Samuel Adams believed that men are ruled more by fear or other emotions than by reason. And Sam Adams knew how to generate anger and fear. Thus he kept up the flow of propaganda that followed from the town’s versions of what had happened in the Boston Massacre.
Samuel Adams (September 27, 1722-October 2, 1803), the political “boss” of the Boston town meeting, maltster, tax collector, essayist, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, leader of the Continental Congress, and a great influence over the public life of Massachusetts during the early years of the Republic. Called by Thomas Jefferson “the Man of the Revolution.” On the other hand, described by a Tory as “the would-be Cromwell of America.” A source of amazement to British authorities attempting to prevent a rebellion, one of whom wrote, “Would you believe it, that this immense continent, from New England to Georgia, is moved and directed by one man!—a man of ordinary birth and desperate fortune who, by his ability and talent for factious intrigue, has made himself of some consequence; whose political existence depends upon the continuence of the present disputes…” A cross between Hawthorne’s Gray Champion and the village malcontent, who always “loved turmoil, and desired a continuence of the troubles…” In his affected righteousness almost a humbug, but a master politician when in opposition. Antifederalist, but restrained in his attacks on the proposed Constitution by the warm and open Federalism of the mechanics and tradesmen of his city, the old Sons of Liberty, who felt a stronger government might better protect the commerce of New England. A Puritan born after his time, a violent Whig both by birth and by conviction. A prophet who lived inside the typology implied by his given name, recalling his neighbors to “the noble spirit of our renowned ancestors.” One who hoped to see the old “New England Way” become the basis for converting a free America into a “Christian Sparta.”
In most respects, unlike his first cousin, President John Adams. A democrat and a man of the Covenant. The classic Roundhead revolutionary, who (in the words of a colleague), “eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much, and is most decisive and undefatigable in the pursuit of his objects.” Yet capable of tact and patience, when these qualities were necessary if he hoped to draw men after him. A strange kind of Yankee, with no practical ability, one who, according to Clifford Shipton, never “in his life earned a proper living from any business or profession,” was supported by his wife and his friends, and interested only in politics. A man who testified of himself, “I was led to believe in early life that jealousy is a political virtue. It has long been an aphorism with me that it is one of the greatest securities of public liberty.” Difficult in debate because of his penchant for treating all contrary opinion as not only wrong but also wicked. According to many of his biographers, a figure of envy, distrustful of all those in authority and hostile to “every-one who achieved prominence in business or public life.” Indifferent to the truth in matters political—and not otherwise scrupulous of his means, once he had settled on the righteousness of his cause. Ever ready to hurl (in the phrase of Yeats) “the little streets upon the great.” However, also the man who accomplished more than any other to inspire the English colonies in North America to seek their independence.
Samuel Adams was born in Boston, in a small house on Purchase Street. He was the son of Deacon Samuel Adams, Selectman, Justice of the Peace, and member of the General Court; and Mary Fifield Adams. Young Sam was educated at the South Grammar School and at Harvard, where he graduated in 1740 and then continued for the M.A. in 1743. For the latter degree he offered the affirmative on the question “whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.” He had gone to Harvard to read for the ministry, but before he had finished with Harrington and Locke, was better prepared for political contention than for pastoral repose. Probably Deacon Adams was due as much of the blame for this bias in the mind of his son as were the troublesome doctors of Whig theory. For the pious maltster was himself something of a radical for the Good Old Cause, a disciple of the anachronistic Elisha Cooke, leader of the Massachusetts Country Party who struggled to isolate the Bay Colony against the encroachments of time and commerce and who had with his Caucus Club so dominated Boston politics that he kept the great aristocratic merchants of Zion in fear of their dominion. While the younger Samuel failed as apprentice in the counting house of Thomas Cushing, and then failed in a venture of his own, his prosperous father was brought low by the application of the Bubble Act of 1720 to his affairs as a director of the Whig Land Bank. In 1741, at the urging of the Court Party, the friends of government in Boston, Parliament had declared the Land Bank illegal ab initio and the directors liable for all the paper it had issued. In consequence of this legislation Deacon Adams and his son spent twenty years in private rebellion against the Massachusetts Land Bank Commissioners who at law had a responsibility to seize their property. This fight, like others that were to come, they won through their skill in politics, finally forcing the General Court to reduce the obligation. But the hostility of Samuel Adams to the officers of the Crown in the process acquired a momentum not expended until independence was achieved.
Young Sam Adams made his first appearance as a political essayist in 1748 in the Boston Independent Advertiser. These anonymous forebodings of tyranny lurking just over the horizon foreshadowed the rhetoric of Adams’ later struggles with Francis Bernard, Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage. When his father died in 1748, Adams (with the help of his slaves and his wife) kept the malt house in operation and speculated in land. But when not singing at Mr. Checkley’s meetinghouse, his favorite diversion was to haunt the taverns of North Boston, drink flip and recruit political supporters. Eventually the Green Dragon tavern became his headquarters, the seat of the Caucus Club and “nursery of legislators.” In 1746 Adams was elected a Clerk of the Market, in 1753 Scavenger and in 1756 Tax Collector. The last of these offices almost ruined his public career. By 1765 he was £8000 behind in his accounts. Naturally his enemies attempted to secure an indictment of this malfeasance in office. Adams and his allies simply packed the town meeting and got the suit dropped. The will of the king was not law in Boston, but the will of Samuel Adams was the next thing to it.
The Continuence of Troubles
The struggle for power between Sam Adams and a series of royal governors began in earnest with the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764. Prior to that time Adams had written against the role of placemen in Massachusetts; public life, of special privilege, and of designs to make beasts of the people and deprive them of their liberties through manipulation of the General Court and the law. In a finished version of the “paranoid style” he had “shrieked tyranny” against the Royal government—except during the brief tenure of Governor Thomas Powell (1757-1760). He had earned credit within that “black regiment of sedition,” the Congregational clergy (by favoring their traditions and interests) —and learned how to assemble a mob. He had sought out promising young men—John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Benjamin Church and Josiah Quincy, Jr.—and trained these protégés to recognize in the smallest acts of the opposing party evidences of a grand design to deprive New England of its natural and inherited rights. And when not exciting the town meeting or House of Representatives with a charge of his own, he had followed and supported the leadership of the equally troublesome James Otis, a young man of good family and education who was the mortal enemy of the Court Party—of Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Oliver, et al. The Seven Years’ War with France delayed and muted the confrontation of Otis and Adams with the full range of governmental authority. But the Sugar Act brought this conflict to a head—and enabled Sam Adams to sound for the first time the tocsin of “no taxation without representation.”
During the first half of his career as gadfly and agitator, Sam Adams had (in his own language) learned the rule of “put your adversary in the wrong and keep him there.” But that strategy was difficult to implement so long as it went up against patriotic feelings engendered by war. Grenville’s preamble to the Sugar Act, more than the tax itself, changed these circumstances, speaking as it did of “improving the revenues of this kingdom!” This language, in the analysis of Sam Adams, made the bill more important as precedent—one which could lead to taxes on land and other property. Certainly it justified a non-importation agreement with respect to British products. The Stamp Act of 1765, again part of George Grenville’s scheme for raising a revenue in the colonies, made “Sam the Publican” seem to be quite a good prophet and also made resistance to the British Ministry a popular cause throughout Massachusetts and in the other North American colonies. “What a blessing to us has the Stamp Act eventually. . . prov’d,” exclaimed Sam Adams: “when the Colonys saw the Common Danger they at the same time saw their mutual dependence.” But creating this unity of sentiment and action linking together many varieties of Americans took some time. Even in 1765 Sam Adams had resolved to work for independence. But most Americans remained moderate in their opposition to the Stamp Act. An intercolonial conference held in New York produced only petitions for redress of grievance. There were disturbances in Rhode Island and New York, damage to property and street demonstrations. Moreover, the distribution and sale of stamps was everywhere prevented in all of British America. Boston, however, set the example for the rest of the Sons of Liberty. Starting August 14, 1765, the intemperate citizens of that “city on a hill” rioted for five days out of the next fifteen. According to the best evidence, Sam Adams orchestrated their misconduct and then, in their defense, drew as moral the responsibility of officers of the Crown in so greatly provoking “loyal” Whigs with their collusion in the terrible tyranny of obedience to Parliament and prince. A contemporary wrote of these riots:
Every succeeding night witnessed the rage of an infatuated populace, and no man in any office whatever was safe in his habitation. If a man had any pique against his neighbors it was only to call him a few hard names, and his property would certainly be destroyed, his house pulled down and his life be in jeopardy.
Adams called these tumults “the diversion of a few boys in the street” or “the common amusements of children” and then more seriously spoke of “rationally destroying property” as “the only means of securing” the rights of property. But he had only begun. Within a few years his trained mobs went so far as to disrupt the funerals of persons of whom they had disapproved. Not even the dead were safe from their rage.
In September, 1765, Samuel Adams was elected to a Boston seat in the House of Representatives in the place of the recently deceased Oxenbridge Thacher, and was soon thereafter (early 1766) chosen to be Clerk of the House, from which office he drew most of his living until 1774, when he was selected to be a delegate to the First Continental Congress. As a member of the General Court he found scope for his talents. For as Clerk, with the responsibility for all records and official communications (to England, and to the governors), he had status and the official authority to increase the pressure on colonial officials and Whitehall which commenced with town meetings, newspaper diatribes and mob violence. Adams in attacking the Crown “was not like Otis, tormented by the troublesome facts of constitutional law.” In the legislature he was tireless, had always a set of petitions and resolves in his pocket, and knew the trick of introducing motions when the House was almost empty, but his loyal followers were still in their chairs. Then Adams would write the official gloss on the meaning of his own measures. And the mob was always there to back him up.
Soon the members of the administration party were terrified. Stamps or not, the port of Boston was opened. Courts of common law and even the Admiralty Court transacted business. Whig lawyers thundered that Acts of Parliament against the British Constitution were null and void, and that therefore the people of Massachusetts might do as they wished. When news of repeal of the Stamp Act arrived on May 16, 1766, there were general celebrations on both sides of the conflict. Throughout British America, Loyalists hoped for a breathing space. But Sam Adams had no such plan. The Massachusetts Resolves of 1765, passed during Adams’ first term as a member of the House of Representatives, foreshadowed the Declaration of Independence and put down a predicate for the American position in the years which led up to the fateful decision. Adams had written, “The leading principles of the British Constitution have their foundation in the Laws of Nature and universal Reason. Hence . . . British Rights are in great measure, unalienably the Rights of the Colonists, and of all Men else.”
The next stage in the quarrel between the old Puritan Commonwealth and the British government came with the 1767 Townshend Acts. The appointment of Customs Com-missioners, and the proposal to create a Massachusetts civil list independent of the General Court, fueled (with the help of Adams’ newspaper jeremiads) the public fear that there was something to the theory of a design against the liberties of Englishmen on the part of the ministers of George III: a sequence beginning in the colonies and working from them inward, toward the “decadent” population of the homeland. In February of 1768 a rump session of the Massachusetts House carried a resolution to send out a circular letter to other colonial legislatures. The new duties, Adams argued once more, were an entering wedge for tyranny, not merely a better method for regulating commerce. Placing colonial governors and judges out of the reach of assemblies was not a strategy for protecting the liberty of the subject. The Commissioners of Customs played into Adams’ hands. They lived well, were poor politicians and haughty in the exercise of their authority. Between 1766 and 1768 the Sons of Liberty had lost a little ground. But the mobs returned in March of 1768, restrained by Whig leadership, but threatening in their aspect, circling the houses of the King’s servants with howling and beating of drums. Finally, as a result of the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop Liberty and the application of writs of assistance, there was an explosion in June of 1768. The officers of His Majesty’s government called for troops, and four regiments of Regulars were dispatched. This decision on the part of Whitehall pushed Massachusetts much further down the road Adams hoped it would follow and brought to the Sons of Liberty the rural support they had not previously enjoyed.
Samuel Adams took advantage of the interval between the report that troops were coming and their arrival to press his opportunities and propose other incendiary measures. For one thing, he persuaded the docile Selectmen of the New Jerusalem to summon an ad hoc Massachusetts Convention, with delegates elected by all of the towns in the colony or by local committees. There is some evidence that Adams had hopes this assembly would fire the flames of armed resistance. But as he was careful not to allow the Boston Mohawks to alienate the tepid Whigs of the Middle Colonies and the South, so was he careful not to advocate open treason. His rhetoric spoke of France as well as honorable self-defense against violations of the Constitution. Adams invoked “the ancestorial spirit of Liberty” which had built the Puritan Commonwealth and connected the non-importation agreements with the “Good Old Cause.” Politics and religion, he knew by instinct, were a potent mixture. The boycott was soon in force. And if the Massachusetts Convention did not adopt the incendiary resolves he had hoped for, it was nonetheless a step toward self-government. Certainly it was not a sign of retreat—most particularly in view of the House’s refusal, just before the Convention was called, to withdraw the Circular Letter as Lord Hillsborough insisted.
Samuel Adams’ 1768 position on American rights was more advanced than it had been in 1764-1765. When the Redcoats marched ashore on October 1, 1768, they did so against Adams’ contention that the King’s ministry had no constitutional authority to quarter troops on the people of Massachusetts without an invitation from the General Court. Furthermore, they were there to intimidate a free people. This much he maintained against the letter of the hateful Quartering Act of 1765. He held further that colonial legislatures were subordinate, but not subject to Parliament; that the ancestral Constitution authorized all of these assemblies, and restrained them all in their own proper spheres of activity. Colonial legislatures were therefore called upon to guarantee the rights of Americans. If either Parliament or the American legislatures got beyond their authority, they would encounter the Constitution, thus “destroying their own foundations.” Furthermore, the Constitution, “fixed in the Law of Nature and of
God,” was not subject to any legislative authority. Out of this theory, supported by the conviction that the ends justify the means, Adams made his own leadership position stronger; and by writing and complaining about the conduct of the garrison (standing army), made the lives of the soldiers miserable and increased the prospect of violence between them and the citizens of Boston. In the papers, in England, in other American towns and in his own community, he distorted the truth concerning the plight of Boston. He took children to the Boston Commons to teach them to hate British soldiers, and even his dog, Queue, was trained to bite Lobster Backs. Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in the spring of 1770. But then it was too late. For on March 5, 1770, British troops fired on an unruly Boston crowd which was harassing them. Five men were killed in the episode, known since in history as the “Boston Massacre.”
Mr. Adams and Independence
In the gathering of forces and emotions which made for the American Revolution there was a deceptive pause between the fall of 1770 and spring of 1773. Troops were withdrawn from Boston and commerce with England was resumed. Sam Adams was in his glory in arranging for the first of these developments, but distressed by the second. Furthermore, there were quarrels between Adams and other Whig leaders who were not absolutely bent on independence. But the principal revolutionary of Boston did not relent. With the free-thinking Thomas Young, he founded the most radical newspaper in North America, the Massachusetts Spy. And they together, Puritan and Deist, kept up the flow of propaganda that followed from the town’s versions of what had happened in the Massacre—all ninety-six depositions, with unequalled fabrication and hatred beyond measure as standard components. Governor Thomas Hutchinson knew whereof he spoke in saying of Adams, “I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the King’s dominion or a man of greater malignity of heart, who less scruples any measure ever so criminal to accomplish his purposes.” Believing that there was no danger issuing from England, Adams contended, was the greatest possible threat to American freedom. With tales of atrocity, of trials following the Massacre and of the aftermaths of these trials of British soldiers, of relocations of the settings of the General Court, of Crown officers paid out of customs duties and of bishops to act over Zion, such laxity could be forestalled. For men are, he assumed, ruled more by fear or other emotions than by reason. And Sam Adams knew how to generate anger and fear.
During this period of hesitation, Adams did more than stoke the fires and wait. He continued to build and experiment with political structures spun off from his control of the Boston town meetings and his influence in the House of Representatives. The former body, on November 2, 1772 (and, once again, late in a session), gave him a strong Committee of Correspondence to “state the rights” of colonials “as men, as Christians, and as subjects; and to communicate the same to the several towns and to the world.” These committees on a limited basis had already functioned during the Stamp Act crisis and thereafter. Other colonies had experimented with them. But Adams had in mind something more like a political party than an information network. The 1772 committee was therefore different from its counterparts of November, 1770, and June, 1771, which were authorized by the Massachusetts General Court. On November 20, it adopted “The State of the Rights of the Colonists”—”life, liberty and property,” all “branches” of the “Duty of self-preservation, commonly called the First Law of Nature.” His appeal to “the law of nature” over Constitution and Charter took separation from one society and combinations in another as a matter of course. These resolutions were adopted by most of the Massachusetts towns; and thus the machinery and the theoretical grounds for revolution in part of America were put in place. Only a few additional provocations were needed to translate their combination into action. Thomas Hutchinson and Lord North provided several.
In January of 1773 Governor Hutchinson made a speech on constitutional questions to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay. In replying to the doctrine of Adams and the town meeting (and also to more conservative Old Whigs) Hutchinson insisted that there was no position between acceptance of “the supremacy of Parliament” and full commitment to American independence. Many moderate men were persuaded by his presentation that they were in better agreement with Sam Adams than they had thought. Later in the same year Governor Hutchinson’s 1767-1768 letters to a friend in England (letters which had come by accident into the hands of Benjamin Franklin) were read aloud in the General Court and then published. The Whigs (led by Sam Adams and John Hancock) discovered a plan for tyranny in every line, a determination to “subvert the constitution.” Then in the spring of 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act. The Boston Tea Party followed on December 16, 1773; and, during the same period, related disturbances occurred in other American ports. Adams, of course, spurred on the mob in Boston, concluding a speech in Faneuil Hall the night the Mohawks struck with the admonitory peroration, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” The Coercive Acts (especially the 1774 Boston Port Bill) brought the business to its completion. When the Massachusetts Charter was suspended and General Gage’s garrison settled in full control of Boston, when the Association was in force, the “Solemn League and Covenant,” Sam Adams’ career as a revolutionary was complete—except for a little persuasion in the Continental Congress. With the door of the House of Representatives locked against Gage’s messenger, thus preventing a premature conclusion of what was clearly to be its last session, Sam Adams was chosen in that June 17, 1774, meeting to be one of Massachusetts’ representatives in the new inter-colonial legislature scheduled to convene in Philadelphia. To protect his dignity as a leader of the delegation his friends bought him the clothes of a gentleman, gave him a good purse and then sent him with his colleagues “in a coach and four, preceded by two white servants who were mounted and arm’d, with four blacks in livery, two on horseback and two footmen.”
The problem of Sam Adams, his cousin John Adams, young Mr. Hancock and the other New England delegates who hoped for decisive actions was that most of Congress still hoped to avoid a complete break with England. Furthermore, the delegates from New York, Pennsylvania, and the Southern commonwealths did not trust their Yankee counterparts. Even Bostonians agreed that Sam Adams had “too great an Idea of the Virtue of the State of Massachusetts Bay.” Of the Northern members as a group, one adversary observed that they were “a parcel of canting, Hypocritical, peculating Knaves” who planned to replace the tyranny of the British government with a tyranny of their own. In this context Sam Adams was mindful of his own reputation as a violent democrat and did not push matters too far. Instead he got to know the Philadelphia radicals, kept quiet, encouraged the adoption of another embargo on trade, and seconded a motion that the Congress call for prayer by a well-known Episcopalian clergyman: “He was no bigot [which the Southerners thought that he was] and could hear a prayer from a gentlemen of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.” The Tory who had spoken of him as “possessing a great deal of caution and court cunning” knew his man well. Adams did not press for independence when he knew the effort would fail. Instead, back at home he arranged for and then in Philadelphia got approved the powerful Suffolk Resolves, which bespoke the mood of his community and put the colonies in a posture for defending themselves in war should British forces do anything aggressive beyond the confines of Boston. On April 18, 1775, when firing began at Lexington, he cried out, “Oh, what a glorious morning is this.”
The Suffolk Resolves, written by Adams’ young friend Joseph Warren, had spoken of military preparation for the gathering of an American army (if needed) and the necessity for cooperation with other Patriots in other colonies if Massachusetts Whigs were to survive as free men. The idea of cousin John Adams for insuring such mutuality, an adoption of the New England army around Boston by the Continental Congress, won Sam Adams’ reluctant concurrence. George Washington was no Cromwell, not part of “the company of the saints.” But the Southern general in command of the siege of Boston made the army surrounding the city a national force. John Hancock, presiding officer of the Congress, was offended at not being preferred to the Virginian, with an anger that was finally to cost Sam Adams much of his political influence. But, as we should remember, he was an ideologue only about American independence and, even about making that official, he could wait. “We cannot make Events,” he observed. “Our business is wisely to improve them.” The Olive Branch Petition upset John Adams more than it did Samuel. The latter busied himself in searching for a Loyalist spy in their midst and in urging his new Philadelphia friends to muzzle Joseph Galloway, the leader of conservatives in his state. But he knew that a declaration of independence would come. He voted for and signed it with a joy which ordinarily belongs only to authorship, and then played a part in the drafting and adoption of the Articles of Confederation. But at that point Sam Adams lost his way—his vocation. As one historian remarked, he was “expert at overturning governments” and knew little about rebuilding or operating them. In consequence there is very little pattern in his career after 1776.
Samuel Adams continued in the Continental Congress until 1781, though not as a great influence. Always suspicious of any concentration of power, he opposed building a large standing army and the granting of pensions to regular army officers. He was also against the creation of Departments of Finance, War and Foreign Affairs. Above all else, he feared the creation of a Caesar and wished to leave the militia outside of Washington’s command until a national legislature had been approved by the States. An authority on that period is of the opinion that “his caution in the organization of the revolutionary government was a drag on the prosecution of the war.” Much of his time in Philadelphia Sam Adams found tedious. He was outraged by the balls, fetes, theatricals and horse races, at luxury and profiteering—but he appeared ridiculous in communicating his strictures to the rest of the Congress.
The Revolutionary Turned Conservative
In the winter of 1779-1780 Samuel Adams joined with John Adams and James Bowdoin in drafting an instrument of government for the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Adams and Bowdoin deferred to the thoughtful John and allowed him to retain in the new law the fundamental principles of the old Charter government. But Samuel Adams wrote Article III of John’s constitution concerning the relations of the Congregational Church to other religions in the Godly Commonwealth: Samuel Adams’ modern biographer, John C. Miller, calls Article III “notably reactionary.” But it is perhaps better to read it as an effort at preserving the compromise of “plural” establishment —an arrangement which would continue to work rather well for another forty years. It is probably more surprising that Samuel Adams would accept so “undemocratic” a constitution than that he refused to equate “Freedom of religion with freedom from religion.” Property qualifications for the franchise and an upper house, with powers for a governor, did not offend against Adams’ version of the “rights of man.” For contrary to Tory propaganda, he was never an egalitarian, always spoke of “subordination” as “necessary to the purposes of government,” and thought “Utopian schemes of levelling and a community of goods” as bad as the tyranny of wicked monarchs. To a visitor from France he praised the new document as necessary “to check the human passions, and controul them from rushing into exorbitances.” About most things political, except destroying British authority, he was a reasonable man—especially when what Massachusetts wanted was not precisely what he had originally proposed.
Under the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 Sam Adams continued to have poor success in his effort to check the ambitions of his onetime disciple, John Hancock The younger man was easily elected governor of Massachusetts, and continued in that office from 1781 to 1785. But Adams was elected to a place in the Massachusetts Senate, and then chosen to be president of that chamber and/or member of the Council through 1788. As President of the Senate Sam Adams became a jealous defender of the special powers of that body—to the general distress of Bay State radicals. He wrote to one of his relations that luxury and easy wealth were “confounding every distinction between the poor and the rich.” He attacked the gathering of local ad hoc assemblies—the kind which had made him a power. And he declared of equality that he favored no more of it than was “consistent with the true design of government.” Adams promoted the conservative James Bowdoin in his 1785 campaign for the governorship. But when Bowdoin in 1787 went soft on the Shaysites, Samuel Adams complained, insisting that “the man who dares rebel against the law of a republic ought to suffer death.” Miller observes in his life of the old troublemaker that “he disapproved of revolutions when they were begun by other people.”
When the movement to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new and stronger bond between the states gathered serious momentum, Samuel Adams was hesitant. “He never ceased to doubt that the United States was too vast in extent and too divided by local differences to form a successful national government.” The attempt would result in “Mistrust, Disaffection to Government and Frequent insurrections, which will require standing armies to suppress them,” if not wars between the sections. Adams wanted an American policy on commerce to protect the trade of Massachusetts. But it was his settled opinion that “the population of the United States living in different climates, of different Education and Manners and possest of different Habits and Feelings under one consolidated government can not long remain free, or indeed remain under any kind of Government but despotism.” However, until after he had been elected delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention to be held in Boston starting January 9, 1788, he concealed his Antifederalist inclinations from the political leaders of the state. Then he revealed his mind concerning the proposed United States Constitution: “As I enter the building I stumble on the threshold. I meet with a National Government, instead of a Federal Union of Sovereign States.” But the Federalists outmaneuvered the aging firebrand, almost silencing Adams’ campaign for previous amendments before it began.
The means by which probable defeat for the Constitution in Massachusetts was converted into a narrow victory were several. First of all, Governor John Hancock (also an Antifederalist by disposition) was persuaded to avoid sitting in the ratification convention until he was certain of the outcome. He stayed home with a fit of gout. Then Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts’ Antifederalist delegate to the Great Convention, was brought into the ratification debates only to provide “information,” and was not allowed to speak to the question before the house. Finally a great caucus of mechanics and tradesmen which voted unanimously for Paul Revere’s resolution urging ratification was held at the Green Dragon. Adams, under such political restraint, raised only a few questions in the debates; and the Antifederalists, therefore, floundered, even though they had enjoyed a large majority when the session began. Hancock was flattered by a delegation which mentioned his prospects for a presidential nomination and induced him to decide for ratification, with recommended amendments attached. Then (with no alternative available) Samuel Adams was persuaded to second Hancock’s motion. Resistance collapsed; and on February 7 Massachusetts voted in the affirmative. Old Samuel, though he was weary and saddened by the recent death of his son, had however one trick left. Late in the proceedings, on Wednesday, February 6, he offered a motion for even more amendments than “those reported by the committee.” This motion was in violation of what had been agreed in a secret meeting that followed Hancock’s capitulation. When it failed to pick up enough support to shift “the balance of power,” he withdrew his extra amendments designed to safeguard personal liberty and diminish the power of government. But as one bright young Federalist recognized, Adams had “almost overset the apple-cart.” His strategy had been to tell the confused delegates in the convention what was wrong with the Constitution by telling them what changes were needed. But it came too late, and under unfavorable circumstances. Nevertheless, the men of “energetic government” knew how close they had come to defeat.
With the new government in place, Samuel Adams made a race for a Boston seat in the House of Representatives against young Fisher Ames, the most formidable spokesman for Massachusetts Federalism in the just concluded ratification convention. Adams was painted by the Federalists as a spoiler, not a reformer—as one bent on injuring the new Union before it had been fairly tested. Although his own posture was as a defender of the republicanism of the Revolution, he was beaten badly. The old dividing lines were reforming. Soon Hancock left the Federalist camp and reunited with his original mentor to promote him for the office of Lieutenant Governor. This time (1789) Sam Adams as Antifederalist was elected, and served in his state’s second-highest office until October 8, 1793, when Governor Hancock died and Samuel Adams, at 71, inherited the job which he had made difficult for so many other men.
Adams’ final years in the political arena as part of the old-fashioned republican organization built by Hancock threw him once more into sharp opposition with the “friends of authority,” the members of the centralizing party in charge of the young republic. Inside that dialectic Adams announced himself a friend to the French Revolution and attended dinners honoring French achievements. He was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1794, 1795, and 1796. Whenever English arms suffered a reverse, Adams called for a parade. He anticipated a league of “Tyrant Kings [organized] to exterminate those rights and liberties which the gracious Creator has granted to Man.” But his own life, finally (thanks to his son’s estate) was comfortable. Yet he was plain, and as Governor kept to the company of plain men, old comrades from the South End, with a few young Jacobins thrown in for spice. Of course, he scandalized the Federalists who finally used French atheism and egalitarianism to discredit in Boston the view that 1776 and 1789 amounted to the same thing. When Boston mobs rioted for six days against Jay’s treaty, protesting its pro-British bias, Governor Adams refused to protect order and property since these tumults were “only boys’ water melon frolics.” Governor Adams, in 1796, ran as a presidential elector opposed to his cautious “Cousin John”—and was easily defeated. Once and for all he was out of step with the new commercial and conservative spirit of all classes of men in his city. Hence he decided not to run for office again. Now the problem of his people was “what to do with liberty, and not with how to acquire it.” To grim solitude, palsy and frustration he therefore returned and, after six troubled years, died at the age of eighty-one in his ordinary little house on Winter Street. There were playhouses and private schools in Boston; and he could do nothing about them.
Despite his central role in bringing our nation into being, Samuel Adams has had the worst reputation of any of the major figures of the era of the American Revolution. He was (and is) so little praised because, in the words of a recent biographer, he “preached and practiced hate to a degree without rival, and in turn. . . was suspected and hated like no others, and by his former Whig associates more than by Tories.” In his old age one bright Boston lawyer spoke of Adams as the “baleful comet” of Massachusetts politics. The flaming image is appropriate. For the austere Samuel Adams was the preceptor of those American politicians who, in subsequent generations, could not put their opponent in the wrong without consigning him to hell. Even Melville’s Ahab, that other great monomaniac, had “his humanities.” But not the Yankee Cato, the first great Son of Liberty. Yet it is also to be remembered that, unlike most of the sour revolutionaries of history, Samuel Adams sought nothing for himself when his victory was achieved. Most of his adult earnings had come from public service—as Justice of the Peace, Clerk of the House of Representatives, and Secretary of the General Assembly. When he died, he left an estate of only $17,000. Neither was there any vanity hidden in this fierce heart. It is therefore proper that he was buried in the Granary Burying Ground, among the Saints, close by where “old Endicott lies.”
Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1987).
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John C. Miller, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960)
Pauline Maier, “A New Englander as Revolutionary: Sam Adams,” pp. 3-50 of The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980)
Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-1908), 4 vols.; James K. Hasner, Samuel Adams (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1898)
Kenneth B. Umbreit, “Samuel Adams,” pp. 175-199 of Founding Fathers: Men Who Shaped Our Tradition (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1969)
Clifford K. Shipton, “Samuel Adams,” pp. 420-465 of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Volume X: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes, 1736-1740 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1958)
Norman K. Risjord, “Samuel Adams, Pure Republican,” pp. 19-36 of Representative Americans: The Revolutionary Generation (Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Co., 1980)
Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941)
Charles W. Akers, “Sam Adams—and Much More,” New England Quarterly, XLVII (March, 1974), 120-131; Stewart Beach, Samuel Adams: The Fateful Years, 1764-1776 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965)
Ralph Volney Harlow, Samuel Adams: Promoter of the American Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1923)
William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1865)
Richard 0. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970)
James M. O’Toole, “The Historical Interpretation of Samuel Adams,” New England Quarterly XLIX (March, 1976), 82-96; Stephen E. Patterson, Political Parties in Revolutionary Massachusetts (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973).
The featured image is a portrait of Samuel Adams (circa 1772), by John Singleton Copley, is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.