If Samuel Adams was Boston’s “leading agitator” and “engineer of rebellion,” as textbooks and popularizations commonly proclaim, we might assume he engineered the rebellion that swept through Massachusetts in the late summer and fall of 1774. He did in fact play a role in that uprising, but not the one commonly granted him.[i]
In 1772, working within Boston’s newly formed Committee of Correspondence, Adams coauthored a pamphlet that entreated Massachusetts townships to resist abuses of imperial authority. Following Boston’s example towns throughout the province soon created their own committees of correspondence, with local radicals taking the lead. In 1774, when the Massachusetts Government Act disenfranchised citizens by revoking key provisions of their 1691 Charter, the Berkshire Committees of Correspondence dispatched a missive to the Boston Committee of Correspondence. The Berkshire County courts were to be “the first in the province” to meet after the act took effect, the letter stated, and “people this way” would “by no means submit to the New Regulations.” They planned to prevent the courts from sitting “unless we should hear from you.” The Boston Committee gave its blessing, but Berkshire, the westernmost county in Massachusetts, had taken the lead.[ii]
Berkshire did close its courts on August 16, and Hampshire followed suit two weeks later. So did other counties. Each time a court was scheduled to convene under Parliament’s new rules, thousands of local citizens made certain it did not. Only in Boston, the seat of Suffolk County, could a court conduct business, protected by British troops.
Samuel Adams left Boston on August 10 for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and missed all this. Before departing, however, he discussed with Joseph Warren how to gain Congress’s endorsement for the escalating rebellion in Massachusetts. Accordingly, the Suffolk County Committees of Correspondence adopted a series of resolves, drafted by Warren, that condemned Parliament’s crackdown on Massachusetts. When Paul Revere carried these “Suffolk Resolves” to Philadelphia, congressional delegates unanimously declared that they “thoroughly approve” the “opposition” that “their countrymen in the Massachusetts-Bay” were presenting to “the late unjust, cruel, and oppressive acts of the British Parliament.”[iii]
No surprises so far, but the story continues. Delegates to the Suffolk County Convention opened their resolves with a pledge of allegiance to the British Crown and concluded by vowing, “from our affection to his majesty, which we have at all times evinced,… to act merely on the defensive” and within “reason.”[iv] After endorsing the Resolves, Congress underscored this sentiment by advising “the people of Boston and the Massachusetts-bay … still to conduct themselves peaceably towards his excellency General Gage, and his majesty’s troops now stationed in the town of Boston, as far as can possibly be consistent with their immediate safety, and the security of the town; avoiding & discountenancing every violation of his Majesty’s property, or any insult to his troops, and that they peaceably and firmly persevere in the line they are now conducting themselves, on the defensive.”[v]
Much is made of Congress’s support of the Suffolk Resolves, but rarely do we hear the price of securing unanimity. Moderate delegates, not wishing to appear unpatriotic, granted their assent, but only with the condition that the people of Massachusetts refrain from acting rashly. At the risk of losing congressional support, they had to act peaceably and always on the defensive.
But Suffolk did not speak for all of Massachusetts. Other counties, as they closed their courts, also issued resolves, and they did not all pledge to remain so well behaved.[vi] In the first few days of September, spurred by rumors, tens of thousands of militiamen had marched toward Boston to confront British troops, and although they turned back when the rumors proved false, many came to believe that attacking the British garrison in Boston, before it could be reinforced, was not such a bad idea after all.
Country radicals also wanted to revamp their form of government. While moderates favored a return to the 1691 Charter, which the Massachusetts Government Act had undermined, many on the front lines of the rebellion preferred the original charter, issued in 1629, under which the governor was not appointed by the Crown. The Worcester Town Meeting, more radical yet, wanted “to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix, a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.”[vii] This new government, answerable only to the people, would be beyond the reach of both Crown and Parliament. The Worcester Town Meeting was the first public body in British North America to advocate a new and independent government—in effect, the earliest declaration of independence, issued twenty-one months before Congress issued its declaration.
Back in Philadelphia, the very mention of independence triggered a backlash. When George Washington heard from a friend that the “fixed aim” of Massachusetts patriots was “total independence,” he rushed to “the Boston gentn. [gentlemen]” in Congress and asked them if this were true. It was not true, John Adams and Samuel Adams told him, even though their own contacts had reported that there was plenty of talk about independence. Misled but duly satisfied, Washington told his informant that he had learned “the real sentiments of the people” from their “leaders.” He could now affirm “with a degree of confidence & boldness … that it is not the wish, or the interest of the government, or any other upon this continent, separately or collectively, to set up for independency. … [N]o such thing is desired by any thinking man in all North America.”[viii]
The Adams cousins had lied to Washington. They knew very well that radicals talked of attacking the British garrison and moving toward independence, but they also knew that Congress would withdraw its support if Massachusetts followed that course. With a sense of urgency, they entreated allies back home to slow down the revolution-in-the-making. Samuel Adams wrote to Plymouth’s James Warren:
I beseech you to implore every Friend in Boston by every thing dear and sacred to Men of Sense and Virtue to avoid Blood and Tumult. They will have time enough to dye. Let them give the other Provinces opportunity to think and resolve. Rash Spirits that would by their Impetuosity involve us in unsurmountable Difficulties will be left to perish by themselves despisd by their Enemies, and almost detested by their Friends. Nothing can ruin us but our Violence.[ix]
He wrote also to Joseph Warren:
As the all-important American cause so much depends upon each colony’s acting agreeably to the sentiments of the whole, it must be useful to you to know the sentiments which are entertained here of the temper and conduct of our province. Heretofore we have been accounted by many, intemperate and rash; but now we are universally applauded as cool and judicious, as well as spirited and brave. This is the character we sustain in congress. There is, however, a certain degree of jealousy in the minds of some, that we aim at a total independency, not only of the mother-country, but of the colonies too; and that, as we are a hardy and brave people, we shall in time overrun them all. However groundless this jealousy may be, it ought to be attended to, and is of weight in your deliberations …
The congress have, in their resolve of the 17th instant, given their sanction to the resolutions of the county of Suffolk, one of which is to act merely on the defensive, so long as such conduct may be justified by reason and the principles of self-preservation, but no longer… I have been assured, in private conversation with individuals, that, if you should be driven to the necessity of acting in the defence of your lives or liberty, you would be justified by their constituents, and openly supported by all the means in their power; but whether they will ever be prevailed upon to think it necessary for you to set up another form of government, I very much question.[x] (Emphasis in the original.)
Rather than forming a new government, which would frighten away needed allies, Adams suggested that Massachusetts “abide by the present form of government—I mean by the present charter.” Council members who had been elected the previous May could replace those whom the Crown had appointed pursuant to the Massachusetts Government Act. The Council and the elected Assembly would then convene and “jointly proceed to the public business.” The governorship would remain vacant, with the Council assuming all executive functions until the Crown appointed a governor willing to work under the 1691 Charter. Since most of the apparatus would remain unaltered, Adams viewed this as the most conservative option, the least likely to cause alarm.[xi]
In a similar vein, John Adams warned his brother-in-law Joseph Palmer, soon to be a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, that the support of the Continental Congress had its limits:
It is the universal Sense here that the Mass. Acts and the Murder Act [Massachusetts Government Act and Administration of Justice Act] ought not to be Submitted to a Moment. But then, when you ask the Question what is to be done? They answer Stand still—bear, with Patience, if you come to a Rupture with the Troops all is lost. Resuming the first Charter, absolute Independency, &c., are Ideas which Startle People here.[xii]
To William Tudor, his former law clerk, he wrote:
The Proposal of Some among you of resuming the old Charter, is not approved here, at all. The Proposal of Setting up a new Form of Government of our own, is less approved Still… If it is the secret hope of many [in Massachusetts], as I suspect it is, that the Congress will advise to offensive measures, they will be mistaken. I have had opportunities enough both public and private, to learn with Certainty, the decisive Sentiments of the Delegates and others, upon this Point. They will not at this Session vote to raise Men or Money, or Arms or Ammunition. Their opinions are fixed against Hostilities and Ruptures, except they should become absolutely necessary, and this Necessity they do not yet See. They dread the Thoughts of an Action because, it would make a Wound which could never be healed. It would fix and establish a Rancour, which would descend to the latest Generations: It would render all Hopes of a Reconciliation with Great Britain desperate. It would light up the Flames of War, perhaps through the whole Continent, which might rage for twenty year, and End, in the Subduction of America, as likely as in her Liberation.[xiii]
Would the people back home heed these warnings?
That was to be settled by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. According to one modern college text, “John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other colonial leaders then convened a Provincial Congress to govern Massachusetts without Gage,” but this misrepresents that body’s genesis.[xiv] On August 13, three days after Samuel Adams departed for Philadelphia, activists in Worcester County received intelligence that Gage was planning to send a regiment of troops to protect the Worcester courts on September 6. Not wanting to face British Regulars on its own, Worcester at once sought support. On August 15 the town of Worcester’s Committee of Correspondence wrote to its Boston counterpart:
As we think it necessary the Counties through the Province should adopt as near as possible one form of procedure we take the liberty to propose if you think best that you appoint a meeting of your committee on the 26th day of this month at 2 o’clock PM and request the attendance of the committees of Charleston, Cambridge and as many more of the neighboring towns in that County as will be Convenient and we will depute one or more of our committee to attend. By that means we think there may be a plan of operation agreed upon that will easily be adopted by the Counties of Suffolk, Middlesex and Worcester which in all probability will run through the Province.[xv]
Boston agreed to host the meeting and added towns in Essex County to the list of invitees.[xvi] So on August 26, as Worcester stipulated, representatives from the province’s most populous counties convened at Faneuil Hall, hallowed meeting place for Boston’s patriots over the previous decade. This group then called upon the towns to select representatives to a “Provincial Congress” and to “resolutely execute” whatever measures that congress adopted.[xvii]
Within the Provincial Congress, Joseph Warren reported, “The town of Boston is by far the most moderate part of the province.”[xviii] Despite vows of secrecy, word leaked out that country radicals were pushing to attack the British garrison. Boston merchant John Andrews, who until then had been commenting favorably on patriot resistance, complained that the Provincial Congress was “principally compos’d of spirited, obstinate countrymen, who have very little patience to boast of.”[xix] James Lovell, a lifetime Bostonian who helped his father run the Boston Latin School, echoed this: “It is become a downright task for the warmest patriots of our Town [Boston] and County [Suffolk] to confine the spirit of the other Counties.”[xx]
Having successfully unseated British authority throughout the province, rural radicals had momentum in their favor, but the political playing field was shifting. Critical decisions were no longer made in isolate meetinghouses but in a province-wide deliberative chamber, where moderates from Boston and other seaboard towns applied restraint. Although they were outnumbered, these easterners used their social standing, education, and familiarity with political maneuvering to temper the actions of the Provincial Congress. Historian L. Kinvin Wroth calculates that twenty-three out of the thirty-four men who held multiple assignments or who served on committees that initiated policies came from Boston or other “major trading towns.”[xxi] Even though these gentlemen accounted for only twenty percent of the delegates, they were able to slow the pace of revolution. The Provincial Congress did not sanction an attack on Boston, nor did it declare independence. It even shied from calling itself a “government.” Although it raised funds and gathered supplies for an army of 15,000, it did not pass laws, only “recommendations.” It governed de facto but not de jure. It prepared for war but dutifully did not initiate one.
Samuel Adams, with John Adams and other astute political figures, essentially brokered a deal between Massachusetts insurgents and more cautious leaders from other colonies. At least in this instance, he functioned as mediator. He was far more than a “genuine revolutionary agitator,” the facile label another college text pins on him.[xxii]
To misrepresent the role of Samuel Adams in the province-wide rebellion of 1774 is to misread the political dynamics between the Continental Congress and Massachusetts radicals during the critical months preceding Lexington and Concord.[xxiii] It even conceals the significance of those opening confrontations. Only because the people of Massachusetts had refrained from openly taking the offensive, despite their superior numbers, could the British assault on two Middlesex towns in April 1775 produce the response it did throughout the colonies.
[i] These characterizations come from current college textbooks: Joseph R. Conlin, The American Past: A Survey of American History, Tenth Edition (Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2014), 139, and David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant, volume 1, Fifteenth Edition (Cengage Learning 2014), 115. Most other texts and popular histories treat Adams as a prime mover—sometimes the prime mover—of the Revolution. In the words of Thomas Fleming, “Without Boston’s Sam Adams, there might never have been an American Revolution.” (Liberty! The American Revolution [New York: Viking, 1997], 83.)
[ii] Berkshire Committee to Boston Committee, July 25, 1774, L. Kinvin Wroth, ed., Province in Rebellion: A Documentary History of the Founding of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1774-1775 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 753.
[iv] William Lincoln, ed., The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety, with an Appendix, containing the Proceedings of the County Conventions (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 601-5. https://archive.org/details/journalsofeach177417mass
[v] Journals of Continental Congress, October 11, 1774, 1:61-62.
[vi] The proceedings of other county conventions appear in Lincoln, Journals of Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, 609-60.
[vii] Franklin P. Rice, ed., “Worcester Town Records (1784-1800),” Collections of Worcester Society of Antiquity, 8:244, or Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 1312. This page of the Worcester Town Records, photographed from the original housed with the City Clerk at Worcester’s City Hall, is on the documents page of rayraphael.com, viewable here. The wording originated in the American Political Society, which approved the measure the day before the town meeting. (American Political Society, Minutes, October 3, 1774, archived at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, reproduced on the documents page of rayraphael.com and viewable here.)
[viii] Robert McKenzie to Washington, September 13, 1774, and Washington to Robert McKenzie, October 9, 1774, The Papers of George Washington (Colonial Series), W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds., 10:161 and 10:171-72; George Washington, The Diaries of George Washington, Donald Jackson, ed., (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 10:161, 171-72.
[ix] Samuel Adams to James Warren, writing from Philadelphia, fall of 1774, Warren-Adams Letters (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1917), 26. This letter was clearly written from Philadelphia, as stated in the Warren-Adams Letters, but it could not have been written on May 21, as indicated there. Adams was not in Philadelphia at the time, and the context would not fit. It does mesh perfectly with everything else Adams was writing in September and October, 1774.
[x] Samuel Adams to Joseph Warren, September 25, 1774, The Writings of Samuel Adams, Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 3:158-59.
[xi] Samuel Adams to Joseph Warren, September (no date), 1774, Ibid., 157.
[xii] John Adams to Joseph Palmer, September 26, 1774, Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor, ed., (Cambridge: Kelknap Press, 1977-), 2:173.
[xiii] John Adams to William Tudor, October 7, 1774, Ibid., 2:187-88.
[xiv] Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner, Peter B. Levy, Randy Roberts, Alan Taylor, United States History, Survey Edition (Prentice Hall, 2013), 108.
[xv] Worcester Committee to Boston Committee, August 15, 1774, Boston Committee of Correspondence, Correspondence and Proceedings, Bancroft Collection, New York Public Library, microfilm reel 2, letter 498, reproduced in Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 808. For intelligence on Gage’s intentions, see Donald E. Johnson, Worcester in the War for Independence (Clark University: PhD Thesis, 1953), 63, and John Andrews’ letter of August 13: “It’s currently reported that a regiment is to go to Worcester to protect the Court, which is to sit there soon.” (“Letters of John Andrews of Boston, 1772-1776,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 8 (1864-1865), 341.)
[xvi] Boston’s August 17 response to Worcester’s letter is in Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 812-13.
[xvii] Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 689–692. For county populations in 1776, see Lincoln, Journals of Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, 755.
[xviii] Joseph Warren to Josiah Quincy, Jr., November 21, 1774, reprinted in Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1865), 395.
[xix] Andrews, “Letters,” 380-81.
[xx] James Lovell to Josiah Quincy, Jr., October 28, 1774, Clarke and Force, American Archives, Fourth Series, 1:948: http://amarch.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A78602
[xxi] Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 81–2.
[xxii] Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty, The American Nation: A History of the United States, Fourteenth Edition (Pearson, 2012), 104.
[xxiii] Several leading historians have mistakenly placed Adams with Massachusetts radicals at this juncture. Richard Beeman, in his excellent narrative of the Continental Congress, has Adams writing “passionate letters to his radical lieutenants in Boston urging them on to ever more militant action”—the exact opposite of Adams’s entreaties to James Warren and Joseph Warren. (Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence [New York: Basic Books, 2013], 136.) Merrill Jensen, in my mind the top Revolutionary scholar of his generation, reports: “Philadelphians heard that it was Samuel Adams who moved to raise 20,000 men to attack the king’s soldiers at once.” Taking this at face value, Jensen goes on to say that when Thomas Cushing “objected that the other colonies would not approve,” Adams insisted that “the other colonies would help”—again, the opposite of what Adams was reporting. (The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776 [Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004; originally published in 1968], 562. Robert Middlekauff, in his classic narrative of the Revolution, repeats Jensen’s account and adds that when Adams returned to Massachusetts in November, “he rather liked what he heard from western tongues.” (The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1982], 256-57.) That such eminent historians have allowed a rumor from Philadelphia to override the readily accessible words of Adams himself demonstrates the reach, and the danger, of assuming Adams was always an “instigator.” When the rumor reached Adams, he called it “only as one of the many Falsehoods which I know to have been propagated by the Enemies of America.” (Adams to Stephen Collins, January 31, 1775, Adams, Writings, 3:173.) This is credible. In fact, an embittered Joseph Galloway was leading a campaign to discredit his arch-enemy by attributing to him the most extreme positions.