in well in any element in society and organized virtually every element of it for the patriotic cause. "Adams seemed equally at home in meetinghouse or tavern: he was as much at ease with deacons and parishioners as he was with the shipyard workers and artisans," explained Miller in Sam Adams. Pioneer in Propaganda. "From early life, Adams spent much time among the common people of North Boston and he gradually came to be regarded as their spokesman; but his family's social position and his own piety gave hi great influence among the middle class townspeople."
Adams and Otis also organized the "Black Regiment" of Congregationalist ministers on behalf of the patriot cause in addition to the bar patrons and the merchants clubs. The dockworkers had long sided with him at the Boston Town Meetings. Although Tories derided the former brewer as "Sam the Maltster," the bars and taverns of Boston have a special place in the American revolution. "Adams dearly loved a pot of ale, a good fire, and the company of merchants and shipyard workers of radical political opinions," Miller continued. "Under Sam Adams, Boston taverns became nurseries of revolution as well as 'nurseries of legislators.' He made the headquarters of the Revolution the Green Dragon Tavern in Union Street, where the Boston Caucus Club held its meetings and where Sons of Liberty from the nearby shipyards, ropewalks and docks met to hear him hold forth against British tyranny and the Tories. At the Bunch of Grapes in King's Street, Adams and the Whigs discussed the British Constitution and the Massachusetts Ch arter, and in the Salutation Tavern in Salutation Alley they plotted the downfall of the royal government. Thus, the setting of much of the preliminary work of the Revolution in Massachusetts Bay is under the roof of a Boston tavern."
Adams had a genuine talent for making patriotism fun. There were constant celebrations and patriotic dinners to note patriotic landmarks. Among the key festivals promulgated was an annual lecture and dinner to mark the anniversary of the 1770 "Bloody Massacre" of Boston. "Otis and Adams are politic in promoting these festivals," wrote John Adams, "for they tinge the minds of people; they impregnate them with the sentiments of liberty; they render the people fond of their leaders in the cause and averse and bitter against all opposers."
Adams used the Sons of Liberty as well as the Committees of Correspondence for secret communications between city and rural areas of the state and with other states. And he benefited from secrecy within the Masonic orders, though he didn't join the organization. "Many of his friends were high-ranking Masons and the Boston Lodge did much to foster the Revolution, but Sam Adams never joined the Masonic Society' Miller explains. "Adams disliked secret societies where ceremonial ritual was practiced, and he always distrusted political organizations which he had not had a hand in creating."
After the Townshend Act came to America, the Massachusetts General Court immediately passed a set of resolutions written by Samuel Adams denying
Parliament had taxing power over the colonies. The British government formally replied in 1768 that the resolutions must be rescinded on pain of dissolution of the legislative body, and that other colonies must denounce the Massachusetts resolves. The General Court responded with a five-to-one vote reaffirming support of the resolves, and resolutions of support of Massachusetts poured in from other states. Governor Bernard dismissed the legislature and called for British troops to occupy the increasingly rebellious town, but Adams saw to it that the legislators convened despite Bernard's ruling. From the convention, the legislature appealed to other states for military aid and called for resistance to the military occupation.
The landing of troops in Boston had a national effect. Many saw the formation of a military government on the horizon, particularly since the governor had ordered the legislature to be dismissed. Massachusetts received numerous pledges of military support from other colonies, but Adams reasoned that the time had not come to push for military resistance. His ally James Otis was still intensely loyal to the mother country, as were many other Americans. But Otis would not long oppose independence. In 1769, British Customs agent John Robinson beat Otis so severely that he never recovered mentally. Thereafter, Otis suffered from bouts of insanity and Sam quickly took official leadership of the patriotic movement.
Many cite the arrival of British troops as the event that triggered Samuel to conclude that independence from Britain was inevitable. Adams set in motion a strategy to passively resist the redcoats. When Governor Bernard demanded that the Massachusetts General Court vote funds for constructing barracks for the troops, not a farthing came from Adams' and Otis' legislature. Adams' Sons of Liberty saw to it that no property owner could be found to offer suitable land for housing soldiers. The British soldiers were forced to spend much of the cold Boston winter in tents constructed on the Boston Common. Eventually, the British treasury paid to use an old warehouse for housing the soldiers. One of the barracks was placed opposite Faneuil Hall, meeting place of the Boston Town Meeting, with cannons pointed directly at the doors of Sam Adams' political stronghold.
Violence broke out on March 5, 1770 when some boys throwing snowballs at a British sentry attracted an angry mob, which a group of redcoats eventually fired upon. Five colonists were killed in the incident, which became known as the Boston Massacre, and the ensuing furor ended in a trial and acquittal of the British captain who allegedly gave the order to fire.
Parliament overturned the Townshend Act taxes - except for the tax on tea - in 1769, but patriots were quick to point out that the apparent British concession had little impact. They protested the principle of taxation without representation, not the amount. And the tax on tea generated more revenue than all the other Townshend duties put together anyway. By the time Parliament decided to bail out the British East India company in 1773 by dumping tea on the American market, outraged patriots in Boston were ready. Samuel Adams summoned his mechanic and dockworker friends into Faneuil Hall on December 17th and, with the charge that "this meeting can do nothing further to save this country," sent them off, thinly disguised as "Narragansett Indians," to throw all the tea into the harbor. Although the British and their Tory allies charged Boston with complete lawlessness, the "Indians" were remarkably disciplined. They were ordered not to harm anything but tea on the British ship, and later replaced a lock they ha d broken. Furthermore, there was little else the patriots could do to protest the illegal tax. They had no representation in Parliament, and the King had laughed at their petitions. Continued British indifference to American rights meant that violence and eventual separation from England had become necessary for the colonists' continued freedom.
Other colonies followed suit by preventing tea from being landed, and pledged support for Boston. Parliament passed what the colonists called the "Intolerable Acts." The measures closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for, called for parliamentary control over the governor's council and judges, closed the Boston Town Meeting, and made arrangements for quartering troops in Americans' homes.
Samuel Adams' militia preparations were again ahead of the rest of the nation; Massachusetts' militia was ready for action with the redcoats in 1775 and throughout the war. Adams had been having towns hold militia exercises for years prior to the move for independence. The reinvigorated militia exercises were held under the old system that the British had set up for colonial defense during the French and Indian war; militias operated under the auspices and control of town and county governments. Massachusetts eventually provided more than a fourth of the troops used by the continental army during the war for independence.
Adams participated in the first and second Continental Congresses as a patient and dogged advocate of independence. Realizing that a resolution of independence was not possible in the 1774 Continental Congress, Adams worked with fellow "radicals" Christopher Gadsden and Richard Henry Lee to ensure that the Congress adopted the Massachusetts Suffolk Resolves that Paul Revere had delivered to Philadelphia. In the second Continental Congress, Adams patiently and successfully worked behind the scenes, influencing the floor debate that brought congressmen to the conclusion that independence was the only option.
Samuel Adams' reputation suffers in the modern era because of the stigma of a particularly unfavorable and unfair biography of the Boston patriot. John C. Miller's 1936 Samuel Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda remains the most popular biography of Samuel Adams published in the last 100 years, and yet the author generally assumes the worst possible motivations for Adams' actions. The working premises for the book were that Adams sought independence from the very beginning of his ambitious public life and that Samuel died a lonely and unloved man because he was capable of destroying government but incapable of building up a new government. These claims are flatly untrue. There is no evidence Adams sought independence from Britain before British troops landed in Boston in 1768, and Miller fails to cite any.
While America did enjoy the assistance of talented revolutionaries who proved incapable of building up a new government, such as Thomas Paine and John Paul Jones, Samuel Adams should not be counted among that group. He served honorably after independence in the Continental Congress. Adams played a part in the drafting of the Massachusetts constitution in 1780, a constitution still in force, and supported adoption of the U.S. Constitution on condition that a Bill of Rights later be attached to it. When rebels attacked the state government in the 1784 Shays' Rebellion, Adams did not hesitate to condemn the illegal acts. And Adams went on to a successful political career in Massachusetts politics as an ally of Governor John Hancock, winning the position of Lieutenant Governor in 1789. He was elected to the position every year thereafter until Hancock's death in 1794, after which Adams was annually elected Governor of Massachusetts until bad health forced him to retire in 1797.
Samuel Adams was everywhere described as a person who lived the principles of freedom and morality to which he publicly subscribed. When presented with the gift of a black slave girl in 1765, Samuel and Betsy Adams quickly set her free despite their poor economic situation. "He is a man," John Adams wrote, "of refined policy, steadfast integrity, exquisite humanity, genteel erudition, obliging, engaging manners, real as well as professed piety, and a universal good character, unless it should be admitted that he is too attentive to the public, and not enough so to himself or his family. He is always for softness and prudence, where they will do; but is stanch, and stiff, and strict, and rigid, and inflexible in the cause." Thomas Jefferson likewise acknowledged his greatness: "[H]e was truly a great man, wise in council, fertile in resources, immovable in his purposes, and had, I think, a greater share than any other member, in advising and directing our measures, in the Northern war."
Americans would do well to rehabilitate the reputation of Samuel Adams, the primary organizer of our independence.