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Who was Samuel Adams?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Adams was born in Boston on Sept. 27, 1722, the son of Samuel Adams, a prosperous businessman, and Mary Fifield Adams. Like his second cousin John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States, Samuel was descended from Henry Adams, who emigrated from England to Massachusetts in the 1630's.

At 14, Samuel Adams entered Harvard, where his mind was fired by John Locke's treatise Of Civil Government. Adams later was to become a principal American spokesman of Locke's doctrine that every citizen was endowed with "natural rights" of life, liberty, and property; that a ruler could not take property from his subjects-tax them without their consent. Adams insists that the taxing power rested with the provincial assembly.

Adams graduated from Harvard in 1740 and won a master's degree there in 1743. His father tried to make a merchant of him, but Samuel had no head for business. Politics was his passion. His early political offices in Boston included that of tax collector (1756-1765). The experience proved nearly disastrous. He fell greatly in arrears in his collections because of his poor business sense and a province-wide financial depression. In this period Adams married twice: in 1749 to Elizabeth Checkley, who died in 1757, leaving him with two small children; and in 1764 to Elizabeth (Betsy) Wells, who bore no children.

Stamp Act Agitation

By 1763, Adams was a member of the secret and powerful Caucus Club, through which a small group of Boston's leaders controlled the decisions of the Town Meeting. In 1764 he was charged with the task of writing instructions to Boston's representatives in the Assembly. At this point, shifting British policy brought about Adams' emergence as an outstanding patriot leader. Since their founding, the colonies had lived under virtual home rule. The Massachusetts legislature voted the salaries of crown officials and judges and levied taxes. Parliament fixed duties on imports but had never otherwise tried to tax the Americans. In 1765, however, the Stamp Act was passed, requiring the purchase of "stamped paper" for every business and legal transaction. Samuel Adams led the angry outcry in Massachusetts against this form of taxation. Boston rioted, and Adams instructed the representatives to ignore the act.

In September 1765, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. From the outset he drafted state papers and thus came into conflict with Gov. Francis Bernard, an Englishman, and with Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, who was American-born but a staunch Tory. In 1766, Adams helped the radical patriots win a majority in the House; the radicals excluded five conservatives from the Council, one of them being Hutchinson. Adams himself was reelected to the House that year and represented Boston continuously until 1774, serving also as clerk of the House. During these years of radical ascendancy, Adams was the chief radical spokesman.

Boston Tea Party

Parliament exacerbated the situation in May 1773 when it gave the faltering East India Company a monopoly of the tea trade in America and the right to use consignees of their choice instead of the regular merchants. When three ships carrying tea arrived in Boston, Hutchinson (now governor) refused to order them to return to England with the tea, as Adams and his followers demanded. Late in the afternoon of December 16, as Adams presided over a mass town meeting, word arrived of Hutchinson's final refusal. Adams announced, "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country". At this signal, 50 to 100 men, thinly disguised as Indians, boarded the ships and dumped the tea into the harbor, the famous Boston Tea Party.

Britain's answer was the Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts (1774), the first of which closed the Boston port. Troops were sent, and the provincial capital was removed to Salem. When the Assembly met there in June 1774, Adams kept the chamber locked to prevent the governor from dissolving the legislature before representatives could be elected to the First Continental Congress. Adams was among those chosen.

Independence and After

In September 1774, Adams highly approved the adoption of the "Suffolk Resolves", which placed Massachusetts in virtual rebellion. He helped win endorsement of these resolutions by the Continental Congress. Elected to the Second Continental Congress, he avoided arrest by British troops and returned to Philadelphia (May 1775). He voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Adams sat in Congress until 1781, when he returned to Boston to take his place in the state Senate. While he remained active in politics for many years, his influence diminished: the great goal of his life had been accomplished in Philadelphia in July 1776. Adams was a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention (1779-1780). He ran for Congress in 1788 but was defeated. As a member that year of the convention called to ratify the federal Constitution, Adams initially stood in opposition, although ultimately he lent his support. A rift with John Hancock was healed, and in 1789, as Hancock's running mate, he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. When Hancock died in 1793, Adams became governor. Subsequently elected to the governorship, he served until 1797, when the aging "man of the Revolution" retired from public life. He died in Boston on October 2, 1803.

Townshend Acts Struggle

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 but the next year passed the Townshend Acts, which established import duties on paint, paper, glass, and tea. Again Adams led the opposition. He helped organize the merchants in the Nonimportation Association and wrote the "Circular Letter" to other colonial assemblies, attacking British policy. British troops were sent to Boston in 1768 to maintain peace. Adams' fiery protests enkindled popular hatred of the troops in Boston. Periodic clashes occurred, and on the night of March 5, 1770, a mob baited soldiers on duty at the customhouse. At length the soldiers fired, killing three men and wounding others, two of whom later died. This "Boston Massacre" had one much-desired effect: Adams led a delegation to Hutchinson, demanding that the troops be moved from the town. Reluctantly Hutchinson gave the order.

The Townshend duties were soon repealed, although the tax on tea was retained. The colonists' resentment of British policies now abated, but Adams wrote inflammatory newspaper articles warning his compatriots that their liberties were being imperiled. By keeping the controversy alive, Adams made a signal contribution to the coming Revolution. In 1772 he learned that crown officers and judges were to receive salaries from customs revenues. This, he insisted, was unconstitutional. He prevailed on the Boston Town Meeting to appoint a "committee of correspondence" to formulate the colonists' rights and to communicate them "to the several towns and to the world".


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    • Hubography profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      First of all, I hardly think a tax collector was an innocent man. Indeed they had a job to do, but they certainly enjoyed it.

      Having said that, 200+ years ago was hard times. What people did for life and liberty we can easily judge in the comfort of the present.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      "Samual Adams is a man who enforced violence against the Britsh. He encouraged colonists to tar and feather innocent men who were just doing thier jobs as tax collectors."

      This is a slander, brought about by having a television series view of history. There is no evidence at all that Samual Adams was present at any tar and feathering incident or that he encouraged them to occur. Quite the opposite, as a leader of the Whigs, he was likely along with other Whig leaders at the time to have been at the forfront of discouraging and denouncing the practice.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Samual Adams is a man who enforced violence against the Britsh. He encouraged colonists to tar and feather innocent men who were just doing thier jobs as tax collectors. I am an american but I do not think Sam Adams is a favorite founding father of mine. I am a John Adams fan, who by the way did not agree at all with Sams violence.

    • Bibowen profile image

      William R Bowen Jr 

      10 years ago

      Thanks for writing this hub on Sam Adams. Enjoyed reading it. He is one of my favorite of the founding fathers.


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