Samuel Adams: A Life

The crucial question addressed by Ira Stoll’s new biography of revolutionary firebrand Sam Adams isn’t put directly until the final pages: “If Adams was so instrumental in achieving American independence and so influential even afterward, why then has his fame faded so badly with time?” The answer has to do with a stark contradiction: Sam Adams was a conservative revolutionary, an activist whose radical approach to politics was based upon his indefatigable commitment to protecting the ancient rights of Englishmen. In helping to make America independent from England, Adams ceaselessly harked back to England’s own history.

Whereas American founders such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were steeped in the rationalist political philosophy of the European Enlightenment — an 18th-century phenomenon — Sam Adams took his political inclinations from the 17th-century struggles between England’s Puritans and the English Crown. If Jefferson’s inspirations were Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu and David Hume, Sam Adams absorbed his worldview from Puritan militant Oliver Cromwell (Adams also shared Cromwell’s knee-jerk anti-Catholicism).

Like Cromwell a century before, Adams jealously guarded the rights of Englishmen against royal infringement. And, like Cromwell, Adams found a source for both fiery rhetoric and steely determination in a strict reading of the Bible. For both men, liberty and public virtue were inextricably linked. During a dark period of the Revolutionary War, Adams wrote to a friend that “ general Dissolution of Principles & Manners will more surely overthrow the Liberties of America than the whole Force of the Common Enemy. While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader.”

Yet the devout Adams was a political activist in the modern sense, brilliantly using the media to move the American public toward his goals. Among the first colonists to seriously envision national independence, Adams’s brand of consciously provocative activism so infuriated British authorities, both in the colonies and in England, that it triggered a clumsy overreaction, which directly advanced the agenda for American independence.

Stoll describes in detail British outrage after the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when an Adams-inspired mob tossed British tea into Boston Harbor. Instead of arresting and imprisoning Adams, as Edmund Burke recommended before Parliament in London (“You have these men who are delinquent. Punish them. Do not punish the town”), King George III and Parliament sought to starve Boston by closing its port. Adams used this British overreaction as God-given propaganda to unify the American colonies against royal authority.

At last understanding how formidable Adams was as an opponent, the British made what Stoll calls “a last-ditch effort” to buy him off with money or a lucrative government position. Although financially strapped due to his tireless work as a political activist, Adams (typically) chose principle over riches. “I have been wont to converse with poverty,” wrote Adams, “I can live happily with her the remainder of my days, if I can thereby contribute to the redemption of my Country.”

Inaugurating what would become almost an American institution, Adams found a particular focus for hostility in the taxes that Parliament began demanding from the colonies beginning in the 1760s. He believed that these taxes, starting with the Stamp Act, undermined the sacred right of personal property, allowing Crown and Parliament to confiscate the wealth of America on a whim. “hat property can the colonists be conceived to have,” he asked in 1768, “if their money may be granted away by others, without their consent?” But the Harvard-educated Adams was no mere political theorist, and he used his prodigious skills as a journalist and political organizer to move the colonies to action. It was Adams who established the committees of correspondence to spread news that would lay the groundwork for independence. It was Adams who used the first Continental Congress to tirelessly demand independence. And it was the Crown’s intention to arrest Adams (among others), that triggered the first battle of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

Throughout his book, Stoll works to establish Adams’s central role in the struggle for independence. Crucial to this revisionary perspective are the details of Adams’s work as a member of the Continental Congress, where he served on dozens of important committees and wrote countless letters urging national independence to wavering colonial leaders. Unfortunately for Stoll, Adams refused to save the documents and letters that would have cemented his reputation as a key figure. Indeed, the absence itself supplies some drama: Stoll describes one scene in which cousin John Adams walked into a room where Sam was cutting up documents with scissors and throwing them out a nearby window. Noticeably hampered by the inadequacy of archival material that would bolster his case, Stoll repeatedly resorts to conjecture or simply inserts caveats such as “Sam Adams’ position on has been lost to history.”

In the end, Adams the man remains as enigmatic as he’s always been. His few remaining letters, shrouded in biblical language, reveal little about the man except his unyielding passion for righteousness and American independence. After the struggle for independence had been won, Adams humbly returned to state government, eschewing any national role in favor of a successful bid for the governorship of Massachusetts. His views were mixed on the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, but he agreed to support it if amendments protecting civil liberties (i.e., what would become the Bill of Rights) were inserted later.

Near the end of his life (Adams died in 1803), President Thomas Jefferson paid him the highest compliment in a personal letter: ” recalls to my mind the anxious days we then passed in struggling for the cause of mankind,” wrote Jefferson, “Your principles have been tested in the crucible of time, & have come out pure.”

In explaining the woeful historical neglect of Sam Adams, Stoll attempts to invoke “a feeling that the country has changed so thoroughly since his time that he has little to say to modern Americans.” Alas, he is never quite able to paint more than a two-dimensional portrait of his subject. This volume lets us see Adams soldiering on through the darkest hours but never sheds much light into his Puritan soul. While Adams himself might have preferred this humble legacy, readers are left to hope that future studies will render the man in full.