Adams, Samuel (1722–1803)

views updated

ADAMS, SAMUEL (1722–1803)

Samuel Adams was one of the greatest leaders of the american revolution whose career flourished during the long struggle with Great Britain. His strength was in Massachusetts state politics; he was less successful as a national politician. His speeches and writings influenced the shape of American constitutional thought.

Adams's political career began in 1764 when he wrote the instructions of the Boston town meeting to Boston's representatives in the legislature. These included the first formal denial of the right of Parliament to tax the colonists: "If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?"

The next year he was elected to the legislature and assumed leadership of the radical popular opposition to the governing clique headed by thomas hutchinson. Adams maintained that he was defending not only the rights of British colonists but also the natural rights of all men: "The leading principles of the British Constitution have their foundation in the Laws of Nature and universal Reason.… British rights are in great measure the Rights of the Colonists, and of all men else." Adams led the opposition to the Stamp Act and the townshend acts. He denounced these acts as unconstitutional, since they involved taxation without representation.

In the massachusetts circulation letter of 1768 Adams wrote of constitutions in general that they should be fixed and unalterable by ordinary legislation, and that under no constitution could subjects be deprived of their property except by their consent, given in person or by elected representatives. Of the British Constitution in particular he argued that, although Parliament might legislate on imperial matters, only the colonial assemblies could legislate on local matters or impose special taxes.

When the British government landed troops at Boston, Adams published a series of letters denouncing as unconstitutional the keeping of a standing army in peacetime without the consent of the people of the colony. "The Americans," he wrote, "as they were not and could not be represented in Parliament, were therefore suffering under military tyranny over which they were allowed to exercise no control."

In the early 1770s, Adams worked to create a network of committees of correspondence. In November 1772, on behalf of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, he drafted a declaration of the rights of the colonists. In three sections it proclaimed the rights of Americans as men, as Christians, and as British subjects. A list of infringements of those rights followed, including the assumption by Parliament of the power to legislate for the colonies in all cases whatsoever and the grant of a royal salary to Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the judges in Massachusetts.

In January 1773 Hutchinson, addressing the legislature, argued for acceptance of the absolute supremacy of the British Parliament and asserted that there was no middle ground between unqualified submission and independence. Samuel Adams, along with john adams, drafted the reply of the Assembly, arguing anew that under the British Constitution the colonial legislature shared power with Parliament.

Samuel Adams was an early proponent of a Continental Congress, and in June 1774 he was elected to the First Continental Congress. There he played a key role in the adoption of the association. In the Second Continental Congress he moved, in January 1776, for immediate independence and for a federation of the colonies. In July 1776, he signed the declaration of independence.

Adams remained a member of the Continental Congress until 1781. He was a member of the original committee to draft the articles of confederation. Suspicious of any concentration of power, he opposed creation of the executive departments of finance, war, and foreign affairs. In 1779–1780 he was a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention, which produced the first of the Revolutionary state constitutions to be ratified by popular vote.

Throughout the Revolutionary period Adams was a staunch supporter of unified action. When, in 1783, a Massachusetts convention was held to plan resistance to congressional enactment of a pension for army officers, Adams, who had opposed the pension, defended Congress's right to pass it and spoke out against those who would dishonor the state's commitment to pay continental debts.

In 1787, after shays ' rebellion had broken out, Adams, then president of the state senate, proposed to invoke the assistance of the United States as provided in the Articles of Confederation, but his motion failed in the lower house. Later, opposing the pardon of the rebels, he argued that there is a crucial difference between monarchy and self-government and that any "man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."

Adams was not named a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1787, but he was influential at the Massachusetts ratifying convention: "I stumble at the threshold," he wrote to richard henry lee, "I meet with a national government, instead of a federal union of sovereign states." He was troubled by the division of powers in the proposed federal system, which constituted " Imperia in Imperio [supreme powers within a supreme power] justly deemed a Solecism in Politicks, highly dangerous, and destructive of the Peace Union and Safety of the Nation." Ironically, he echoed the argument of his old enemy Hutchinson that sovereignty was indivisible. But, after a meeting of his constituents passed a resolution that "any vote of a delegate from Boston against adopting it would be contrary to the interests, feelings, and wishes of the tradesmen of the town," Adams altered his position. In the end he supported a plan whereby Massachusetts ratified the Constitution unconditionally but also proposed a series of amendments, including a bill of rights.

Adams was defeated by fisher ames for election to the first Congress. Thereafter, although he remained active in state politics as a legislator and governor (1794–1797), he never again sought or held national office under the Constitution.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Maier, Pauline 1980 The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York: Knopf.

Miller, John C. 1936 Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Boston: Little, Brown.

Wells, William V. 1865 Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams…With Extracts from His Correspondence, State Papers, and Political Essays. Boston: Little, Brown.

About this article

Adams, Samuel (1722–1803)

Updated About content Print Article