Samuel Adams of Massachusetts: Firebrand for the American Revolution, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
Samuel Adams believed that his ancestors’ voyage to America was rewarded by creating a society that “enjoyed more freedoms than anywhere in England,” writes Mark Puls in his biography of Samuel Adams. His family and other colonists lived under the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, a contract with the king that afforded them opportunities to pass laws and levy their own taxes. However, there was a tradeoff. The charter of 1691 turned Massachusetts, already relatively independent and autonomous, into a royal colony. William III was then the king of Britain and appointed his own governor and chief justice of the court, and the governor could veto legislation.
Adams was, at first, happy they lived with the same English liberties yet added privileges. Yet, when Britain began to expand their ruling hand, things changed. Adams became dissatisfied, resolutely opposed to British intervention and limits in their lives.
“Much of the credit for the Revolutionary stance of Bostonians belongs to Sam Adams and a group that came to be known as his ‘Sons of Liberty’ (or the ‘Boston Mob’ as some called them).” Boston in the 1760s was a hotbed of radical activism and violent protest against British colonial policy.
Adams was born on September 16, 1722 in Boston to his mother Mary Fifield and his father Samuel Adams Sr. He was the third child of twelve (only three lived past third birthdays). Samuel the younger cherished the stories of his Puritan ancestors who bore the difficult transatlantic journey to come to an untamed land seeking a better life.
Samuel Sr. and Mary raised their family in a house on Purchase Street, the church being the center of their universe. His father, a hard-working and successful malt shop brewery merchant, became a deacon. As a child Samuel was “unusually obedient” influenced by the religious piety and study of his mother and older sister who bore the same names. Deacon Adams, like any parent, wanted his children to have what he did not have.
Samuel first attended Boston Latin School, a feeder school for Harvard. Speaking Latin was a sign of refinement that set one apart in the blue-collar colonist society. He first considered ministry and in 1736, at 14 years age, entered Harvard to study theology. The prominent members of Boston society were merchants and ministers.
Samuel Fallows who wrote a book about Samuel Adams in 1903 said this,
“All the years have voices for them that will hear; and even the simple annals of the common place events have in them the heart of epic possibilities.”
Sam Adams was fascinated listening to his father, whose esteemed voice gained merit in political circles. Deacon Adams was a select member of the colonial legislature and political organizer. Leading men in Boston met at the Purchase Street home to seek advice while he helped form a popular party to offset the Loyalists. Younger Adams’ father was against Britain extending crown privileges, concerned the colonists would lose their rights.
Deacon Adam’s disputes intrigued his son. Intrigue turned to resentment when Jonathan Belcher, Royal governor and member of the Tory party, used his influence to put an end to the Land bank Deacon Adams started. It was hard times and many were poor and needed cash to invest in their farms, shops, businesses. Mechanics were desperate for tools and equipment and traders needed stock. The Land bank issued paper money replacing barter for trade.
Elitist Tory merchants and officials tied to Belcher formed a rival bank backed with silver deposits. They banned any member of the Land bank from using their offerings and removed Adams Sr. from his posts as a justice and soldier. Parliament issued an act to dissolve the Land bank in 1741. They applied a 1719 law “that held directors personally responsible for losses and cited another all-but-forgotten statute extending legislation in England to the colonies,” writes Puls. Despite protesting the act as “unconstitutional,” this threw the family into years-long legal battles and contentious efforts to hang on to the Adams estate that Adams Jr. would inherit.
The writings of John Locke enamored Adams. Locke maintained men and women were entitled to “life, liberty and property.” Also believing ‘government’ was bound to protect these rights. While at Harvard, he staged political debates, developing persuasive skills. He was unsettled on a career and his parents could not convince him to pursue a career in the ministry. Adams Jr. grew dislike for authority of any kind. He was independent in his convictions and motives.
He, with some friends, threw himself into a paper called the “Public Advertiser” publishing editorials and commentary from a Whig perspective. His first article argued that “[Loyalty] is founded in the love and possession of liberty.” Adams believed that allegiance should be given to laws not government leaders. He would become, along with John Hancock, Doctor Joseph Warren, and Doctor Benjamin Church the four leaders of the Boston Whigs. The key principles of the Whig party were to defend the people against tyranny and to advance human progress. In modern times, Americans began calling the Whigs “patriots” because of their immense love for America.
The trajectory of Sam Adams.
Sam Adams was financially dependent on his father, unlike his successful cousin John Adams, an attorney of stature. John would gain much notoriety defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and winning a brilliantly-executed case using a jury of his own countrymen. Although cousins, the Adams’ were destined to become epic voices in the Revolution – they were very different in looks and approaches standing up to Britain. John was about the law and Sam was about protecting rights and property. John would join his cousin in the resistance when it was clearly evident one must accept the king’s laws, taxes and deteriorating rights. To oppose in open rebellion was a signal for great alarm. A future declaration from King George III promised any treasonous rebels death by hanging.
When Deacon Adams died in March 1748, son Samuel was lost and unstable having depended on his father for advice and money. This son of a maltster had no direction and now had to run the inherited brewery, plus manage the challenges of family and the fights to preserve their property. He developed a fondness for Elizabeth Checkley, the daughter of an esteemed pastor of the Old Congregational Church, and married her in October, 1749. Elizabeth gave birth to five children, but three did not live past infancy forcing a repeated cycle of grief. It was uncertain times as Adams embraced a lead in sowing the seeds of Boston’s unrest.
Adams continued to write articles about colonial rights diving deep into civic affairs by 1761. His concerns over property rights rapidly fueled his opposition to British imperial policies, thus turning him into “a fiery radical and rabble-rouser. He organized political opposition to the British in the Massachusetts colonial assembly and soon became the colony’s most effective Revolutionary propagandist.”
Although Adams suffered from a congenital palsy that made his lips and hands tremble, he was physically strong as an oak and “Every beat of his heart was for the liberties of his people.”
The core of resistance: British imperial policy and law.
Adams was against Britain sticking their noses deep into their lives. He knew as an elected tax collector from 1756-1764 the financial struggles that beset the people. His humanity got in the way of doing his job and a large sum of arrearages accumulated. The Tories turned this into an accusation against Adam’s honesty. Adams would go from an inefficient tax gatherer to become a leading patriot.
The Seven Years’ War from 1756-1763 (known as the French and Indian War in America) left England with enormous debt and defense burdens after gaining possession of French America and all India. The king tried to recover the losses from the labors of colonists. British Prime Minister Sir George Grenville set out to collect on the trade between America and the French West Indies.
The trade (that became smuggling) was essential for the colonists. Parliament demanded that all commerce be put through English hands. Officers of customs had authority to search houses of persons suspected of ‘smuggling.’ The people were outraged at the brash intrusion.
The Sugar Act was a tax imposed on the colonies in April 1764. It required the colonies to pay a tax to the crown for the importation of a variety of goods, primarily sugar. The tax schemes would go from sugar to royal stamps.
On the 24th of May of the same year, Adams submitted a paper to a town meeting of Boston which was “the first public denial of the right of Parliament to put the ‘Stamp Act scheme’ into effect,” writes Fallows.
Despite opposition, Great Britain imposed the Stamp Act in 1765. This was an outlandish attempt to raise revenue through direct taxation of all colonial commercial and legal papers, newspapers, pamphlets, cards, almanacs, and dice. These documents had to be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. Among the Stamp Act’s provisions was the charge of two pounds sterling for a college diploma. The tax had to be paid in British currency, not in colonial paper money.
On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry made one of his famous speeches before the Virginia House of Burgesses to encourage the passage of the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions. Henry said, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III… Henry was interrupted by cries from the opposition to which he replied, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” He later offered a semi-apology. Fallows writes the utterances of Henry were like the blasts of a trumpet sounding the approaching Revolution.
James Otis, Advocate – general (official advisor) to the government took up with the colonists.
Adams took notes when he delivered a five-hour speech during which Otis voiced the infamous cry of “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”
The colonists effectively nullified the Stamp Act by refusing to use the stamps. Riots, stamp burning, and intimidation of colonial stamp distributors took place. The Sons of Liberty formed in the summer of 1765 under the direct command of Adams. He called the ‘mob’ out whenever he determined that a protest was needed against British action. Adam’s Sons of Liberty destroyed the stamps wherever they encountered them. They tarred and feathered stamp agents, sacked homes and warehouses of the wealthy. Colonists passionately upheld their ‘Englishmen’ rights to be taxed only by their own consent through their own representative assemblies. For a century and a half prior, this was the practice.
The welcome news of the repeal of the Stamp act reached Boston on May 16th, 1766. Guns were continuously fired; blazing bonfires were kindled. Church bells poured out joyful peals. Yet Adams did not share in the celebration of Bostonians. To him there was a sting in the repeal. For in it – the Declaratory Act was contained giving Parliament the authority “to bind the Colonies and people of America in all cases whatsoever.”
Though British statesmen Pitt and Pratt first gained the love of the colonists for denouncing the Stamp Act, they made a distinction between taxation and litigation, saying “while Parliament could not tax it could legislate.” Adams knew that a brood of “obnoxious measures” were coming to rouse the colonies to open revolt.
Adams held firm the colonists owed no allegiance to Parliament.
He would continue to oppose British measures to suppress the colonists. In May 1766, Sam Adams, Thomas Cushing, James Otis and a wealthy influential merchant named John Hancock were elected as Massachusetts’ representatives, destined to play a vital role in the coming severance of the colonies from the Mother country.
In March 1770, patriot blood was shed in the Boston Massacre. Sam Adams issued a threat to Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson that it was at his own peril if he refused to remove the British regiments from the city.
The Tea Act passed by Parliament in 1773 gave the British East India Tea Company a monopoly on tea sales in America. Sam Adams played a vital role in organizing the Boston Tea Party.
“Samuel Adams was the patient, persevering, ever watchful leader. His conspicuous ability in drafting documents became more and more apparent, and not a paper of any note was put forth which was not written by his pen,” writes Fallows in his book, coining history as ‘romantic, mysterious, inviting the imagination.’
“Better tidings will soon arrive. Our cause is just and righteous and we shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we show ourselves worthy of its aid and protection.” – Samuel Adams while encouraging wavering Continental Convention delegates in the gloomy winter of 1776-1777.
Among his accomplishments, he founded Boston’s Committee of Correspondence, which – like similar entities in other towns across the Colonies – proved a powerful tool for communication and coordination during the American Revolutionary War.
At first it was liberty within the laws of England for which Samuel Adams strove and that harmony be cultivated between Great Britain and the Colonies. But his views changed and he devoted himself body and soul as a firebrand for breaking the link that bound America to England, leading him to support and sign the Declaration of Independence.
Jeanne McKinney is an award-winning writer whose focus and passion is our United States active-duty military members and military news. Her Patriot Profiles offer an inside look at the amazing active-duty men and women in all Armed Services, including U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard. Reporting includes first-hand accounts of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against violent terror groups, global defense, tactical training and readiness, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance, next-generation defense technology, family survival at home, U.S. port and border protection and illegal immigration, women in combat, honoring the Fallen, Wounded Warriors, Military Working Dogs, Crisis Response, and much more. Starting in 2012, McKinney has won multiple San Diego Press Club “Excellence in Journalism Awards,” including eight “First Place” honors, as well as multiple second and third place recognition for her Patriot Profiles published printed articles. Including awards for Patriot Profiles military films. During the year 2020, McKinney has written and published dozens of investigative articles in her ongoing fight to preserve America the Republic, the Constitution, and its laws. One such story was selected for use in a legal brief in the national fight for 2020 election integrity.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
Father of the American Revolution, Puls, Mark, 2006. (Sam Adams early life)
Library of Congress: Fallows, Samuel, 1835-1922.
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[…] Samuel Adams believed that his ancestors’ voyage to America was rewarded by creating a society that “enjoyed more freedoms than anywhere in England,” writes Mark Puls in his biography of Samuel Adams. His family and other colonists lived under the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, a contract with the king that afforded them opportunities to pass laws and levy their own taxes. However, there was a tradeoff. The charter of 1691 turned Massachusetts, already relatively independent and autonomous, into a royal colony. William III was then the king of Britain and appointed his own governor and chief justice of the court, and the governor could veto legislation. Read Full Essay at Constituting America […]
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