You Won’t Believe How Samuel Adams Recruited Sons of Liberty

Prewar Politics (<1775)

February 5, 2014
by J. L. Bell Also by this Author


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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…[1]

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.[2] 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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.”[7]

Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_DieThus, 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.[8] (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.[9]

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.”[10] 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.

[Featured Image]

[1] 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.

[2] Harlow, Samuel Adams: Promoter of the American Revolution: A Study in Psychology and Politics (New York: Henry Holt, 1923).

[3] 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.

[4] “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.

[5] 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.

[6] Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 32 (1897-99), 140.

[7] John Eliot, A Biographical Dictionary, Containing a Brief Account of the First Settlers, and Other Eminent Characters…in New-England (Salem: Cushing & Appleton, 1809), 6.

[8] Mein, “A Key to a certain Publication,” in Sparks Manuscripts, New England Papers, 10:3:45-7, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[9] Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, series 1 (1859 edition), 1:88.

[10] Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View, Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, editors (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1961), 41, 74.


  • Mr. Bell, thank you for a very entertaining and interesting look at Sam through various eyes. I believe his organization and use of the Sons of Liberty was particularly well done considering the difficulties of managing, or rather trying to manage, any united front group. In my opinion, Hiller B. Zobel’s book “The Boston Massacre” (New York: Norton, 1970) presents the most comprehensive overview of his strength in this regard.

    1. I admired Hiller Zobel’s Boston Massacre greatly. At the same time, I think Pauline Maier’s review of the book when it was first published made important points about ascribing too many developments in Boston to Samuel Adams working behind the scenes. For one thing, the populace and slices of it had their own motivations and wills separate from Adams. For another, Whigs like William Molineux and Dr. Thomas Young were by all indications closer to the crowds. But there was no doubt that on 6 Mar 1770 Adams guided and spoke for the indignant town, insisting that Gov. Hutchinson and Col. Dalrymple remove the troops to Castle William.

  • Delightful piece! I’d be curious to know if there’s any revealing commentary on Adams from Sam’s cousin, John.

    1. John Adams was almost always admiring toward his older cousin Samuel. (I recall one diary entry that might have been mildly critical, but would have to dig it up.) In contrast, John Adams left more critical comments about other Whig leaders like James Otis, Jr. (in his diary at the time), and William Molineux (in letters years later). I take that as another sign that Samuel Adams didn’t really practice the sort of populist politicking that John Adams disliked.

  • Thank you Mr. Bell for another interesting article. I too was always under the impression that Samuel Adams was one who knew the ins and outs of most every tavern in Boston. I too would be curious to know if John Adams had anything to add to this. What book would you recommend regarding Samuel Adams? Thank you for your time.

    1. In the last generation we’ve seen a turn away from the Harlow/Miller/Beach portrayal of Samuel Adams toward, I think, a more balanced picture. Pauline Maier’s chapter on him in The Old Revolutionaries is very good. Ben Irvin’s short biography written for general audiences and Ira Stoll’s more politically-minded biography are both solid work.

    1. The imagery of Samuel Adams conducting a choir of new “Sons of Liberty” recruits as they sing “Chester” and “Rose of Sharon” boggles my mind. I wonder if William Billings’ influence has been underestimated? Popular choir singing was relatively new and “hip” in New England at the time, and it certainly created a powerful avenue for organized resistance. It should also be noted that back then, choir singing was akin to a playing in a modern day garage band.

  • Interesting essay. Myrmidons had a distinctly maritime connotation in Boston on the eve of the Revolution. The term was used most frequently in newspapers to refer to press gangs. In this light, I wonder if Adams’ psalm-singing Myrmidon Mechanicks (possibly a great book title) referred to waterfront artisans – carpenters, sail makers, shipbuilders, etc…

  • Based on what I’ve read through the years, I had an impression of him as being something between an angry street punk and an 18th century Godfather. This article really helped alter that perception.

    It *is* ironic, however, to see his name on a bottle of beer, considering he drove his father’s brewery into the ground. Even funnier how the picture looks more like Paul Revere.

    1. I believe the Sam Adams Beer label was a melding of Copley’s portraits of Adams and Revere. The open collar, shirt sleeves, and brown hair (or wig?) are from Revere. The facial structure is from Adams.

  • Nice work, John! Super history, and cleverly written and conceived. Cracking the “Sam” Adams myths is tough work, it’s so deeply ingrained. Particular thanks to the shout-out for Pauline — her work on Adams has been sorely neglected in popular history.

    1. Puls relies on older secondary sources, which I think leads to some errors and lack of nuance. That book was also poorly edited.

      After my previous answer about books, I realized that William Fowler’s Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan is still available. It’s a short, solid biography. It also happens to be the book that set me off on Revolutionary research sixteen years ago.

  • Thank you, Mr. Bell for an interesting article about Mr. Samuel Adams. I couldn’t help noticing that the abrupt turn around in his historical reputation came amid the post World War I reaction to the Progressive Era and its apparent labor unrest. Any thoughts?

    1. Yes, I think the changes in how historians viewed Adams reflect growing worry about social or economic unrest in contemporary American culture.

      In addition, the early 1900s was an era of debunking in American historiography, with more skeptical looks at all the men held up as heroes in previous generations. That was overall a good thing, but in some cases it resulted in an image different from before but just as flat.

  • As always, great work, J.L. I had run across a reference lately in some book which of course escapes me, claiming that – only Samuel Adams’ enemies called him “Sam Adams”. Any truth to this that you’re aware of? Not that my beer buying habits will be curtailed regardless of his name, you understand.

    1. I’ve come across a reference to “Sam Adams” from the Rev. William Gordon, who was friendly and admiring toward Adams, so I don’t think that blanket statement is accurate. Another wrinkle is that people used a lot of abbreviations in casual writing then, so some might have written “Sam: Adams” while thinking “Samuel Adams” in their heads.

      Adams himself abbreviated his first name as “Saml” when signing the Declaration of Independence, with the L small and elevated so many people read it as “Sam.”

  • Jean Fritz has written a nice series of books on Sam Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Paul Revere…They are considered children’s books, but they are very enjoyable.

  • My ancestor, Dr. George Tod of VA, owned a tavern, hosted the Committee of Safety, and provided bacon to Washington & Rochambeau on their way to Yorktown. He was a doctor and tailor. So, if you had an accident, he could sew you and your clothes up, too! 🙂 He originally settled in Port Royal, VA, but moved to Villeboro because there were too many Tories in Port Royal. If you have ever trained at Ft. A.P. Hill or attended a National Boy Scout Jamboree there, you might have entered at the Villeboro entrance. You might have seen an Osage Orange tree there with some weird, lumpy lime green balls underneath.

  • Interesting article! It certainly shows the importance of historians relying on original sources. I flipped through David Conroy’s book on taverns and Revolutionary Massachusetts and to his credit he does not repeat the myth, even though he was probably sorely tested to do so. Ian Stoll’s biogrpahy of Sam Adams shows him to be pretty religious, so from that perspective it would also be somewhat unusual to see him frequenting taverns.

  • Just when you think you know someone… Really, I love getting my head bent like this. Especially when I saw a documentary that showed him going from smoky tavern to smoky tavern, rousing up the rabble.

    One point that documentary also made is that Adams, even around the taverns, never drank. I found that delightfully ironic, with him holding up that mug on the beer bottles, so is at least that part true?

  • “Publican” for eighteen-century readers would also have had biblical connotations of the publicans who appear several times in the New Testament – usually portrayed favorably by the Gospel writers as repentant sinners, but nonetheless often appearing in conjunction with (also repentant) “harlots.”

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