Samuel Adams

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Strategically placed in Boston, the center of resistance to British colonial policies, Adams was one of the most significant organizers of the American Revolution.

Early Life

Samuel Adams’ American ancestry began with Henry Adams, who emigrated from Devonshire, England, to Quincy, Massachusetts, in the early seventeenth century. One branch of the family included John Adams, who became second president of the United States. Samuel Adams’ grandfather was a sailor, Captain John Adams. His father, Samuel Adams, Sr., lived his entire life in Boston, operating a malt house, or brewery, and was an active member of the old South Church in Boston. He was also active in local politics, establishing the first of the Boston “Caucus Clubs,” which played a vital role in the early upheavals of the Revolutionary period.

Samuel Adams, then, was born into an active and influential civic-minded Boston family. He grew up with a familiarity with and keen interest in local politics and knew most Boston political leaders through their friendship with his father. Many of those leaders were prominent in Massachusetts colonial politics as well. Samuel absorbed the traditional independent-mindedness of Boston and thought of Massachusetts as autonomous and largely self-governing within the broader parameters of the British Empire.

Educated in the small wooden schoolhouse in the rear of King’s Chapel, Samuel received a traditional grounding in Latin and Greek grammar, preparatory to entering Harvard College. When he received the A.B. degree in 1740 and the master of arts in 1743, his interest in politics was already clear. He titled his thesis, “Whether It Be Lawful to Resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth Cannot Otherwise Be Preserved.”

Life’s Work

Samuel Adams thus embarked upon his life’s work in colonial politics, but he also had to make a living for his family. To that end, his father gave him one thousand pounds to help him get started in business. He promptly lent five hundred pounds to a friend (who never repaid the loan) and lost the other five hundred through poor management. His father then took him into partnership in his malt house, from which the family made a modest living.

Adams lived an austere, simple life and throughout his life had little interest in making money. At a time of crisis just before the war, General Thomas Gage governed Massachusetts under martial law and offered Adams an annuity of two thousand pounds for life. Adams promptly rejected the offer; “a guinea never glistened in my eyes,” he said. A man of integrity, he would not be bribed to refrain from doing what he believed to be right. His threadbare clothing was his trademark, reflecting his austerity and lack of interest in material things.

In 1748 his father died, leaving him one-third of his modest estate. Adams gradually sold most of it during the busy years of his life and was rescued from abject poverty in his retirement years only by a small inheritance from his son. (During most of his life, his only income was a small salary as a clerk of the Massachusetts General Assembly.)

Adams married Elizabeth Checkley, the daughter of the minister of New South Congregational Church, in 1749. She died eight years later, survived by only two of their five children, a boy and a girl. Adams reared the children and managed alone for seven years but remarried in 1764 to Elizabeth Wells. He was then forty-two; she, twenty-four.

Adams was of average height and muscular build. He carried himself straight in spite of an involuntary palsied movement of his hands and had light blue eyes and a serious, dignified manner. He was very fond of sacred music and sang in the choir of New South Church. Personable, he maintained a close relationship with his neighbors and was constantly chatting with those he met along the street. He had a gift for smoothing over disputes among his friends and acquaintances and was often asked to mediate a disagreement. Adams was a hard worker, and through the years his candle burned late at night as he kept up his extensive correspondence, much of which does not survive today. His second cousin, John Adams, likened him to John Calvin, partly because of his deep piety but also because of his personality: He was “cool . . . polished, and refined,” somewhat inflexible, but consistent, a man of “steadfast integrity, exquisite humanity, genteel erudition, obliging, engaging manners, real as well as professed piety, and a universal good character. . . .”

Samuel Adams was very interested in political philosophy and believed strongly in liberty and Christian virtue and frugality. He helped organize discussion clubs and the Public Advertiser, a newspaper to promote understanding of political philosophy. He served in political offices large and small, as fire ward, as moderator, and as tax collector. An orthodox Christian, he warned of the political implications of the “fallen” nature of man, susceptible as most men were to self-aggrandizement, if not corruption. Colonial Americans believed that power had the tendency to corrupt, and Adams was no exception. Speaking for the Boston Town Meeting, Adams said:

[Such is] the depravity of mankind that ambition and lust of power above the law are . . . predominant passions in the breasts of most men. [Power] converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office.

Despite mythology to the contrary, Adams was not a mob leader, though he was popular with the common workers of Boston. He was opposed to violence and sought to achieve his aims by political means. No evidence has ever been found placing Adams at any of the scenes in Boston involving mob violence such as the Boston Massacre, the wrecking of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s house, or the physical harassment of merchants. He has often been charged with “masterminding” these events, but only by conjecture, not on the basis of historical evidence.

In his early forties, Adams was well known in Boston politics when the Stamp Act crisis occurred in 1764-1765—the beginning of the revolutionary period. Along with his friend James Otis, Adams spoke out strongly and wrote much against the dangers of the Stamp Act. Before the Boston Town Meeting, Adams denied the right of the British Parliament to tax the colonists. The Massachusetts Charter gave Americans the right “to govern and tax ourselves.” If Parliament could tax the Colonies, then the Englishmen living in America would become “tributary slaves” without representation. Adams called for a unified resistance to this “tyranny” throughout the Colonies. The Boston Town Meeting then elected Adams to a seat in the Massachusetts General Assembly, where he was soon elected to the position of clerk, a position he held for ten years.

This principle of opposing taxation without representation became one of the most significant rallying points for resisting British control of the Colonies. Adams nevertheless stressed that he had no desire for colonial representation in the British Parliament. Since the colonists...

(The entire section is 2943 words.)