In his 1936 biography Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda, John C. Miller wrote this about the leader of Boston’s Whig activists:
Sam Adams discovered these taverns with their “tippling, nasty, vicious crew” excellent recruiting grounds for the mobs he later raised against the Tories and Crown officers. Adams himself was a familiar figure in Boston taverns; one of his choice nicknames among the Tories was “Sam the Publican.” . . . Under Sam Adams, Boston taverns became nurseries of revolution…
Miller’s book capped off a shift in how American history books depicted Adams, from a staid, noble, and prescient political leader to a manipulative, malcontent radical. That trend began in 1923 as Ralph Volney Harlow’s psychoanalytic portrait argued that Adams was driven to anti-Crown politics by an inferiority complex and resentment of his father’s business setbacks. Miller called Adams a propagandist. Such biographies solidified an early-20th-century picture of Samuel Adams as hanging around taverns, haranguing from street corners, and deploying mobs like a puppeteer.
The new portrayal played down Adams’s devout faith, his education (an M.A. from Harvard), and his solidly genteel social status. It erased his most active colleagues among Boston’s Whigs, and it left the common people with no political will of their own. That depiction was as one-sided as the hagiographic portraits that had preceded it, but it has endured. One touchstone of this change was the shift from writing “Samuel Adams,” as contemporaries almost always referred to the man, to the more plebeian “Sam Adams.”
What evidence did Miller offer for his statement that Samuel Adams “was a familiar figure in Boston taverns”? Only the nickname “Sam the Publican.” Already that was distorting the record a little: Loyalist writers actually called Adams “Samuel the Publican.”
That nickname appeared first in a 1769 article by Boston Chronicle printer John Mein, a fervent supporter of the royal government in its disputes with Boston’s merchants and popular politicians. Mein gave all the town’s leading Whigs nicknames that were far from flattering: “Deacon Clodpate,” “William the Knave,” “Muddlehead,” and so on. John Hancock was “Johny Dupe, Esq.” Obviously, this was political invective, exaggerating or at least highlighting those men’s flaws.
But “Samuel the Publican” meant something quite different from what Miller assumed. The word “publican” had two meanings:
- someone who keeps a “public house,” or tavern.
- a businessman who contracts with a government to collect taxes in exchange for a fraction of the revenue (from the Latin publicanus).
Samuel Adams never kept a tavern, but he was a Boston tax collector from 1756 to early 1765. During the economic recession that followed the French & Indian War, he did not collect all the taxes due. Some historians suggest that he went easy on taxpayers to make himself popular. Whatever Adams might have planned, in 1767 the town government calculated that his account was in arrears by over £3,500, and the next year the Superior Court ordered him to pay £1,463.3.10 to Boston.
John Mein obviously wanted to say the worst about the royal government’s political enemies, and Adams’s most vulnerable spot was his outstanding debt. Other political attacks brought up the same issue. In April 1775, for example, a government supporter in London annotated a list of Patriots appointed to enforce the Continental Congress’s boycott on British goods. Beside Adams’s name that person wrote:
Formerly a collector of taxes and largely in debt to the Town of Boston. The principal spring and manager of plots and conspiracies against the State;—famous for smoking bacon and always shudders at the sight of hemp.
Nothing about taverns, but a clear reference to the tax debt (as well as the prospect of being hanged).
In 1809 the Rev. Dr. John Eliot, who had witnessed Boston’s pre-Revolutionary debates as a young man, wrote about Adams in his Biographical Dictionary. He stated that Adams’s “first office in the town was that of tax gatherer; which the opposite party in politicks often alluded to, and in their controversies would style him Samuel the Publican.”
Thus, Revolutionary Bostonians understood “Samuel the Publican” not to mean “Samuel who hangs around in taverns” but as “Samuel the tax collector who still owes Boston money.” That leaves Miller’s description of Adams as “a familiar figure in Boston taverns” with no supporting evidence. Many Americans in the early 20th century imagined radical organizers operating in such settings, but that wasn’t how Adams’s political opponents complained about him in the late 1700s.
So where did Adams really find young people to join his political faction? Once again, Loyalist writers had plenty to say. Printer John Mein also called him “The Psalm Singer, with the gifted face.” In a manuscript Mein explained that Adams was “noted for Psalm singing, & leader of the Band at Checkleys Meeting”—i.e., the Rev. Samuel Checkley’s congregation at the New South Meeting-House. (Adams’s first wife was Checkley’s daughter.) John Fleeming, Mein’s business partner, likewise referred to Adams as “the psalm singer” in a 1775 letter.
The most delightfully cranky Loyalist account of Boston’s pre-Revolutionary politics came from Peter Oliver—last royal Chief Justice of Massachusetts, brother of the second-to-last royal Lieutenant Governor, and related by marriage to the second-to-last royal Governor. Among Oliver’s complaints about Adams was that he
had a good Voice, & was a Master in vocal Musick. This Genius he improved, by instituting singing Societys of Mechanicks [i.e., craftsmen], where he presided; & embraced such Opportunities to ye inculcating Sedition.
Later in his account, Oliver referred to “Mr. Saml. Adams’s Psalm-singing Myrmidons.” Myrmidons were fierce warriors in the Trojan War, so for Oliver the phrase was an educated way of saying “Samuel Adams’s thugs.”
Thus, according to political opponents who thought the worst of Adams, he recruited new Sons of Liberty during choir rehearsals.
 Miller, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda (Boston: Little, Brown, 1936), 39. The phrase “tippling, nasty, vicious crew” was a quotation from Samuel Adams’s second cousin John, who was always uncomfortable with populist politics. Or rather, it was a quotation from John Adams’s diary as his grandson had transcribed and published it in the 1860s; The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1865), 2:85. The current edition of John Adams’s papers transcribes the phrase as “trifling, nasty vicious Crew”; 29 May 1760 entry, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, L. H. Butterfield, editor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), 1:129.
 Miller did not coin the phrase “Sam the Publican.” It had already appeared in Samuel Fallows’s Samuel Adams: A Character Sketch (Chicago: University Association, 1898), 101; and Claude H. Van Tyne, The Causes of the War of Independence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), 293. A separate tradition linking Adams to taverns, promoted today by the maker of Sam Adams Beer, asserts that he was a brewer. Adams inherited a malt business from his father in 1748, and a descendant’s admiring biography does refer to him as a young brewer; William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1865), 1:24. However, Adams left the malt trade early in favor of a career in government and was not considered a brewer in his lifetime.
 “Outlines of the characters of…the Well-Disposed,” Boston Chronicle, 23-26 October 1769. Mein reprinted this article as a pamphlet. The nickname “Samuel the Publican” also appeared in the Boston Censor, 21 December 1771.
 One can see Adams’s debt build up in the records of Boston’s town meetings: Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, 16 (1886), 92, 143-4, 200-3, 242-3, 271-2. In 1769, the town and province assigned the task of collecting the still-overdue taxes to another Whig activist. The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1886), 5:27, 55-6. Abner C. Goodell, Jr., “The Charges Against Samuel Adams,” Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 20 (1882-83), 213-26. Some of Adams’s political allies also pledged money to pay off this bill; “Subscribers toward Mr. Adams’s Debt,” New England Historic & Genealogical Register, 14 (1860), 262.