Samuel Adams: A Life

Samuel Adams: A Life

by Ira Stoll


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The gripping story of the man who was the American Revolution’s moral compass—Ira Stoll tells readers who Samuel Adams was, why he has been forgotten, and why he must be remembered.

Thomas Jefferson called Samuel Adams “truly the man of the Revolution.” Adams, filled with religious fervor, inspired others to fight on and overcome the challenges of the Revolutionary War. He was the editor of the influential Boston Gazette, planner of the Boston Tea Party, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and yet, he is largely ignored and unknown today. Understanding the leading part Adams played in building and sustaining support for the revolutionary cause gives readers new insight into the way religion motivated the founding of America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743299121
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 11/03/2009
Pages: 339
Sales rank: 1,174,045
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ira Stoll was vice president and managing editor of The New York Sun, which he helped to found. He has been a consultant to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, an editor of the Jerusalem Post, managing editor and Washington correspondent of the Forward, editor of, and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard College. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


"Pillar of Fire by Night"


"Let us awaken then, and evince a different spirit, — a spirit that shall inspire the people with confidence in themselves and in us, — a spirit that will encourage them to persevere in this glorious struggle, until their rights and liberties shall be established on a rock."

— Samuel Adams, 1777

Of all the difficult moments in the American Revolution, one of the most desperate for the revolutionaries was late September 1777. British troops controlled New York City. The Americans had lost the strategic stronghold of Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York, to the British in July. In Delaware, on September 11, troops led by General George Washington had lost the Battle of Brandywine, in which two hundred Americans were killed, five hundred wounded, and four hundred captured. In Pennsylvania, early in the morning of September 21, another three hundred American soldiers were killed or wounded and one hundred captured in a British surprise attack that became known as the Paoli Massacre.

Washington's troops were suffering from what one delegate to Congress called "fatigue occasioned by the bad rainy weather & long night marches." The rain had soaked the American army's ammunition, making it useless. The American troops would spend the coming winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, subsisting on firecakes made of flour and water, and leaving bloody footprints in the snow for lack of shoes; already one thousand of Washington's roughly nine thousand troops were barefoot. The delegates to Congress doubted their own generals. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland, wrote to General Washington, "I am sorry to observe that two officers in high command in our army are said to be much addicted to liquor: what trust, what confidence can be reposed in such men?"

The diplomatic situation was similarly unpromising for the revolutionaries. France had not yet agreed to an alliance with America. Some individual French officers volunteered on their own, but even they were suffering, or worse. The Journals of Congress for September 17 record that one "Mons. du Coudray, colonel brigadier in the service of his most Christian Majesty, the king of France, and commander in chief of the artillery in the French colonies of America, gallantly offered to join the American army as a volunteer, but, in his way thither, was most unfortunately drowned in attempting to pass the Schuylkill." The Congress resolved that the corpse of the man John Adams said had a reputation as "the most learned and promising officer in France" be buried "at the expence of the United States, and with the honors of war."

Burial with the honors of war was about the best that American political leaders could hope for. The enemy was closing in. Pennsylvanians lowered the 2,080-pound bronze bell from the spire of their State House, with its inscription from Leviticus, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," and carted it to the basement of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown for safekeeping. And just in time — the British captured Pennsylvania's capital, Philadelphia, America's largest city, on September 26. Congress, which had been meeting there, fled briefly to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then to York, a hundred miles west of Philadelphia. The departure from Philadelphia was frantic, prompted by an alarm from Washington's aide, Alexander Hamilton, who said the enemy soldiers were so close that one had shot his horse. One delegate to Congress was wakened by a servant at two in the morning and advised to abandon the city. A delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, evacuated Philadelphia in such a hurry that he left his extra clothes behind.

Another delegate to Congress, John Adams of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary, "The prospect is chilling, on every Side: Gloomy, dark, melancholly, and dispiriting."

The number of delegates present at Congress had dwindled to a mere twenty from the fifty-six members who had signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Those remaining gathered for a private meeting in York to question whether there was any hope of success.

One of those present was John Adams's cousin, the patriot leader Samuel Adams, who had already suffered losses that would have shattered an ordinary man. His first wife and four of their children died of natural causes before the war began. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, British officers decapitated Samuel Adams's close friend Joseph Warren and presented his head as a trophy to the British commanding general. Samuel Adams had spent the better part of three years at the Congress in Philadelphia separated from his two surviving children and his second wife. "Matters seem to be drawing to a crisis," he had written her recently. Back in Boston, the British soldiers ripped out the pews of Old South Church, where Samuel Adams's father had once worshipped, covered the floor with dirt, and used the church as a riding academy. Samuel Adams's own house in Boston was vandalized by British troops so badly that it was uninhabitable. If the Revolution failed, Samuel Adams could expect to meet the same fate at the hands of the British as Warren.

Yet on that day in York in late September 1777, Samuel Adams, a slightly heavy, gray-haired fifty-five-year-old with large dark blue eyes, a prominent nose, and a high forehead, gave his fellow members of Congress a talk of encouragement.

"If we despond, public confidence is destroyed, the people will no longer yield their support to a hopeless contest, and American liberty is no more," Samuel Adams said in the voice John Adams described as clear and harmonious. "Through the darkness which shrouds our prospects the ark of safety is visible. Despondency becomes not the dignity of our cause, nor the character of those who are its supporters."

He went on, comparing the American revolutionaries to the Israelites who had left the slavery of Egypt. According to Exodus, chapter 13, God had guided them in the wilderness with a "pillar of cloud by day" and a "pillar of fire by night." Samuel Adams addressed the delegates:

Let us awaken then, and evince a different spirit, — a spirit that shall inspire the people with confidence in themselves and in us, — a spirit that will encourage them to persevere in this glorious struggle, until their rights and liberties shall be established on a rock. We have proclaimed to the world our determination "to die freemen, rather than to live slaves." We have appealed to Heaven for the justice of our cause, and in Heaven we have placed our trust. Numerous have been the manifestations of God's providence in sustaining us. In the gloomy period of adversity, we have had "our cloud by day and pillar of fire by night." We have been reduced to distress, and the arm of Omnipotence has raised us up. Let us still rely in humble confidence on Him who is mighty to save. Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.

When Samuel Adams said that the "ark of safety" was visible "through the darkness," he turned out to be prescient. On October 17, at Saratoga, north of Albany, New York, the American general Horatio Gates accepted the surrender of 5,800 British soldiers led by General John Burgoyne. The American troops seized from the British twenty-seven pieces of artillery and thousands of pieces of small arms and ammunition.

Detailed news of the victory at the Battle of Saratoga did not reach Congress at York until October 31, but when it did it was greeted with exuberance. "We had almost began to despair, but at length our joy was full," wrote a congressman from Connecticut, Eliphalet Dyer. The president of the Congress, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, wrote, "the glorious intelligence is now extending from City to City diffusing Joy in the heart of every Loyal American." The victory at Saratoga turned the tide of the war. News of it was decisive in bringing France into a full alliance with America against the British. Samuel Adams joked that Gates's messenger, who had dawdled for a day between Saratoga and York courting a young woman he later married, should be presented with spurs and a horsewhip.

On November 1, just after receiving news of the victory at Saratoga, Congress adopted a report drafted by Samuel Adams, declaring Thursday, December 18, as "a day of thanksgiving" to God, "particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a measure to prosper the means used for the support of our troops and to crown our arms with most signal success." The resolution went on to say that the day would be set aside so that:

with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labour of the husbandman, that our land may yet yield its increase; to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth "in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost."

Copyright © 2008 by Ira Stoll


"Truly the Man of the Revolution"

"For depth of purpose, zeal, and sagacity, no man in Congress exceeded, if any equalled, Sam. Adams."

— Thomas Jefferson

Samuel Adams's inspiring speech at York, delivered at a pivotal moment, when the Congress was losing hope, has been lost in the attic of history. Six of the nine biographies of Samuel Adams do not even mention the address. The congressional declaration of a day of thanksgiving has likewise been widely forgotten, though some credit those words of Adams with starting Thanksgiving as an American national holiday rather than being a New England custom. Samuel Adams today is best known as a brand of beer. But the religious themes he struck in his York speech — that the Americans were like the biblical Israelites of Exodus, and that God was intervening directly on their side — are essential for understanding the American Revolution. So, too, was the association, in the thanksgiving declaration of 1777, of liberty with virtue and piety. These ideas help explain why the Americans fought on in the revolutionary cause in the face of discouraging setbacks and overwhelming obstacles.

Many leaders offered the same religious views. In Kingston, New York, on September 9, 1777, the chief justice of the state of New York, John Jay, said in remarks reprinted in the press, "we should always remember, that the many remarkable and unexpected means and events by which our wants have been supplied, and our enemies repelled or restrained, are such strong and striking proofs of the interposition of Heaven, that our having been delivered from the threatened bondage of Britain, ought, like the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian servitude, be forever ascribed to its true cause, and instead of swelling our breasts with arrogant ideas of our power and importance, kindle in them a flame of gratitude and piety, which may consume all remains of vice and irreligion. Blessed be God." In New Jersey, in early October, the elected patriot governor, William Livingston, spoke of "reliance upon the divine blessing" and of how "conspicuous the finger of Heaven" had been in expelling the British from his state.

Congress's actions also reflected these assumptions. On September 11, 1777, Congress, still in Philadelphia, voted to order the importation of twenty thousand Bibles "from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere" into America. A committee appointed to consider the matter had concluded that "the use of the Bible is so universal, and its importance so great." Congress's first recorded business in York, on October 1, 1777 — likely the morning after Samuel Adams's speech — was to note the appointment of two chaplains. One was an Anglican, William White, and the other a Presbyterian, George Duffield. Less than a week later, on October 6, Congress appointed a third chaplain, the Congregationalist Timothy Dwight, to serve a brigade of Connecticut troops.

But Jay, Livingston, and the other delegates to Congress aside, Samuel Adams was the archetype of the religiously passionate American founder, the founder as biblical prophet, an apostle of liberty. Other types are part of American lore: the plantation-owner-general, George Washington; the plantation-owner-architect, Thomas Jefferson; the plantation-owner-constitutionalist, James Madison; the scientist-inventor-printer-diplomat, Benjamin Franklin; the lawyer, John Adams; the immigrant banker, Alexander Hamilton.

Samuel Adams's achievements were widely recognized in his own time. Thomas Jefferson called him "truly the Man of the Revolution" and said "for depth of purpose, zeal, and sagacity, no man in Congress exceeded, if any equalled, Sam. Adams." When Samuel's cousin John Adams arrived in Paris in 1779, the French declared that he was "not the famous Adams." When the top British general in America, Thomas Gage, offered a general amnesty in June 1775 to all revolutionaries who would lay down their arms, he exempted only two men — John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

John Adams wrote of his cousin Samuel, "Adams is zealous, ardent and keen in the Cause.Ê.Ê.Ê.ÊAdams I believe has the most thorough Understanding of Liberty, and her Resources, in the Temper and Character of the People, tho not in the Law and Constitution, as well as the most habitual, radical Love of it, of any of them — as well as the most correct, genteel and artful Pen. He is a Man of refined Policy, stedfast Integrity, exquisite Humanity, genteel Erudition, obliging, engaging Manners, real as well as professed Piety."

Samuel Adams was indeed a man of "real as well as professed piety" — a man of deep religious conviction whose confidence, zeal, and endurance in the struggle for freedom were grounded in a belief that an intervening God was on his side. He was the moral conscience of the American Revolution, a man who never lost sight of the Revolution's political and religious goals, which for him were fundamentally intertwined. But he did not become a clergyman, and he sometimes clashed with ministers he viewed as insufficiently supportive of the revolutionary cause. Passionate, determined, stubborn, thrifty, eloquent, idealistic, humble, he was a religious revolutionary — and much more.

He was a newspaperman who recognized the power of the press in shaping political events and who wrote frequently, passionately, and elegantly under a host of pseudonyms about all aspects of public life; the quality of his prose alone makes him worth reading today.

He was poor compared to many of his fellow patriots, and he was a critic of extravagant personal spending by the rich and of the influence of money on politics. Yet he was not bitter, and he was an ardent defender of property rights and opponent of certain taxes.

He was a congressman and a beloved governor of Massachusetts, who, after overthrowing the British, faced the challenge of administering a new democratic government. Though he voted in Massachusetts to ratify the United States Constitution, after independence he allied himself politically with those who emphasized the importance of state and local governments as opposed to the Federalists like Washington and John Adams who wanted a powerful central government.

He was such a radical that modern historians have likened him to black nationalist Malcolm X, anarchist Emma Goldman, and the communist revolutionaries in Russia, China, and Vietnam. Yet he saw himself as a conserver of the New England Puritan tradition of his seventeenth-century forefathers and was motivated more by biblical stories of the liberation of slaves than by Enlightenment ideas of a new man.

He was so progressive for his time that he declined to accept a slave as a gift, appealed to the American Indians for aid in the Revolution, extended public education in Massachusetts to girls, and believed that "Even Savages" could be educated for democracy. Yet he sometimes veered toward anti-Catholic bigotry.

History has not been kind to Samuel Adams. A biography of him in 1885 by James K. Hosmer described him as "to a large extent forgotten." The secular trend in American universities and public schools was to the detriment of the reputation of the revolutionary who hoped America would become a "Christian Sparta." The Cold War caused some Americans to view revolutionary radicals as threats rather than heroes. Much of American history is the story of the triumph of a strong federal government over the state and local governments that were championed by Samuel Adams. And as British-American ties warmed, it became fashionable for American historians to make the eighteenth-century British look less oppressive and more sympathetic than they actually were by depicting Samuel Adams as a hate-filled and cunning conniver.

For all his detractors, though, Samuel Adams has had admirers, too, and not only among his contemporaries. "As far as the genesis of America is concerned, Samuel Adams can more properly be called the 'Father of America' than Washington," wrote Hosmer, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and Unitarian minister who became a history professor and who went on to write an admiring history of the Jews. A great-grandson of Samuel Adams, William V. Wells, published a three-volume biography of the patriot in 1865 that spoke of Adams's "incorruptible integrity and Republican simplicity of character" and his "amazing industry, his courage, ceaseless vigilance, and wise statesmanship, and his cheerfulness and fortitude amid disasters." It is appropriate that the largest and most positive biography of Samuel Adams, by Wells, was published at the end of the Civil War. As Hosmer put it, what William Lloyd Garrison was to the abolition of slavery, "Samuel Adams was to independence, — a man looked on with the greatest dread as an extremist and a fanatic by many of those who afterwards fought for freedom."

In his mixture of religion with politics, his skepticism of a powerful federal government, his warnings about extravagance and the influence of money on elections, his recognition of the power of the press, and his endurance in a war for freedom, Samuel Adams has much to say to modern Americans. If his ideas and his style have not consistently dominated American history, they are undeniably still with us today. In that sense Samuel Adams was not, as he has been called, the "Last of the Puritans" but rather one of the first Americans.

This will be a book about who Samuel Adams was, why he is forgotten, why he should be remembered. As the Massachusetts Spy wrote in concluding its obituary of Samuel Adams on October 19, 1803: "This is but a gazette sketch of his character; to give his history at full length, would be to give an history of the American revolution."

Copyright © 2008 by Ira Stoll

Table of Contents


"Pillar of Fire by Night": 1777


"Truly the Man of the Revolution"

Chapter 1

"Born a Rebel": 1722-1764

Chapter 2

"Zealous in the Cause": 1765-1769

Chapter 3

Massacre: 1769-1773

Chapter 4

Tea Party: 1773-1774

Chapter 5

Congressman: 1774-1775

Chapter 6

Lexington and Concord: 1775

Chapter 7

Congressman, II: 1775-1779

Chapter 8

Back to Massachusetts: 1779-1793

Chapter 9

Governor: 1793-1797

Chapter 10

Passing of the Patriarch: 1797 to the Present





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"[Stoll] gives us something close to how [Adams] wanted to be remembered." —-The Boston Globe

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