Not that younger readers may be interested enough in history to care, but they probably recognize the name of Sam Adams as that of a brand of beer. Adams tried his hand at operating a brewery, but that was not his greatest success. Adams was one of Boston’s most prominent revolutionary leaders, known for his ability to harness popular resentment against Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies, and he was pivotal in the success of the Boston Tea Party.
Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter
"By request of George Barr, I am pleased to present a brief biographical sketch of one of the most endeared and controversial founding fathers – Samuel Adams."
Samuel Adams was an American statesman, political philosopher, and a Founding Father of the United States. He was a politician in colonial Massachusetts, a leader of the movement that became the American Revolution, and one of the architects of the principles of American republicanism that shaped the political culture of the United States. He was a second cousin to his fellow Founding Father, President John Adams.
Adams was born in Boston on September 16, 1722, brought up in a religious and politically active family which shaped his morals and beliefs throughout his life. Adams was one of twelve children born to Samuel Adams, Sr., and Mary (Fifield) Adams. In an age of high infant mortality, only three of these children lived past their third birthday. Adams's parents were devout Puritans and members of the Old South Congregational Church. The family lived on Purchase Street in Boston. Adams was proud of his Puritan heritage, and emphasized Puritan values in his political career, especially virtue.
His father was a prosperous merchant and church deacon who became a leading figure in Boston politics through an organization that became known as the Boston Caucus, which promoted candidates who supported popular causes. Members of the Caucus helped shape the agenda of the Boston Town Meeting which is a form of local government with elected officials, and not just a gathering of citizens; according to historian William Fowler, it was "the most democratic institution in the British empire". Deacon Adams rose through the political ranks, becoming a justice of the peace, a selectman, and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He worked closely with Elisha Cooke, Jr., the leader of the "popular party", a faction that resisted any encroachment by royal officials on the colonial rights embodied in the Massachusetts Charter of 1691. In the coming years, members of the "popular party" became known as Whigs or Patriots.
After graduating Harvard in 1743, Adams was unsure about his future. He considered becoming a lawyer but instead decided to go into business. He worked at Thomas Cushing's counting house, but the job only lasted a few months because Cushing felt that Adams was too preoccupied with politics to become a good merchant. Adams's father then lent him £1,000 to go into business for himself, a substantial amount for that time. Adams's lack of business instincts were confirmed; he lent half of this money to a friend who never repaid, and frittered away the other half. Adams always remained, in the words of historian Pauline Maier, "a man utterly uninterested in either making or possessing money."
After Adams had lost his money, his father made him a partner in the family's malthouse, which was next to the family home on Purchase Street. Several generations of the Adams family were maltsters, who produced the malt necessary for brewing beer. Years later, a poet poked fun at Adams by calling him "Sam the maltster." (Though Sam Adams has often been described as a brewer, the evidence suggests that he worked as a maltster and not a brewer.)
In January 1748, Adams and some friends were inflamed by British impressment and launched "The Independent Advertiser," a weekly newspaper that printed many political essays written by Adams. His essays drew heavily upon English political theorist John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, and they emphasized many of the themes that characterized his subsequent career. He argued that the people must resist any encroachment on their rights. He cited the decline of the Roman Empire as an example of what could happen to New England if it were to abandon its Puritan values.
When Deacon Adams died in 1748, Adams was given the responsibility of managing the family's affairs. In October 1749, he married Elizabeth Checkley, his pastor's daughter. Elizabeth gave birth to six children over the next seven years, but only two lived to adulthood: Samuel and Hannah. In July 1757, Elizabeth died soon after giving birth to a stillborn son. Adams remarried in 1764 to Elizabeth Wells but had no other children.
Like his father, Adams embarked on a political career with the support of the Boston Caucus. He was elected to his first political office in 1747, serving as one of the clerks of the Boston market. In 1756, the Boston Town Meeting elected him to the post of tax collector, which provided a small income. He often failed to collect taxes from his fellow citizens, which increased his popularity among those who did not pay but left him liable for the shortage. By 1765, his account was more than £8,000 in arrears. The town meeting was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Adams was compelled to file suit against delinquent taxpayers, but many taxes went uncollected. In 1768, his political opponents used the situation to their advantage, obtaining a court judgment of £1,463 against him. Adams's friends paid off some of the deficit, and the town meeting wrote off the remainder. By then, he had emerged as a leader of the popular party, and the embarrassing situation did not lessen his influence.
He was an influential official of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Boston Town Meeting in the 1760s, and he became a part of a movement opposed to the British Parliament's efforts to tax the British American colonies without their consent. His 1768 Massachusetts Circular Letter calling for colonial non-cooperation prompted the occupation of Boston by British soldiers, eventually resulting in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Adams and his colleagues devised a committee of correspondence system in 1772 to help coordinate resistance to what he saw as the British government's attempts to violate the British Constitution at the expense of the colonies, which linked like-minded Patriots throughout the Thirteen Colonies. Continued resistance to British policy resulted in the 1773 Boston Tea Party and the coming of the American Revolution. Adams was actively involved with colonial newspapers publishing accounts of colonial sentiment over British colonial rule, which were fundamental in uniting the colonies.
Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774, at which time Adams attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia which was convened to coordinate a colonial response. He helped guide Congress towards issuing the Continental Association in 1774 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and he helped draft the Articles of Confederation and the Massachusetts Constitution. Adams was the Massachusetts delegate appointed to the committee to draft the Articles of Confederation, the plan for the colonial confederation. With its emphasis on state sovereignty, the Articles reflected Congress's wariness of a strong central government, a concern shared by Adams. Like others at the time, Adams considered himself a citizen of the United States while continuing to refer to Massachusetts as his "country". After much debate, the Articles were sent to the states for ratification in November 1777. From Philadelphia,
Adams urged Massachusetts to ratify, which it did. Adams signed the Articles of Confederation with the other Massachusetts delegates in 1778, but they were not ratified by all the states until 1781.
While Adams was attending the ratifying convention, his only son, Samuel Adams, died at just 37 years of age. The younger Adams had served as surgeon in the Revolutionary War but had fallen ill and never fully recovered. The death was a stunning blow to the elder Adams. The younger Adams left his father the certificates that he had earned as a soldier, giving Adams and his wife unexpected financial security in their final years. Investments in land made them relatively wealthy by the mid-1790s, but this did not alter their frugal lifestyle.
When Adams returned to Massachusetts, he served in the state senate and was eventually elected Lieutenant Governor and then Governor. (Coincidentally, he replaced Benjamin Lincoln as Lt. Governor for whom Lincoln County NC is named.) Adams focused his political agenda on promoting virtue, which he considered essential in a republican government. If republican leaders lacked virtue, he believed, liberty was endangered. His major opponent in this campaign was his former protégé John Hancock; the two men had a falling out in the Continental Congress. Adams disapproved of what he viewed as Hancock's vanity and extravagance, which Adams believed were inappropriate in a republican leader. When Hancock left Congress in 1777, Adams and the other Massachusetts delegates voted against thanking him for his service as president of Congress. The struggle continued in Massachusetts. Adams thought that Hancock was not acting the part of a virtuous republican leader by acting like an aristocrat and courting popularity. Adams favored James Bowdoin for governor and was distressed when Hancock won annual landslide victories.
Adams's promotion of public virtue took several forms. He played a major role in getting Boston to provide a free public education for children, even for girls, which was controversial. Adams was one of the charter members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. After the Revolutionary War, Adams joined others, including Thomas Jefferson, in denouncing the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former army officers. Adams worried that the Society was "a stride towards a hereditary military nobility", and thus a threat to republicanism. Adams also believed that public theaters undermined civic virtue, and he joined an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep theaters banned in Boston. Decades after Adams's death, orator Edward Everett called him "the last of the Puritans".
Adams was concerned about the new Constitution and made an attempt to re-enter national politics. He allowed his name to be put forth as a candidate for the House of Representatives in the December 1788 election, but lost to Fisher Ames, apparently because Ames was a stronger supporter of the Constitution, a more popular position. Despite his defeat, Adams continued to work for amendments to the Constitution, a movement that ultimately resulted in the addition of a Bill of Rights in 1791. Adams subsequently became a firm supporter of the Constitution, with these amendments and the possibility of more.
In 1789, Adams was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts and served in that office until Governor Hancock's death in 1793, when he became acting governor. The next year, Adams was elected as governor in his own right, the first of four annual terms. He was generally regarded as the leader of his state's Jeffersonian Republicans, who were opposed to the Federalist Party. Unlike some other Republicans, Adams supported the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 for the same reasons that he had opposed Shays’ Rebellion. Like his fellow Republicans, he spoke out against the Jay Treaty in 1796, a position that drew criticism in a state that was increasingly Federalist. In that year's U. S.
presidential election, Republicans in Virginia cast 15 electoral votes for Adams in an effort to make him Jefferson's vice-president, but Federalist John Adams won the election, with Jefferson becoming vice-president. The Adams cousins remained friends, but Samuel was pleased when Jefferson defeated John Adams in the 1800 presidential election.
Samuel Adams took a cue from President Washington, who declined to run for reelection in 1796: he retired from politics at the end of his term as governor in 1797. Adams suffered from what is now believed to have been essential tremor, a movement disorder that rendered him unable to write in the final decade of his life. He died at the age of 81 on October 2, 1803. He was interred at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. Boston's Republican newspaper the Independent Chronicle eulogized him as the "Father of the American Revolution."
Samuel Adams later became a controversial figure in American history. Accounts written in the 19th century praised him as someone who had been steering his fellow colonists towards independence long before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. This view was challenged by negative assessments of Adams in the first half of the 20th century, mostly by British historians, in which he was portrayed as a master of propaganda who provoked "mob violence" to achieve his goals. However, according to biographer Mark Puls, a different account emerges upon examination of Adams' many writings regarding the civil rights of the colonists, while the "mob" referred to be a highly reflective group of men inspired by Adams who made his case with reasoned arguments in pamphlets and newspapers, without the use of emotional rhetoric.