Father of the American Revolution
By Mark D. Puls
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2006 Mark D. Puls
All rights reserved.
THE EDUCATION OF A RADICAL
As a child, Samuel Adams would climb the outdoor stairway to the rooftop observatory of his family's home. From his perch there, the boy could see the expanse of the Boston Harbor, dotted with ships that arrived and then disappeared over the horizon of the Atlantic.
To the young boy, it seemed like the center of the universe. Boston was then the largest town in North America, a bustling trade port with commercial ties that reached around the globe. Young Samuel could see, moored along the wharves, merchant ships that brought timber, tobacco, tar, rice, and tea from colonies to the south. Wheat came shipped from Maryland, imported luxuries were brought from England and smuggled from European ports, and the West Indies sent sugar and molasses to supply the rum trade. News from England took two months to cross the ocean.
Along the docks, fishing boats for harvesting cod and herring were docked in the early mornings and late afternoons. He could watch the fishermen unload their bounty, while their wives and children gathered to begin the process of salting the fish for market. He could see the forty-ton whale boats that brought back the oil that illuminated Boston homes.
Shipyards were also part of the panorama, employing a host of tradesmen from shipwrights, to carpenters, to caulkers and rope makers. The muscular artisans shaped tough oak into formidable hulls that could withstand storms and the battering of the sea. Taverns thrived along the wharves. On the streets of Boston, accents from strange lands mixed in the salt air.
Samuel Adams felt a deep connection to his hometown. His parents told him that their family hailed from some of the earliest settlers of the Bay Colony. He was fascinated by stories of his ancestors — how they sailed from England the previous century to help build a new society. His forebears loomed larger than life in his eyes, courageous, principled, and willing to withstand the hardships of an untamed land to build a better life for their descendants — for his sake.
Samuel's parents told him that his family had been part of the great Puritan migration that began at Plymouth and spread to the rest of Massachusetts to build a City of God. He was moved by stories of his great-grandparents' flight from religious persecution as Protestants under Charles I of England. The king had married a Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, and changed the liturgy of the Church of England to make concessions to Roman Catholics. The Puritans, including Adams' ancestors, wanted to return to what they viewed as a "purer" form of worship. Samuel listened intently to the history of his great-grandfather's family. They had braved the raging North Atlantic out of religious conviction, to sail to an untamed land to settle and worship in freedom.
Samuel cherished his heritage and understood that his ancestors made a great sacrifice for the freedom he enjoyed. He felt a great debt and a need to be worthy of his forebears' example. His world was the reward of their sacrifices. He was descended from Henry Adams, progenitor of eighty-nine grandchildren in America. Henry left Barton St. David in Somersetshire, England, with his wife, Edith Squire, and nine children. They settled in Braintree (renamed Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1638. Each of his sons settled outside Braintree with the exception of Joseph Adams, grandfather of John Adams, the future president.
Samuel Adams' grandfather, John Adams the elder, a sea captain, settled in Boston. Samuel's father, who was also named Samuel, was born in the town in 1689. At an early age, his father felt a burning ambition to rise to the elevated circle of distinguished men in town. He was the son of a sailor, however, and his family could not afford to send him to Harvard. He lacked the gentleman's education that set apart the town's leading men, who could discuss Homer in Greek or Virgil in Latin. He did not speak the languages of the educated that was critical to social standing. Yet Adams noticed the proud merchants who paraded in fine silk attire carrying finely carved canes through Boston's crooked streets and bustling markets. The town's port allowed many men to become wealthy. Adams realized that he had a better chance at prosperity as a merchant than by following his father's example at sea. After deciding to try his hand in business, he opened a malt shop and worked as a merchant.
He also began a courtship with Mary Fifield, the only daughter of Richard Fifield, a leading businessman in town. A devoutly religious woman with an artistic bent, Mary stitched intricate designs on finely woven linen.
Samuel's father valued industry, and worked hard at making his business a success. At an early age, he was already turning a profit and amassing substantial holdings. At twenty-three, he could afford to buy an impressive home on a sprawling parcel along the waterfront on Purchase Street. The house was the only large structure in the vicinity and was young Samuel's childhood home. It stretched 258 feet to the banks of Boston Harbor, and featured the rooftop observatory that afforded a harbor view. The property was bounded by two wharves, Dawes's and Bull's. Adams planted trees and shrubs on the estate, and improved its landscape.
Shortly after acquiring the house, he proposed to Mary Fifield. She accepted and they agreed to wed the following year. They talked about their future in Boston. They wanted a large family and their children to be educated and devout, to rise to the leadership in the city.
Adams and Mary were married in 1713 and settled into the home on Purchase Street. True to their Puritan heritage, their life centered on the church. Samuel Adams Sr. quickly rose among the leaders of the congregation and became a deacon. In 1715, he led a petition drive of twenty laymen to make a formal request at the Boston town meeting for his church to buy land to build the Old South Congregational Church.
Mary soon became pregnant. Children are commonly called miracles, but any child who survived the high mortality rates of the times defied the odds. Mary lost her first child, but bore a daughter, Mary, in 1717, who became her likeness not only in name but also in the same religiously devout spirit.
While pregnant with Samuel, her next child, Mary stitched a delicate christening blanket, decorated with twill of cotton and wool yarn in colors of pink, blue, green, and yellow. She wove a delicate floral border along its edges with larger plants extending from each corner to its center and scattered depictions of smaller herbs throughout.
Samuel was born on Sunday, September 16, 1722, then placed on the blanket and baptized at the Old South Congregational Church the same day. He was the oldest son, and in him the family placed much of their hope for the future. Mary bore a total of twelve children between 1716 and 1740. Only three lived past their third birthdays: Mary (1717), Samuel (1722), and Joseph (1728).
Samuel's sister, Mary, became a strong influence in his young life. He felt fortunate for her attention. She kept a memorandum book and carefully transcribed in neat handwriting the sermons of the renowned religious speakers who passed through Boston, such as George Whitefield (the English evangelist who sparked a revival toward Puritan values in England and the American colonies that came to be known as the Great Awakening), the aged Cotton Mather, and the pastor of their church, the Reverend Samuel Checkley, as well as others such as Jonathan Edwards, who embodied the religious revival and moved audiences with his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." She studied the sermons, looking up verses of scripture cited. Samuel, an unusually obedient child, reflected the religious bent of his mother and sister. He also was afflicted with a congenital palsy that caused his hand to tremble when excited.
Deacon Adams, who believed that acquiring property was the surest way to secure his family's future, continued to build his holdings. He bought several dwelling houses, a wharf, and several parcels of land to develop. The deacon wanted his sons to receive the education he never had. Young Samuel was sent to Boston Latin School, a tradition-rich, prestigious academy that had opened its doors in 1635, a year before Harvard was founded, and that served as a feeder for the college. In one of his schoolbooks, he scrawled a note that learning was more important than riches. It is not known if this was merely the product of a school assignment or a heartfelt belief. The Greek and Latin authors were among his favorites, and he was fond of using classical allusions in his writings.
Samuel marveled at the famous preachers he saw at church services. He was inspired by how their soaring words moved listeners' spirits, sometimes sparking a wellspring of heartfelt tears, vows to live better lives, and pledges to examine their beliefs. He too wanted to inspire people with his words and began to consider a career in the ministry. His parents were ecstatic; Boston's leaders were predominately ministers and merchants. He entered Harvard in 1736, at the age of fourteen, and began to study theology.
Samuel was also fascinated by his charismatic father, whom he thought of as "a wise man, a good man." The influence of Deacon Adams permeated Boston: he was justice of the peace, selectman and member of the colonial legislature, as well as a member in a host of politically active trade clubs. People in the city sought Deacon Adams' advice because of his skills as a political organizer, and he accepted invitations to join a variety of professional and trade clubs that were transforming the political landscape by creating a viable popular party to offset the loyalist leadership. The leading men in town were regulars at the Purchase Street home, including Elisha Cook, leader of the popular party. At dinner, young Samuel would sit in a lively classroom of debate and political discussion. Like many colonists, Deacon Adams opposed any extension of crown privileges. He believed these came at the expense of their rights, which were protected and laid out in the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, a document that served as the constitution for the province. This charter was a contract with the king that allowed inhabitants to pass their own laws and levy taxes. Royal governor William Burnet, however, and several officials, such as the chief justice of the court, were appointed by the king and acted as his representatives and were not under the colonists' authority. In 1739, the Boston town meeting selected Deacon Adams to help draft legislative instructions for the town's representatives in the elected general assembly to carry out during sessions. Samuel, intrigued by his father's political disputes, quickly grasped the issues. Deacon Adams instructed the Boston representatives to fight to retain their power under the Massachusetts Charter to grant a fixed salary to the governor and therefore keep his authority under their control. The British ministry wanted to pay the governor directly from the crown to maintain his allegiance to London.
Watching his father, Samuel quickly learned how to push political causes through the Boston town meeting and even force action in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Deacon Adams became a formidable political force thanks to tactics that were novel for the time. He formed clubs to further the agenda of his friends and supporters. Club members worked as a team, issuing slates of candidates and promoting opinions on local issues. In a port town like Boston, maritime financial interests dominated debates. The clubs gained a reputation for being able to turn ideas into action through well-orchestrated grassroots campaigns. Political adversaries derided these groups as "caulkers' clubs," after ship caulkers, denoting the way members acted in lockstep. It is from this phrase that the word "caucus" evolved.
Beginning in the 1730s, political campaigns in Boston were increasingly run in smoke-filled caucuses, where candidates and agendas were decided on even before the official meetings convened. Club members carried out scripted parts at political meetings to win their goals.
Like his father, Samuel was keenly interested in civic affairs, especially the rights of colonists. During his teenage years, his family was caught up in a political battle over a land-bank scheme that pitted the Whig party, which represented the less affluent country folk, against the well-heeled Tory party. The controversy stemmed from his father's efforts to form a bank in which members put up the value of their land in exchange for bank notes. The American colonies, lacking a hard currency of their own, dealt in English coins. Parliament ordered the Massachusetts Bay Colony to call in all its government notes by 1741 because of its heavy debt. As the economy in New England grew, gold or silver coins became scarce, and many colonists, including Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, argued for a paper currency to boost local economies. But many British and colonial merchants opposed paper because they profited by advancing credit to customers in need of goods. Paper notes would allow inhabitants to avoid these interest rates.
In 1739, Deacon Adams talked with farmers, mechanics, traders, shipyard workers, and shopkeepers about the hardships caused by the absence of ready cash; many were nearly impoverished and needed currency to invest in their businesses; farmers needed money to buy seed and livestock or to make improvements to their land; mechanics lacked tools and equipment; traders could not build their stock without going into hock to creditors. Without cash, bartering was the only way to obtain items they could not make themselves. The land bank promised to offer a solution by issuing notes for customers to trade.
Royal governor Jonathan Belcher, whose Tory party represented affluent merchants both in England and Boston, tried to put an end to the land bank. Several merchants and Tory officials formed a rival bank that issued notes based on silver deposits, which only the affluent possessed. No member of the land bank could also subscribe to the silver bank. To further discourage the land bank, Belcher vetoed appointments of its directors to his council, the upper house of the legislature. Justices of the peace and militia officers who served on its board were dismissed, and Deacon Adams, a justice and a soldier, was removed from both posts.
As events took place, he ruminated on political concepts, such as natural rights and freedom, and began to develop a deep understanding of political theory. In a college debate with several classmates, he chose "liberty" as his subject. He was convinced that many colonists took their freedom for granted. In conversations with friends, he warned about British intrusion into their self-government and tried to impress the need to defend their political power. He felt the persecution his family endured from the land bank could happen to others. By the time he graduated from Harvard in 1740, his interests had moved from theology to politics.
The crown party and English merchants also appealed to Parliament, which in 1741 issued an act that dissolved the land bank. Parliament applied a 1719 law that held directors personally liable for losses and cited another all-but-forgotten statute extending legislation in England to the colonies. Members of the land bank protested that this act was unconstitutional, to no avail.
Because directors could be held directly responsible for losses incurred from the bank enterprise, over the next two decades Samuel Adams Sr. and his son would wage repeated legal battles to prevent seizure of their home and personal holdings. Political enemies went to court to divest the family of all it owned, claiming losses from the shuttered venture. The suppression of the bank sparked a deep resentment toward Parliament in rural districts of Massachusetts. "The act to destroy the land-bank scheme," John Adams wrote years later, had "raised a greater ferment in the province than the Stamp Act did." Young Samuel felt bitter over the dispute and the injury to his family. The fight clearly demonstrated who held the power in Massachusetts and America. The lawsuits caused his father to lose much of his fortune, and Samuel's potential inheritance was sliced to a fraction of its former worth.
While a graduate student at Harvard, he spent much of his time thinking about politics and the rights of colonists. He believed that the royally appointed governor, Parliament, and merchants in Massachusetts and England had no right to meddle in his father's affairs. He began to believe that England viewed the colonies as different from the realm: not equals, but subordinates. British leaders looked on colonial businesses as rivals to their home market and wanted to keep America's economic growth in check, in his view. The more Samuel thought about the conflict, the more he became convinced that English and colonial interests would eventually lead to a showdown. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Samuel Adams by Mark D. Puls. Copyright © 2006 Mark D. Puls. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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