Samuel Adams sparked the flame of the American Revolution
More than his cousin John Adams, Samuel Adams stirred anti-Crown sentiment among the colonists that helped the American Revolution take root.
Back in 1765, the Boston Gazette ran a section of a scene from Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” in which King Henry is shocked to learn about a heavy new tax his subjects are struggling to pay. “Why, we take/From every tree lop, bark, and part o’ th’ timber,/And though we leave it with a root, thus hacked,/The air will drink the sap.” The Gazette included a note pointing out that when it came to crippling taxes, King Henry was far outdone by King George III and all the taxes and fines he’d placed on the American Colonies.
John Adams read that Gazette piece with a bit of surprise, since he’d just recently been thinking about that same Shakespeare passage, and here it was in the paper. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff notes in her latest book “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams,” this surprise had an ironic element: “The coincidence left John marveling anew at hidden machinery and mysterious influences,” she writes. “He recognized neither the jovial tone, the easy erudition, nor the pseudonym of his cousin Samuel.”
Although time and popular culture (not to mention a hugely popular book by the late David McCullough) have made John Adams one of the brightest stars of the American Revolution, neither King George III nor any of the revolutionaries themselves would have given John Adams precedence over his cousin Samuel. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest fanned the flames of Colonial resentment in the face of Crown oppression, but it was Samuel Adams, years before, who’d done the leg work, talking with ordinary working people, convincing the populace that no reconciliation with Britain was possible. “Adams banked on the sage deliberations of a band of hard-working farmers reasoning their way toward rebellion,” Schiff writes.
Samuel Adams was naturally fitted for such a grassroots approach. Born in Boston in 1722 and educated at Harvard College under the scornful eyes of much wealthier students, Adams began his public life by moving from one failure to the next. He was unsuccessful as a malster, business owner, and tax collector, and financially inept enough to need the charity of his fellow townspeople, who willingly gave it.
It was only when he turned to politics that Adams discovered his true genius. In the 1760s he became increasingly active in his opposition to the cumulative taxing of the Colonies by the British Parliament. He talked with countless merchants and wrote endlessly under a series of pseudonyms, constantly turning up the temperature of resentment and argumentation.
It all came to a boil in the early 1770s when Adams was at the heart of two seminal events. On March 5, 1770, an angry mob converged around nine British soldiers near the Customs House in Boston. “The townspeople surged toward the jagged semicircle, pressing closely upon the redcoats, nearly impaling themselves,” Schiff writes. “A hat would not have fit between the soldiers and the civilians, too close to hurl anything but words – as they did, from every direction.” The soldiers fired on the crowd, killing three people instantly. Two more died later from their injuries. As Schiff notes, Adams seems to have been the first person to dub it a massacre – “a name that stuck.”
The second important event occurred on Dec. 16, 1773, when a group of colonists dumped large amounts of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the Crown’s Tea Act. Adams was intimately involved in the planning and execution of the protest (and may have been present himself; Schiff assesses the admittedly tenuous evidence), and he expertly capitalized on the event’s instant notoriety. At every stage in the years leading up to the battles of Lexington and Concord, British forces from royal Gov. Thomas Hutchinson to the king himself were thoroughly outmaneuvered by a failed tax collector from Boston.
Schiff traces these political cuts and thrusts with her customary skill and amazing readability; this is by far the most grippingly involving life of Samuel Adams ever written, charting the rise and flourishing of a key figure in the Revolution, a man who “refused to believe that prejudice and private interest would ultimately trample knowledge and benevolence,” as Schiff writes. “Self-government was in his view inseparable from governing the self; it demanded a certain asceticism.”
After the war, Adams largely faded from public view (“as the revolutionary must after the revolution”) and died in 1803, honored by populace and politicians but, as Schiff points out, stubbornly difficult to understand. “We dust him off at unsettled times as the vicious demagogue rather than the decorous man of ideas,” she writes, “the street brawler rather than the cheerful champion of self-restraint, an old-fashioned Puritan rather than our earliest politician.” All of those facets of the man are beautifully captured in “The Revolutionary,” and if the facets don’t ever really cohere, well, it’s possible that all revolutions have such a riddle at their center.