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Samuel Adams: At a Glance

Updated on December 27, 2016
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J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

The Basics

Serving as a Boston tax collector, orchestrating the Stamp Act Riots of 1765, exercising control of the Boston Mob and it’s “inflamed political passions,” Adams made a career of organizing American resistance to the British government during the American Revolution. Adams was fervently attached to the rights of his Massachusetts home, and believed a Calvinist virtue in which God leads man toward progress would lead the American patriots to a victory and independence from England. Considered to be “one of the original democrats,” and the “instrument of a changing world that was to transfer sovereignty from the aristocratic minority to the Democratic majority” by historian James O’Toole, Adams wished to turn America into an ideological “Christian Sparta” through revolution, by means of his understanding of the incitement of mob violence, manipulation of public opinion, and the art of manufacturing public opinion through propaganda as a master of Whig agitation. Adams was a grand incendiary in search of the establishment of a “new climate in America,” as he opposed political equality, stating that government should never attempt enforcement of “utopian schemes of leveling.” From his time as a Harvard student of the class of 1740, to his death in 1803, Adams prepared for a social battle in the American Colonies, amidst a European climate of revolution in France,[1] and established himself as a master political strategist of the young nation.[2]

Adams was the son of a Boston brewer, becoming active in his Boston community by becoming the leader of the Boston town meeting, and a clerk of the Massachusetts Assembly. An avid supporter of the Sons of Liberty, Adams became a spokesman for Boston in an attempt to remove British ships from Boston Harbor after the Boston Massacre. Serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress and signing the Declaration of Independence, Adams’ career climaxed in 1776, although his impact has been long echoing through American history, as Thomas Jefferson called him “truly the man of the revolution.” Adams served as president of the Massachusetts State Senate, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor of Massachusetts, due to what historian Paul Maier contends was his respectability derived from former service, not his ability to “mingle with politicians of a later period, whose views must necessarily be more comprehensive and whose object was to restrain rather than to give a lose to popular feelings.” Many early historians have portrayed Adams as a troublemaker and a “master” at government sabotage, yet one who revered virtue and exalted patriotism. Adams was thought to stoop to low and unsavory levels in the name of public good to persuade his contemporaries to seek independence from the crown.[3]


[1] James O'Toole. "The Historical Interpretations of Samuel Adams" The New England Quarterly, Vol.49, No.1 (March 1976) pp. 83-93.

[2] Parrington, Vernon. Main Currents in American Thought, (NY, 1927) p.233.

[3] Maier, Paul. "Coming to Terms with Samuel Adams" The American Historical Review, Vol.81, No.1 (February 1976) pp. 12-24.

Revolution and Independence

As James Rivington asserted, Adams had a "Machiavellian streak in his character" used towards the interest of the public good. Maier contends that "Samuel Adams was the first to seek American independence” is a myth that has evolved over the centuries as historians with poor citations and uncredible sources have used Samuel Adams as a means of suiting revolutionary war ideology to suit their own contemporary political agendas. The idea of independence was "discussed by both English and American writers long before the 1770s." Maier contends that instead Adams was an early and perhaps the first revolutionary to establish the idea of independence as their immediate goal. Adams expressed his fears that "jealousy between mother country and the colonies" arisen from the Stamp Act crisis could lead to the "ruin do the most glorious empire the sun ever shone upon" and that independence was an increasingly likely outcome of the Revolutionary War. Disillusioned with parliament and ministry to the king, Adams maintained the belief that private self-interest should remain secondary to "public liberty and happiness." At a meeting preceding the Boston tea party, Adams stated that by simply meeting, the colonists could do "nothing further to save this country." Adams felt that all peaceful means of payment of the newly imposed English tea duty of 1773had been exhausted, thus warranting a justified destruction of property through the Boston Tea Party. Adams was one of the first Americans willing to identify himself with the role of "politician" which Adams believed to be an inherently vocational position of liberty truth, and virtue in which "temperance, frugality, and fortitude" and self sacrifice were necessary to benefit the cause of the community of "virtuous people." Adams was one of the most prolific writers of the revolutionary era, and has been labeled as a man of “quintessentially” and “genuinely” revolutionary in character by historians spanning the centuries since the Revolution.[1] Through his propaganda, Adams degraded his enemy with words to sway the American colonists towards the Revolutionary cause. As stated by historian Clifford Shipton, Adams “preached hate to a degree without rival.”[2]

According to William Appleman, Adams "became a revolutionary because he was a Calvinist dedicated to the idea and the reality of a corporate commonwealth."[3] Samuel Adams held a firm belief in self-sacrifice for the public good, stating that "in monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death." Adams considered a plea for truce after Shays Rebellion to be unreasonable, and was resultantly paranoid and fearful of what historian William Pencak calls "the demise of the republic." Adams considered Shays Rebellion to be treasonable and "subversive" to the state's constitution, on the basis that Americans no longer needed county conventions due to changing political circumstances in the colonies, because the creation of constitutional governments dependant upon free annual elections removed the need for such meetings. Adams acknowledged that such meetings had served their purpose, stating

County conventions and popular committees served an excellent purpose when they were first in practice. No one therefore needs to regret he may then have had them. But, that as we no have constitutional and regular governments and all our men in authority depend upon the annual and free elections of the people, we are safer without them. To say the least, they are become useless. If the public affairs are illy conducted, if dishonest or incapable men have crept unawares into government, it is happy for us that under our American constitutions the remedy is at hand, and in the power of the great body of the people. Due circumspection and wisdom at the next elections will set all right, without the need for any self-created conventions or societies of men whatever.[4]

Adams did not share Alexander Hamilton’s fear that a majority with power would oppress a minority, instead feeling that a representative government established by the revolution would solve the problem of representation faced by the colonists under English rule. Shays Rebellion was perceived by Adams not as a simple struggle between east and west or of law and order, but instead as what Pencak calls a "crucible in which would be decided forever the fate of the world's only contemporary experiment in free government." Adams felt the farmers uprising was a treasonable offense, which he portrayed as an uprising against the new nation instead of as a limited protest conducted by citizens of that nation discontented with their new government. In doing so, Adams hoped to prevent a triumph of the rebels, fearing that a rebel success would destroy the new nation and terminate republican government in America. Adams felt that because a government had been established in which "all authority is from the people," the laws established by those people must be obeyed. The rebellion was not a legal means through which Adams felt to be an acceptable redress of grievances, whereas he condoned an appeal to the legislature. Adams often commented on the "state of nature" the nation would revert to if the majority did not remain in power, in which civil liberties were rejected, and an inevitable monarchy plagued with despotism and warfare would form. In Adams’ view, if the Shays Rebellion was not put down and the government failed to repress the insurgency, the republic would be dissolved and the constitution would be rendered null and void, calling Shays Rebellion a "wicked and unnatural rebellion."[5]

[1] Ibid., 25-37.

[2] Clifford Shipton. "Samuel Adams" Harvard Graduates, (Boston, 1958) 10, P.463.

[3] William. Appleman, "Samuel Adams: Calvinist, Mercantilist, Revolutionary" Studies on the Left, (1960) pp.50-52

[4] William Pencak, "Samuel Adams and Shay's Rebellion" The New England Quarterly, Vol.62, No.1 (March 1989) pp.63-66.

[5] Ibid., 67-72.

Sources

Appleman, William. "Samuel Adams: Calvinist, Mercantilist, Revolutionary" Studies on the Left, (1960) pp.50-52.

Maier, Paul. "Coming to Terms with Samuel Adams" The American Historical Review, Vol.81, No.1 (February 1976) pp.12-37.

O'Toole, James. "The Historical Interpretations of Samuel Adams" The New England Quarterly, Vol.49, No.1 (March 1976) pp.83-93.

Parrington, Vernon. Main Currents in American Thought, (NY, 1927).

Pencak, William. "Samuel Adams and Shay's Rebellion" The New England Quarterly, Vol.62, No.1 (March 1989) pp.63-74.

Shipton, Clifford. "Samuel Adams" Harvard Graduates, (Boston, 1958) 10, P.463.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to my husband, for enabling my historical research adventures!
Special Thanks to my husband, for enabling my historical research adventures!

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