Samuel Adams: A Life
by Ira Stoll
Free Press. 339 pp. $28.00
Thomas Jefferson called Samuel Adams “truly the Man of the Revolution.” In the words of his second cousin John, Adams was “zealous, ardent and keen in the Cause.” “For depth of purpose, zeal, and sagacity,” said Jefferson, “no man in Congress exceeded, if any equaled, Sam. Adams.” And yet, asks Ira Stoll, “if Adams was so instrumental in achieving American independence and so influential even afterward, why then has his fame faded so badly with time?”
This is a fair question, especially at a time when Adams’s name is known largely to the public as a brand of beer, and lives are being published of such dubious founders as Luther Martin. Stoll, who was managing editor of the late, lamented New York Sun, furnishes some plausible answers. Adams left comparatively little in the way of a written record, has been condemned in some quarters as an apostle of insurrection, and never held national office. Little about Adams would appeal to Americans of later generations: he was neither an ingenious “inventor-founder” like Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin or a prophet of the industrial state like Alexander Hamilton. Too religious, too little interested in material reward, distant from the fighting in the field, associated with no single document or pronouncement, Samuel Adams seems to hover at the periphery of the founding.
This is, as Stoll suggests, a little unfair. It is also not quite accurate. Adams has been a subject of numerous biographers since his death in 1803, and his statue—“a statesman incorruptible and fearless”—stands before Faneuil Hall in Boston. Attitudes toward Adams have evolved with time, it is true, but historians of the Revolution and the founding of the Republic have always given Adams his due. The fact that he enjoys no great popular esteem in the 21st century is unfortunate, perhaps, but hardly unique to him. One might just as usefully ask why there is no great marble temple in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the memory of Hamilton or Franklin or James Madison, architect of the Constitution.
Two conclusions might be plausibly drawn from this thorough, admirable biography. One is that Samuel Adams was not a particularly appealing individual, and the other is that his contribution to American independence, a signal event in the history of ideas, was not especially profound.
Samuel Adams (1722-1803), the Harvard-educated son of a successful brewer and civic elder in Boston, was what we would now call an “activist”—an agitator, propagandist, organizer, and lobbyist—but his cause was not so much philosophical as attitudinal. He favored independence for the colonies, most especially his own colony of Massachusetts, not because he believed in any particular doctrine of government or definition of natural rights but because he chafed at British rule. His prayer for deliverance from troops quartered in rebellious precincts is typical: “May God preserve the Nation from being greatly injured if not finally ruin’d by the Vile insinuations of wicked men in America.”
No doubt, there are a thousand reasons for the slow mid-18th-century evolution toward American independence. But the growing size, prosperity, and self-consciousness of the colonies, combined with their considerable distance from Great Britain, made conflict inevitable. The British, like most imperial governors in history, were reluctant to meet their North American possessions on equal terms. The colonists, resident on the continent for a century and a half, claimed the rights of British subjects while resisting the increasing cost of British rule. Parliament in London considered it reasonable to tax the colonists for the expense of defending them against the French and Indians, and Americans have always resented the imposition of levies from a distant capital. Finally, the drift toward rupture in the 1760’s was accelerated by the heavy hand—the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Act (1767)—of the new monarch George III and his ministers, as well as by what might be called an American predisposition to rebel.
This is where Adams’s influence was unmistakable. Like many revolutionaries, he was something less than a success in life who found his calling in radical politics. His father had attempted to set him up in business, but Adams had neither the aptitude nor the interest in finance to avoid failure. To earn a living, he finally settled on the unlikely, and deeply ironic, sinecure of tax collecting—there is a psychological dimension here that Stoll leaves unexplored—but even at this Adams was dangerously inattentive. What appealed to him was public agitation against British rule, and as an exponent of direct action and inflammatory journalism he excelled. While the Virginia planters and Pennsylvania financiers agonized and ruminated, the descendants of nonconformist exiles in Massachusetts were ready to act.
There is no consensus on Adams’s culpability, if any, in the events that resulted in the 1765 destruction of the residence of the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson—which, among other acts of vandalism, left Hutchinson’s books and papers destroyed or scattered in the mud. Adams deplored such violence in general terms but was otherwise guarded in his comments. He fully approved of the sacking of the home of the Boston tax master, Andrew Oliver, that same year. On March 5, 1770, a series of confusing confrontations between a mob and nervous Redcoats guarding royal property resulted in five colonists shot to death; Adams baptized that incident “the Boston Massacre.”
From here through his membership in the Continental Congress, his signature on the Declaration of Independence, and his contribution to the 1780 Massachusetts constitution may be seen Adams’s role as the “Man of the Revolution.” Where others might have sought conciliation with the crown, or caviled at the prospect of armed confrontation with Britain, Adams saw the situation simply and clearly. His desire for the cause of political independence, combined with his particular zeal to break away from London, was keen and unadulterated by doubt. The Revolution would have occurred without him, of course, but the machinery of events was propelled by his action and rhetoric.
After Yorktown, the balance of his life was anticlimactic. It is difficult to assess, two centuries later, the reasons for Adams’s descent into provincial obscurity. He was a signatory of the Articles of Confederation, but the Articles failed and Adams reluctantly assented to a Constitutional Convention. He had hoped to be elected governor of Massachusetts under the Articles, but there was no particular public clamor for his services. Seeking a seat in Congress, he failed to win one. In the 1790’s, now an elderly man, he campaigned for lieutenant governor on the coattails of John Hancock, was elected—and succeeded to the governorship when Hancock died in 1793, serving four years. When he died, at eighty-one, his friends worried that his memory would be “basely forgotten.”
Presumably, his friends knew something we can only infer: that Adams’s appeal to his countrymen, even to his fellow citizens of Massachusetts, was limited. He was merely a man of action on a local scale, and an ephemeral journalist. He seems also to have been something of a temperamental misfit. In his later years he was prone to complain (as aging warriors tend to do) about the state of the world he had survived to inhabit. He disapproved of the gathering speed of American commerce and the vulgar side of American democracy—thereby showing the instincts of a lifelong Puritan, still resonant today in New England.
Stoll is intent on emphasizing Samuel Adams’s faith, and the case for Christianity as an animating factor in the Revolution. That case is not airtight. True, even in the midst of the Enlightenment, the culture of colonial America was suffused with religion—the language of the Bible, John Bunyan, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the established church in Virginia, the identification of Puritans with the ancient Israelites—in ways we cannot wholly comprehend today. Writes Stoll: “The comparison of the American struggle for freedom to the Jews’ exodus from the slavery of Egypt was never far from Adams’s mind.” The forms of religion, however, should not be confused with their substance.
It is not surprising that the founders would employ Christian imagery and rhetoric, but this does not necessarily translate into “faith” as we moderns understand the term. And religion, in Adams’s case, was also a two-edged sectarian sword. He held advanced views on the status of women, and thought Indians could be educated. But like any New England Protestant of his time, he abhorred and reviled Roman Catholicism, and like any Congregationalist, was agitated at the prospect of the Church of England appointing bishops in the Anglican colonies.
Which makes Sam Adams, as Stoll eloquently explains, a human in our history as complex as any, a mixture of the reverent and subversive, the banal and sublime, of exactly the sort revolutions require.