Born September 27, 1722
Died October 2, 1803
Political leader, governor of Massachusetts, brewer, publisher
Samuel Adams was a leading organizer of the independence movement in Massachusetts and the other American colonies that culminated in the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States of America. Though he was an outstanding writer, speaker, and planner, he kept himself so far in the background that historians have found it difficult to determine the total scope of his contributions to the birth of the nation.
Samuel Adams was the son of a generous beer brewer, also named Samuel, and Mary Fifield Adams, his religious wife. Mary Adams passed her Puritan beliefs on to her three children—Samuel, his older sister Mary, and younger brother Joseph. A well-mannered, heavyset boy, Samuel Adams had dark blue-gray eyes, heavy eyebrows, and a large head. At the Boston Latin School, he learned to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. Throughout his life his friends and family called him Samuel; only strangers and people who were making fun of him referred to him as "Sam."
Adams's dislike for the British government began in his childhood, when England ruled the colonies. The Adams's house was the meeting place of a group called the Caucus Club. The members of the Caucus Club sought more political power for the colonists, and young Adams was encouraged to take part in its discussions.
In 1736 Samuel Adams entered what is now Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1741, when Adams was eighteen, British-appointed governor John Belcher declared illegal the land bank founded by the elder Samuel. The Adams family lost all their money, and Adams had to take a job as a waiter to pay his way through college. Adams did not take kindly to this injustice, and this strengthened his belief that the governor held too much power over the colonists.
Marries, becomes tax collector
Adams earned a Master of Arts degree in 1743, at age twenty-one, and went on to an unsuccessful career in the field of accounting. The friend of his father who had employed young Samuel told the older man that his son seemed to take no interest in the business. Then Samuel's father gave him a large sum of money to start a new business. But the young man lent half of it to a friend, never asking to be repaid, and frittered away the rest. Samuel gained a reputation for being unable to make or hold on to money. He preferred to spend his time discussing how America must become independent of England.
Accounts of the time describe Adams as about five feet six inches tall, with a large head, dark eyes, and a musical voice. Adams had no interest in fashion and wore shabby clothing and shoes. His real interests lay in politics. In 1747 Adams and several friends began the Whipping Post Club, a political organization that published a newspaper, The Public Advertiser, written largely by Adams. Its self-proclaimed purpose was to "defend the rights… of working people." Samuel sharpened his skills as a writer and became well known as a defender of colonial rights.
In 1748 Adams's father died, and he became responsible for taking care of his mother and the family brewing business. Samuel Adams married his first wife, Elizabeth Checkley, in 1749. They had six children, but only young Samuel and Hannah survived to adulthood. Over the years, Adams's neglect of the family's once-successful brewing business led to its decline. The family was happy despite being rather poor.
Adams was appointed Boston commissioner of garbage collection in 1753, and in 1756 was elected one of five tax collectors for the city. Though he did a poor job demanding unpaid taxes, the popular Adams was reelected and held the post of tax collector for the eight years that followed.
Remarries, begins patriotic work
In 1757 Elizabeth Adams died, a few weeks after giving birth to a baby that died at birth. The following year Adams nearly lost the house he had inherited from his father because he was unable to pay the debts he had also inherited.
In 1764 Adams married Elizabeth "Betsy" Wells, the daughter of a family friend. Betsy loved her kind but financially unsuccessful husband. Sometimes she had to accept food and secondhand clothing from concerned neighbors. Though Adams was not financially savvy, he was very knowledgeable when it came to politics. By 1765 Adams had become known as a speaker who stirred up political resistance to England through speeches in taverns and at informal meetings around Boston.
Colonists oppose Stamp Act
During the 1760s money conflicts arose between England and the American colonists. From 1754 to 1763 American colonists had aided England in the French and Indian War, in which France and its Indian allies fought against England over who would control North America. After England won the war in 1763, its flag flew over Canada and a vast area east of the Mississippi River. England was faced with a huge war debt, however, and the British believed that the colonists should help to pay for the war.
In March 1765 the British government passed the Stamp Act, which required colonists to buy stamps and place them on most paper documents and products. The shocked colonists thought that England should be grateful to them for helping win the war. Instead, Americans were being punished with taxes. Later that year Adams was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. To protest the Stamp Act, he began a successful campaign to halt the sale of any British-made goods in Massachusetts. In time the campaign spread to the other colonies. Adams and his supporters hoped that big money losses would turn British merchants against their own government.
Adams works to end the Stamp Act
Adams went around Boston persuading working people to join the Sons of Liberty, an organization he had founded to fight for American rights. The group, which eventually numbered three hundred, sometimes engaged in disruptive activities that the British considered illegal. For that reason, Adams stayed away from the group's public gatherings, although everyone in Boston knew he was its head. Adams preferred to stay in the background, writing articles and organizing demonstrations.
In May 1766 word reached Boston that the Stamp Act had been repealed by the British at the urging of British merchants whose businesses had been suffering. All of Boston celebrated what would prove to be a short-lived victory.
Increases efforts to defy British
In 1767 the British placed new taxes on lead, glass, paint, paper, and tea, items widely used in the colonies. Adams spoke out against "taxation without representation." He said that Parliament, England's law-making body, had no right to tax Americans because the colonists had no representation in Parliament. Massachusetts's law-making body then adopted the Massachusetts Circular Letter, an appeal for the colonies to oppose all new taxes. Copies were sent to all the colonies. A wave of sometimes-violent protests soon broke out throughout the land, especially in Boston.
British officials in America demanded that England send troops to help keep the peace. In the summer of 1768, redcoats (British soldiers, who wore red uniform coats) arrived in Boston. When the citizens of Boston refused to find places to house them, they marched to Boston Common, the popular public park, and set up their tents. By several months later, the number of redcoats had swelled to three thousand, quite a large number in a town of sixteen thousand people. Settled in for the winter, they had very little to do but hang about. Boston residents found their presence increasingly annoying and tensions continued to rise.
In 1768 Adams started a newspaper, the Journal of Events, which voiced his opposition to British rule. Throughout his lifetime, Adams wrote letters to newspapers, using a variety of pen names. He wrote stories about redcoats beating up "innocent" citizens and attacking young women. Although most Boston readers knew many of his stories were overstated, they were reprinted throughout the colonies, and many people outside Boston accepted them as truth.
Publicizes Boston Massacre, loses popularity
On March 5, 1770, a violent encounter took place between a group of Boston men and boys and some British soldiers, resulting in the death of five patriots and the wounding of others. Bostonians demanded that the eight redcoats be placed on trial. Adams surprised his supporters by arranging to have his cousin, John Adams see entry, and Josiah Quincy, two well-respected American lawyers, defend the British soldiers in court.
Why did he do this? Some people believe that he thought death sentences for these British soldiers were a certainty, but his gesture would show England that Bostonians could be just and fair-minded people. In the end, none of the British soldiers was found guilty of murder. Six were found not guilty, and two were found guilty of manslaughter (killing of a human being without any bad intent), a charge less than murder, and were punished by being branded on their thumbs. In his diaries, John Adams wrote of his second cousin, Samuel: "He is a Man of stedfast Integrity, exquisite Humanity, genteel [learning],… engaging manners, reason as well as professed [devotion to religion], and a universal good character."
Adams named the bloody battle between the British soldiers and the patriots the "Boston Massacre" and publicized the story. He and a group of townspeople succeeded in their demands that the British-appointed governor, Thomas Hutchinson, order all British soldiers out of Boston.
On April 12, 1770, the British Parliament did away with all colonial taxes except the tax on tea. Within a few years, even Boston voted to end the boycott of most British goods, except tea. A boycott is a refusal to buy, sell, or use certain products from a particular person, company, or country, usually for a political reason. Adams continued to send letters to newspapers calling for American independence. Some people, who now felt secure from further unfair treatment by the British, began calling him and his ideas "old-fashioned."
Nonetheless, Adams kept working. At his request, the town of Boston appointed a Committee of Correspondence to state the rights of the colonists and publicize them throughout the colonies. In a short time, many such letter-writing networks were set up, and the move toward colonial unity advanced.
Tax rebellion continues
Years went by, and the colonists continued to boycott British tea. In 1773, with a large quantity of unsold tea piling up, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act. It cut the price of British tea for Americans in half, while still keeping a tax on tea. The British believed wrongly that having tea and saving money would prove more important to the colonists than their concerns about taxation without representation. Instead, the Tea Act made the colonists furious. At public protests, Americans pledged not to purchase any English tea. As word spread of England's latest attempt at taxation, Adams became fashionable again, and his letters to newspapers throughout the colonies were widely quoted.
The British went forward with their plan to supply the colonies with tea. In December 1773 three ships loaded with containers of tea entered Boston Harbor. Members of the Sons of Liberty were posted at the dock to make sure that none of the tea came ashore. On December 16, at a Boston town meeting, more than seven thousand citizens decided to make a final request that the ships and their cargo be sent back to England. British officials refused.
The Boston "Tea Party"
A group of forty or fifty men, disguised as Native Americans to protect their identities, went to Boston's dock area. Crying "Boston Harbor a teapot tonight!" they boarded the ships by torchlight and dumped about 340 chests of tea (which would be worth nearly $100,000 today) into Boston Harbor. Adams, who had helped plan the protest, called it "the grandest event which has ever yet happened since the controversy with England opened."
Other such "tea parties" took place throughout the American colonies in 1774. Parliament punished the Americans through a series of measures the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. They barred all ships from entering the harbor until Boston paid for the lost tea. The people of Boston were placed under the command of a military governor, General Thomas Gage see entry, and his soldiers. Citizens were forced to house and feed the soldiers out of their own pockets, and town meetings were outlawed.
Adams worked hard to convince the other colonies that Boston's punishment was a blow to all of them. With Boston Harbor closed, little food could come into the city. Other colonies came to the rescue by sending food over land to Boston. For the first time in colonial history, people seized on the idea of forming a congress made up of representatives of all the colonies.
First Continental Congress
The idea of a congress grew like wildfire. Adams was one of those chosen by the Massachusetts House of Representatives to represent Massachusetts at the congress, which met for the first time on September 5, 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The main order of business was to decide what to do about the conflict with England.
While some, like Adams, wanted to see a complete change in the government, others, such as George Washington see entry of Virginia, wanted to make only minor and gradual changes. The majority of the representatives sought a middle ground. Some delegates from the southern colonies feared that those from Massachusetts wanted to take over the country. Other delegates thought that only the wealthy and well educated should be in charge of the government. Many delegates feared independence because it might ruin the established system of trade and cause rivalries to break out among the different colonies. Instead of breaking ties with England, they wanted to find a way to restore good relations with the mother country. Realizing it was too soon to talk of independence, Adams said little during most of the First Continental Congress.
The representatives at the Congress approved a series of measures that demanded the repeal of the Tea Act. Although
they hoped to avoid war, the congress also urged the colonies to prepare for war, just in case it occurred, by training soldiers and gathering food and supplies. Delegates adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances (complaints) and promised to come to the aid of Massachusetts if it were attacked. The First Continental Congress agreed to forbid importation of British goods or the slaves they sought to sell, the use of any already imported British goods, and the export of goods to England. All counties, cities, and towns were to have committees of correspondence to ensure that these policies were carried out. Delegates hoped their united efforts would force England to restore their liberties.
King orders arms seizures
The First Continental Congress ended on October 16, 1774, after the participants agreed to meet again in May of the following year if the British failed to restore the colonists' rights. Adams returned to a Massachusetts now controlled by the Sons of Liberty; only the town of Boston remained under British control. Adams knew that the colony was on the brink of war but urged his men to remain cautious because the time was not yet right for war.
Early in 1775, after he heard the demands of the First Continental Congress, King George III of England proclaimed Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. He ordered soldiers to seize all firearms and gunpowder that were in the hands of the colonists and to arrest all rebel leaders. Redcoats searched Boston for hidden cannons. Fearing that he and his men might be arrested and hanged, Adams fled with his fellow patriot, John Hancock (see entries), to Lexington, Massachusetts.
On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere see entry made his famous ride through the countryside of Massachusetts. He stopped at the home where the two men were hiding to warn them that the British were on their way to arrest them. Later Adams wrote about the battles of Lexington and Concord and "the shot heard round the world."
Congress meets; Adams does war work
Adams and Hancock made their way to Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress met beginning on May 10, 1775. Armed conflict had occurred only weeks before between the British and the colonists at Lexington and Concord. But there was still a great deal of disagreement among the colonists as to whether or not they should declare their independence from England.
The congress formed a committee to write the Articles of Confederation, which would be the blueprint for a new American government. Though he was a member of the committee, Adams spent most of his time trying to persuade other delegates to vote for independence. He also encouraged the formation of a Continental army. After more than a year's efforts, Adams succeeded in getting George Washington named its commander-in-chief. Adams was among the fifty men who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marking the birth of a new nation.
During the early part of the Revolutionary War, Adams served as chairman of the Committee on the State of the Northern Army, even though he had no military experience. In 1777 he became ill and went home to Massachusetts to recover. Adams returned to Philadelphia in early 1779 to join the Continental Congress. He returned to Boston in mid-1779 to find his family living in poverty because their home had been taken over by British soldiers. Adams, who was earning no money for his efforts on behalf of independence, could not help them.
In 1779 and 1780 Samuel Adams worked with his cousin, John Adams, and others to write the Massachusetts State Constitution, which became law in 1780. Soon after, Adams ran for the new office of First Secretary of Massachusetts, but he lost. He then went to work to help raise money from the various states to support the Continental army, which was seriously short of funds.
In 1781 Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, where he served for several years as president, earning a small salary. He used money he had inherited from his family to purchase the Peacock Tavern and forty acres of land in a town outside Boston. The tavern business provided him an income of $1,000 per year, greatly improving his family's living conditions.
Serves in Massachusetts's government
On September 3, 1783, the United States and England signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War with victory for the United States. In 1787 a new U.S. Constitution was written, and in 1788 Adams was among the representatives who passed it. Adams argued for a bill of rights to be attached to the constitution, guaranteeing such basic rights as freedom of religion and freedom of speech. In 1791 the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1789 Adams was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and served for four years. Upon the death of Massachusetts governor John Hancock in 1793, seventy-two-year-old Adams became the governor. Adams held the post until 1797, putting in long hours each day. When George Washington retired from the U.S. presidency after two terms, Adams ran for the office, capturing the fifth-highest number of votes. He lost to his cousin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson see entry, who were elected president and vice president.
Adams retired from public life in January 1797. For the next several years he relaxed with his family, although people continued to seek him out and ask for his advice. He enjoyed looking back at the time of the revolution. He died on October 2, 1803, in Boston. Although Adams had requested a simple ceremony, he was given an elaborate funeral. Throughout Boston shops were closed, bells were rung, cannons were fired, and flags were flown at half-mast. Adams was buried at Boston's Old Granary Burying Ground. For centuries, visitors have gone there to pay their respects to the founding father whom Thomas Jefferson once called "the Man of the Revolution."
For More Information
Farley, Karin Clafford, and James P. Shenton. Samuel Adams: Grandfather of His Country. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1994.
Fradin, Dennis. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Fritz, Jean. Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974.
Miller, John C. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Boston: Little, Brown, 1936.
Peabody, James Bishop, ed. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words. New York: Newsweek Books, 1973.
Phelan, Mary Kay. The Story of the Boston Tea Party. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.
Adams, Samuel (1722-1803)
Samuel Adams (1722-1803)
The Famous Adams. When John Adams arrived in France in 1778, he was greeted with a persistent question: was he “le fameaux Adams?” John Adams often bristled at the attention paid to others in the Patriot cause, such as James Otis, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. But in 1778 he acknowledged that he was not the famous Adams; that was his cousin, Samuel, leader of the Massachusetts Patriots, and the only American whom King George III exempted from a promise of amnesty. “If the American Revolution was a blessing, and not a curse,” John Adams wrote later, “the name and character of Samuel Adams ought to be preserved. It will bear a strict and critical examination even by the inveterate malice of his enemies.... His merits and services and sacrifices and suffering are beyond all calculation.”
Education. Samuel Adams was born in Boston on 27 September 1722. His father, Samuel, a successful brewer, had served as a deacon of both the Old South Church and New South Church and as a Boston selectman and representative to the assembly. Samuel’s mother, Mary, was deeply religious, influenced by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Only three of their twelve children survived infancy. Samuel and his sister and brother were kept away from the influence of other children, instead instilled with deep feelings of personal responsiblity and isolation. At the age of fourteen Samuel entered Harvard. With class rank determined by a family’s social position, he was ranked fifth in a class of twenty-two. At graduation (1740) he won the class debate on the subject of liberty, and in 1743 he was awarded a master’s degree for his thesis “Whether It Be Lawful To Resist The Supreme Magistrate, If The Commonwealth Cannot Be Otherwise Preserved.”
Entrance to Public Life. Adams studied for the bar briefly and then went into business. He was not a good businessman, and he quickly went bankrupt. His father paid off his debts and established Samuel as the manager of the brewery, which had grown so successful it needed little management. Father and son now had more time to devote to politics. In 1746 Governor Shirley vetoed the senior Adams’s appointment to the Governor’s Council, elevating Andrew Oliver instead. Young Samuel regarded this as an insult, and on 4 June 1746 he was elected by a special town meeting to fill Oliver’s seat in the assembly. In his annual report Shirley reported to the king that the elder Adams, whom he said was a gentleman of great ability, was disgruntled by the veto of his appointment, but the younger Adams’s “indefatigable zeal” made him more dangerous.
Political Career. In January 1748 Adams launched a newspaper, the Independent Advertiser, which he would publish until British authorities shut it down in 1775. The Advertiser was devoted entirely to politics, and Samuel Adams wrote most of the material, including the letters to the editor. His political position from the 1740s to the 1770s remained consistent: Massachusetts, or any political society, should be free to govern itself. These political essays attracted few readers, and the Advertiser never had a wide circulation. His father’s sudden death in March 1748 left Samuel Adams responsible for the family brewery and other interests, and his brother and brother-in-law, better businessmen, handled most of the financial affairs. Political activity paid little, and Samuel Adams was not attentive to the businesses his father had left him. Adams spent most of his time talking, either with members of the Caucus Club, the leaders of Boston’s business and political communities, or with the sailors and longshoremen who spent long hours in waterfront taverns. Adams would forget everything when he had a chance to talk politics, but if the conversation veered in another direction, Adams would leave in disgust. In 1749 he married Mary Checkley, the daughter of the New South pastor, with whom he had five children, two of whom survived infancy. Politics consumed Samuel Adams, and neither family nor business could distract him. The children especially suffered when Mary Checkley Adams died from a fever in 1757.
Political Passion. When his father died, Adams had been elected to the Caucus Club, a political group whose members were able to dominate the Boston town meeting. Because few men had the time to pay close attention to civic affairs, and few were willing to devote the hours necessary to attending such meetings, a handful of organized men were able to control the town meeting. In 1753 the town meeting elected Samuel an assessor, and in 1756 he was a Boston tax collector; but Adams was so lax in collecting taxes that in 1758 the sheriff gave notice that on 5 August his property, including his house and gardens, the brewery, a wharf, and several apartment buildings, would be auctioned off to pay Adams’s outstanding debts. The day of the auction Adams responded with a public letter to the sheriff, threatening to sue anyone who took his property. He and the sheriff conducted a newspaper argument over the auction, which never took place. By 1765, when he was finally removed as tax collector, he had failed to collect more than £8,000 that was owed by his fellow citizens.
Breach with England. Though Adams devoted himself almost completely to politics, his career by 1764 had taken him nowhere. He was in debt; the house and businesses his father had left him were in ruins; and he seemed not the least concerned. In 1764 he married Elizabeth Wells, who was twenty years his junior. They would have no children, but Elizabeth would become responsible for the care of his son and daughter. Along with James Otis and John Hancock, Adams was one of the leaders of the group opposed to Thomas Hutchinson, but Hutchinson continued to rise in power while Adams, Otis, and Hancock were shut out. The Sugar Act, though, changed this. Hutchinson opposed the Sugar Act, but merely because it was unwise. For Adams the Sugar Act raised the same issue he had been writing about for twenty years: the right of the people of Massachusetts to govern themselves. Adams’s long days and nights in political gatherings had also given him a new outlook on politics. Most opponents of the Sugar Act, wealthy merchants, expressed opposition in letters to men of influence in England. For Adams political action meant something more dramatic than writing letters. He would use mass protests against the political establishment, using public opinion, rather than private intrigue, to make policy. Parliament repealed the Sugar Act before Adams could completely bring his political theories into practice, and even his allies believed he had tried to carry things too far.
Stamp Act and Aftermath. But in 1765, when Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Adams was prepared with a campaign of massive public resistance. Able to mobilize both the merchant elite and the men of the lower orders, able to articulate the cause with both passion and eloquence, Adams became the leader of resistance. He was elected to the assembly in September and prepared both the House’s answers to the governor’s speech and resolutions asserting American rights. In 1766 the radical faction that looked to Adams as a leader took control of the assembly, and from 1766 until General Gage dissolved the assembly in 1774, Adams was its clerk. Adams used his position as spokesman for the House to harass every British official sent to the province. The colonial assemblies, Adams insisted, were not subject to Parliament. The colonial assemblies had the exclusive power to guarantee the natural and constitutional rights of Americans. These principals, Adams insisted, rested on the British Constitution, which was not, as English practice made it, subject to Parliamentary whim; instead, according to Adams, the British Constitution embodied the inherent and inalienable natural rights of men, which no legislative body could limit.
Committees of Correspondence. In 1770 the assembly appointed a committee of correspondence, of which Adams was a member, to keep in contact with other colonies. In 1772 Adams, as leader of Boston’s town meeting, moved that the town appoint a committee of correspondence to “state the rights of the Colonists ... as men, as Christians, and as Subjects; and to communicate the same to the several towns and to the world.” Adams drafted its declaration and privately urged other towns to form similar committees. When the British government in Massachusetts collapsed following the Boston Tea Party, these committees became the province’s new government. When the British government closed the port of Boston, Adams called for an intercolonial Congress to unite all the colonies in opposition to British policy. Adams was chosen to the first Continental Congress, and he may have been the only delegate already thinking of independence. Before he left for Philadelphia, friends provided him with new clothes and a wig; while he was gone, other local supporters built a new barn and repaired his dilapidated house. Adams refrained from an active part in Congress’s debates, but he used his influence in small informal meetings, successfully convincing the delegates to adopt the militant Suffolk Resolves and repudiate Joseph Galloway’s plan for a colonial union under Parliamentary rule. Returning to Massachusetts, Adams narrowly escaped arrest when Gage’s forces attacked Lexington and Concord, and in 1776 he returned to Congress publicly advocating independence. He signed the Declaration and continued to serve in Congress until 1781.
Covering his Tracks. His cousin John was the great speaker and public organizer; but Samuel Adams was the influential figure behind the scenes. As such, it is harder to trace all of his influence, but Adams is visible in the results. The committees of correspondence had operated with a large degree of secrecy; the planning for the Boston Tea Party also had to be done with great discretion since destroying the tea would be considered an act of treason. John Adams asked many years later, “The letters he wrote and received, where are they? I have seen him ... in Philadelphia, when he was about to leave Congress, cut up with his scissors whole bundles of letters into atoms that could never be reunited, and throw them out the window, to be scattered by the winds. ... In winter he threw whole handfuls into the fire.... I have joked him, perhaps rudely, upon his anxious caution. His answer was, ‘Whatever becomes of me, my friends shall never suffer by my negligence.’”
Later Years. Adams, more than any other man, was responsible for independence, and more importantly, he was responsible for the particular causes for independence. Franklin believed that the colonies ultimately would be independent because of their demographic and geographic destiny; Adams believed the colonies would need to be independent because all men had the inalienable right to govern themselves. From 1746 until the end of his life he advocated this simple idea; and though his ideas found warm support in Boston after 1764, and in the rest of the United States after 1776, he, as an admirer said, was an austere and distant man, feared by his enemies, but too secret to be loved by his friends. Once independence was declared, leadership passed to other hands, including those of John Hancock, whom Adams did not entirely trust. Adams continued to be active in Boston politics, continuing to lead the town meeting. In 1788 he served in the Massachusetts ratifying convention though his only son died as it met. At first he opposed the new Constitution since it created a distant government that the people would not be able to control. He was defeated for election to the first Congress under the Constitution, but he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1789, serving in that post until 1794, when he became governor on the death of Gov. John Hancock, serving in that office until 1797. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson wrote to Adams, “I addressed a letter to you, my very dear and ancient friend, on the 4th of March [the day Jefferson became president]; not indeed to you by name, but through the medium of my fellow citizens. ... In meditating the matter of the [Inaugural] address, I often asked myself, Is this exactly in the spirit of the patriarch Samuel Adams? Will he approve of it?” After Adams’s death on 2 October 1803 he was given a state funeral against his wishes, and members of the Massachusetts legislature and of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate all wore mourning bands in his memory for the duration of the year.
Paul Lewis, The Grand Incendiary: A Biography of Samuel Adams (New York: Dial Press, 1973).
The colonial leader Samuel Adams (1722-1803) helped prepare the ground for the American Revolution by inflammatory newspaper articles and shrewd organizational activities.
Afundamental change in British policy toward the American colonies occurred after 1763, ending a long period of imperial calm. As Great Britain attempted to tighten control over its colonies, Adams was quick to sense the change, and his invective writings at first irritated and finally outraged the Crown officials. As a prime mover in the nonmilitary phases of colonial resistance, Adams undoubtedly pushed more cautious men, such as John Hancock, into leading Whig roles. However, his service in the Continental Congress and as a state official lacked political finesse. Once the struggle shifted from a war of words to one of ideas and finally of military encounters, Adams's influence declined.
Samuel Adams was born on Sept. 27, 1722, in Boston, Mass., the son of a prosperous brewer and a pious, dogmatic mother. When he graduated from Harvard College in 1740, his ideas about a useful career were vague: he did not want to become a brewer, neither did work in the Church appeal to him. After a turn with the law, this field proved unrewarding too. A brief association in Thomas Cushing's firm led to an independent business venture which cost Adams's family £1,000. Thus fate (or ill luck) forced Adams into the brewery; he operated his father's malt house for a livelihood but not as a dedicated businessman. In 1749 he married Elizabeth Checkley.
When his father suffered financial reverses, Adams accepted the offices of assessor and tax collector offered by the Boston freeholders; he held these positions from 1753 to 1765. His tax accounts were mismanaged and an £8,000 shortage appeared. There seems to have been no charge that he was corrupt, only grossly negligent. Adams was honest and later paid off the debts.
Adams's wife died in 1757 and in 1764 he married Elizabeth Wells, who was a good manager. His luck had changed, for he was about to move into a political circle that would offer personal opportunity unlike any in his past.
Growth in Politics
Adams became active in politics, and politics offered the breakthrough that transformed him from an inefficient taxgatherer into a leading patriot. As a member of the Caucus Club in 1764, he helped control local elections. When British policy on colonial revenues tightened during a recession in New England, passage of the Sugar Act in 1764 furnished Adams with enough fuel to kindle the first flames of colonial resistance. Thenceforth, he devoted his energies to creating a bonfire that would burn all connections between the Colonies and Great Britain. He also sought to discredit his local enemies—particularly the governor, Thomas Hutchinson.
Enforcement of the Sugar Act was counter to the interests of those Boston merchants who had accepted molasses smuggling as a way of life. They had not paid the old sixpence tax per gallon, and they did not intend to pay the new threepence levy. Urged on by his radical Caucus Club associates, Adams drafted a set of instructions to the colonial assemblymen that attacked the Sugar Act as an unreasonable law, contrary to the natural rights of each and every colonist because it had been levied without assent from a legally elected representative. The alarm "no taxation without representation" had been sounded.
During the next decade Samuel Adams seemed a man destined for the times. His essays gave homespun, expedient political theories a patina of legal respectability. Eager printers hurried them into print under a variety of pseudonyms. Meanwhile Parliament unwittingly obliged men of Adams's bent by proceeding to pass an even more restrictive measure in the Stamp Act of 1765. Unlike the Sugar Act, this was not a measure that would be felt only in New England; Adams's audience widened as moderate merchants in American seaports now found more radical elements eager to force the issue of whether Parliament was still supreme "in all cases whatsoever." In one of many results, Governor Hutchinson's home was nearly destroyed by a frenzied anti-Stamp Act mob.
Adams's hammering essays and unceasing activities helped crystallize American opinion into viewing the Stamp Act as an odious piece of legislation. Through his columns in the Boston Gazette, he sent a stream of abuse against the British ministry; effigies of eminent Cabinet members hanged from Boston lampposts testified to the power of his incendiary prose. Adams rode a crest of popularity into the provincial assembly. As calm returned, he knew that the instruments of protest were developed and ready for use when the next opportunity showed itself.
The Townshend Acts of 1767 furnished Adams with a larger and more militant forum, projected his name into the front ranks of the patriot group, and earned him the hatred of the British general Thomas Gage and of King George III. Working with the Caucus Club, the radicals overcame local mercantile interests and demanded an economic boycott of British goods. This nonimportation scheme became a rallying point throughout the 13 colonies. Though its actual success was limited, Adams had proved that an organized, skillful minority could keep a larger but diffused group at bay. Adams worked with John Hancock to make seizure of the colonial ship Liberty seem a national calamity, and he welcomed the tension created by the stationing of British troops in Boston. Almost singlehandedly Adams continued his alarms, even after repeal of the Townshend duties.
In the succession of events from the Boston Massacre of 1770 to the Boston Tea Party and the Bill, Adams deftly threw Crown officials off guard, courted the radical elements, wrote dozens of inflammatory newspaper articles, and kept counsel with outspoken leaders in other colonies. In a sense, Adams was burning himself out so that, when the time for sober reflection and constructive political activity came, he had outlived his usefulness. By the time of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, when he and Hancock were singled out as Americans not covered in any future amnesty, Adam's career as a propagandist and agitator had peaked.
Adams served in the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1781, but after the first session he occupied himself with gossip, uncertain as to what America's next steps should be or where he would fit into the scheme. He failed to perceive the forces loosed by the Revolution, and he was mystified by its results. While serving in the 1779 Massachusetts constitutional convention, he allowed his cousin John Adams to do most of the work. Tired of Hancock's vanity, he let their relationship cool; Hancock's repeated reelection as governor from 1780 on was a major disappointment. Against Daniel Shays's insurgents in 1786-1787, Adams shouted "conspiracy," showing little sympathy for the hard-pressed farmers.
As a delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention in 1788, Adams made a brief show as an old-time liberal pitted against the conservatives. But the death of his son weakened his spirit, and in the end he was intimidated by powerful Federalists. He was the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts from 1789 to 1793, when he became governor. As the candidate of the rising Jeffersonian Republicans, he was able to exploit the voter magnetism of the Adams name and was reelected for three terms. He did not seek reelection in 1797 but resisted the tide of New England federalism and remained loyal to Jefferson in 1800. He died in Boston on Oct. 2, 1803.
Harry Alonzo Cushing edited The Writings of Samuel Adams (1904-1908). Ralph V. Harlow, Samuel Adams, Promoter of the American Revolution: A Study in Psychology and Politics (1923), is a brave attempt at interpretive analysis. John C. Miller, Sam Adams, Pioneer in Propaganda (1936), is readable and reliable. An older standard work is William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (1865). Stewart Beach, Samuel Adams: The Fateful Years, 1764-1776 (1965), is a useful study. Philip Davidson, Propaganda and the American Revolution, 1763-1783 (1941), and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776 (1958), provide background information. □
ADAMS, SAMUEL. (1722–1803). Radical patriot, political agitator, master propagandist, Signer. Massachusetts. Born in Boston on 27 September 1722 to a wealthy real estate speculator and brewery owner, Adams rose from relative obscurity in 1765 with the Stamp Act crisis, and fell from eminence as one of the chief figures of the Revolution when Congress got down to the business of constructive statesmanship after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But during the decade that intervened, Samuel Adams was "truly the Man of the Revolution," as Thomas Jefferson called him.
Adams graduated from Harvard in 1740, and almost immediately went bankrupt on his first business venture. He then joined his father in the family brewery, which he inherited on his father's death in 1748. A short time later Samuel's mother died, and he found himself in possession of a considerable estate. Within ten years, however, he had dissipated this inheritance. Fortunately, his political activism earned him an appointment as Boston's tax collector, which position he held from 1756 to 1764. Adams proved as inept at tax collecting as at business, ending his tenure in office with £8,000 in arrears. With this record of failure in managing his own affairs, the 42-year-old Samuel Adams stepped onto the stage of history to manage the American Revolution.
Adams's failures did not hinder his political career, and he became the leading opponent of the elite running the Massachusetts government. In 1764 and 1765 Adams was selected to draft instructions to Boston's representatives, who were protesting British tax policies. In September 1765 he was elected to the State House and almost immediately wrote the legislature's response to a speech by Governor Francis Bernard. In this response, Adams formulated one of the key Patriot doctrines by insisting that only the people's representatives have a right to pass taxes.
Between 1766 and 1774 Adams became the leader of the State House in its ever increasing opposition to British rule. Adams led the successful effort to recall Governor Francis Bernard, and then aimed his political artillery at Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Adams organized the opposition against the Townshend Acts, helped form the Non-Importation Association of 1768, and drafted two famous "Circular Letters," one sent to the assemblies of other provinces and one which the "Convention" of the Patriot party held in Boston in 1768. Previously he had sparked the formation of the Sons of Liberty. As Thomas Hutchinson, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, wrote: "I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the King's dominion."
Adams worked during the early 1770s to set up a Revolutionary organization. On 2 November 1772, the Boston Town Meeting, on his motion, appointed "a committee of correspondence … to state the rights of the Colonists and of this Province in particular, as men, as Christians, and as Subjects; and to communicate the same to the several towns and to the world." Adams had already written to the towns about this project; now he urged them to follow Boston's lead. In this matter he may be credited with initiating revolutionary government in Massachusetts and sowing the seed in the other colonies. His next triumph was the Boston Tea Party, 16 December 1773. Though Adams opposed the use of violence, he encouraged and may have helped organize the crowd that expressed their political frustration in an inventive act of violence against property. He took the lead in opposing the Intolerable Acts (1774). Learning that other colonies were unwilling to adopt nonintercourse measures independently, Adams concluded that an intercolonial congress was an "absolute necessity." On 17 June 1774 he moved that the Massachusetts House of Representatives appoint delegates to such a congress. This resolution was adopted, and he was chosen one of the five representatives. Unlike most members of the Continental Congress, Adams favored immediate independence. He proposed a confederation of colonies, supported the resolution that independent state governments be formed, and supported adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Though Adams fell from a leadership position once independence was declared, he continued his active involvement in the revolutionary cause. Most notably, he served on the overworked Board of War, chaired by his second cousin John Adams, from 1775 until he left Congress in 1781. Along the way, Adams became involved in a number of intrigues, often disrupting the work of Congress.
Adams left Congress concerned that the United States was on a path toward founding its own empire. His lifelong fear of centralized power led him to oppose the Constitution and kept him active in Massachusetts politics until 1797. After losing an election to serve in the new Congress in 1788, Adams became lieutenant governor in 1789, and governor upon John Hancock's death in 1793, serving until his retirement in 1797. Adams did not extend his support of radicalism to those who opposed the state government, calling for the execution of those who took part in Shays's Rebellion. Adams died in 1803.
Cushing, Harry A., ed. The Writings of Sam Adams, 4 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1968.
Maier, Pauline. The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
Miller, John C. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
Born: September 27, 1722
Died: October 2, 1803
American colonial leader
The colonial leader Samuel Adams was an influential figure in the years leading up to the American Revolution (1775–83). His newspaper articles and organizational activities helped inspire American colonists to rebel against the British government.
Early life and education
Samuel Adams was born on September 27, 1722, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of a woman of strong religious beliefs and of a prosperous brewer who was active in local politics. For this reason Adams was familiar at a young age with Boston politics and politicians. As an adult he would play a strong role in Boston's political resistance to British rule.
The young Adams studied Greek and Latin in a small schoolhouse. He entered Harvard College at age fourteen. When he graduated in 1740 he was not sure what his career should be. He did not want to become a brewer like his father, nor did he want to enter the clergy. Although his father loaned him money to start his own business, Adams did not manage his funds well. As a result he went to work for his father's brewery after all. In 1749 he married Elizabeth Checkley.
For serveral years Adams struggled in his career. He worked as a tax collector in Boston, but he mismanaged funds and had to pay the difference when his accounts came up short. There seems to have been no charge that he was corrupt, only extremely inefficient. After his first wife died in 1757, he married Elizabeth Wells in 1764. Adams's second wife turned out to be a good manager. His luck had changed, for he was about to move into a political circle that would offer political opportunities unlike any in his past.
Adams became active in politics, transforming himself from an inefficient tax gatherer into a leading patriot. As a member of the Caucus Club, one of Boston's local political organizations, Adams helped control local elections in 1764. When Britain began an attempt to tighten control over its American colonies by passing laws such as the Sugar Act (1764), Adams was influential in urging colonists to oppose these measures. The Sugar Act was a tax law imposed by the British aimed at increasing the prices Boston merchants paid for molasses. Urged on by radicals in the Caucus Club, Adams wrote instructions to local representatives attacking the Sugar Act as an unreasonable law. Adams argued that the law violated colonists' rights because it had not been imposed with the approval of an elected representative. He argued that there should be "no taxation without representation."
During the next decade Adams wrote essays about political ideas that were developing in Boston. Eager publishers hurried his writings into print. Meanwhile the British Parliament passed an even harsher tax law than the Sugar Act. This tax law was the Stamp Act of 1765, which placed a tax on printed materials throughout the American colonies.
Adams's fiery essays and continual activities helped solidify American opinion against the Stamp Act. His columns in the Boston Gazette newspaper sent a stream of abuse against the British government. Riding a wave of popularity, Adams was elected into the Massachusetts legislature.
Adams's next move was to protest the Townshend Acts of 1767, which placed customs duties on imported goods. His stand against the Townshend Acts placed him in the front ranks of the leading colonists and gained him the hatred of both British general Thomas Gage (1721–1787) and England's King George III (1738–1820). To protest the Townshend Acts, Adams and other radicals called for an economic boycott of British goods. Though the actual success of the boycott was limited, Adams had proved that an organized and skillful minority could effectively combat a larger but disorganized group.
In the series of events in Massachusetts that led up to the first battles of the Revolution, Adams wrote dozens of newspaper articles that stirred his readers' anger at the British. He appealed to American radicals and communicated with leaders in other colonies. In a sense, Adams was burning himself out. By the time of the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 17, 1775, which marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War, his career as a revolutionary bandleader had peaked.
Adams served in the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1781. However, after the first session his activities lessened and his ties to other leaders cooled. He was uncertain about America's next steps and where he would fit into the scheme. Adams served in the 1779 Massachusetts constitutional convention, where he allowed his cousin, John Adams (1735–1826), to do most of the work. He attended the Massachusetts ratifying convention in 1788, but he contributed little to this meeting.
Although his political power had lessened, Adams served in political office for several more years. He was the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts from 1789 to 1793, when he became governor. He was reelected for three terms but did not seek reelection in 1797. Samuel Adams died in Boston on October 2, 1803.
For More Information
Alexander, John K. Samuel Adams: America's Revolutionary Politician. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Fradin, Dennis B. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Jones, Veda Boyd. Samuel Adams: Patriot. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.