The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams


December 12, 2022
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown and Company, 2022)

Stacy Schiff, who previously authored an acclaimed book on the Salem witch trials, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (2015), has written an excellent biography of who Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “man of the Revolution,” Samuel Adams. The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams focuses on the activities of Samuel Adams in pre-war Boston. A hero whose star rose while he was middle-aged, Adams plagued the royal governor of colonial Massachusetts, acted as a mentor to John Hancock, and gained notoriety in Great Britain and France. He easily eclipsed his distant cousin John, which John experienced when travelling through Europe, disappointing many who expected him to be Samuel. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and later governor of Massachusetts, contemporaries considered Samuel Adams to be just as important as George Washington in securing American independence.

After Schiff relates the famous story of Adams and Hancock just barely escaping with their lives from Lexington on that famous April night in 1775, she proceeds to tell the story of how Adams became the revolutionary historians are familiar with. Adams was the son of a Boston public official (justice of the peace), and he entered Harvard at age thirteen. He led a seemingly unexciting life, not showing any of the qualities that he would use during the Imperial Crisis of the mid-eighteenth century. He was deeply pious and parsimonious, with an inability to succeed financially. Attracted to the ideals of the Enlightenment, Adams became involved early on with public service. His father was involved with a currency issue (the Land Bank) that deeply affected Boston, raising the question of Parliament’s actual authority in the colonies.

Adams’s rise to power began at age forty-one, when he was a widower devoted to his children and afflicted with quivering hands. He served as the “lieutenant, wingman, accomplice, ghostwriter, and editor” to James Otis, Jr. (page 67). Both Otis and Adams became problematic for Governor Francis Bernard and Supreme Court Justice Thomas Hutchinson. They believed that Hutchinson was the real danger to American liberties. Schiff describes how Adams used his political writing abilities to rail against the Sugar Act and later the Stamp Act, while Otis attacked the writs of assistance. Samuel Adams became an expert in the use of the pseudonym, a device that allowed him to provoke and stretch the truth when he needed to. He was able to rile up the Boston crowds to antagonize the British troops who were sent to keep order in the city. This atmosphere led to bloodshed when British troops fired on an unruly crowd on March 5, 1770. Adams took advantage of this sorry event and unleashed an effective anti-British propaganda campaign that spread through the colonies. He was also able to help his cousin establish his own revolutionary credentials when John Adams defending the Boston Massacre soldiers.

Samuel Adams continued to be more than a thorn in the side of Thomas Hutchinson, who was the royal governor by the time the accursed tea entered Boston Harbor in December 1773. In the eleventh chapter, “A Remarkable Instance of Order and Justice Among Savages,” Adams is the prime mover of events that would lead to the destruction of the tea. Schiff provides a dramatic play-by-play account of the actions of both Adams and Hutchinson. Adams may not have led the crowds to the wharves that night, but his presence was certainly felt.  The Boston Tea Party helped Adams accomplish his goal of ridding the colony of the unpopular Hutchinson, but a dismal punishment awaited Boston when military governor Thomas Gage arrived and shut down the harbor. Both Adams’s were selected to travel to Philadelphia to recruit support for Boston from the rest of the colonies at what became the First Continental Congress.

The remainder of the book glosses over the famous events of the American Revolution, from Lexington and Concord to the Declaration of Independence. After the war, Adams unhappily stood in the shadow of his younger protégé, John Hancock. The two men had contentious and complicated relationship. They had very different reactions to the 1785 insurrection known as Shays’s Rebellion: Adams called for the rebels to be executed en masse, while Governor Hancock pardoned them. A critic of George Washington and the Federalist Party, Adams became the governor upon the death of Hancock in 1793. He died in 1803, lauded as the “father of the American Revolution” by contemporaries (p. 325).

The most fascinating fact about Schiff’s The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams was that the book is not just a biography of Samuel Adams. It can be a three-person biography: Samuel Adams, James Otis, Jr., and Thomas Hutchinson. There is almost as much information about the roles played by both men connected to Adams. It is obvious that Adams’s role in the war for independence cannot be explored or understood without examining the lives of Otis, who prepared and “trained” Adams, and Hutchinson, whose actions prompted almost everything Adams did before 1775. The book is a fast-paced narrative, showing off Schiff’s original writing style. The color illustrations and the inside book pages are remarkable, making this work a coveted addition to every Revolutionary scholar’s bookcase.

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  • Tim Symington’s review essay on Sam Adams is a good example of why our country is so bitterly divided between a blue ethic with its feet in the Enlightenment and a red ethic which looks back to the Reformation. With barely a dismissive word about Adams’s religious calling, Symington ignores the fact that Adams was converted as a young man in the Great Awakening of 1741 and was faithful to its call that America was the new Israel and England the new Egypt from which his “Christian Sparta” needed to be free. The men who fought at Bunker Hill did so not just because of taxes. Sam’s more Enlightened cousin, John, while not as religious nevertheless knew , as he wrote, “if Parliament could tax us, they could establish the church of England with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies and tithes, and prohibit all other churches as conventicles and schism shops.” The tea tax and other political outrages were not the ultimate cause. The elite “Founding Fathers” had their reasons to rebel, but the common people had another.
    We look back to these elites wishing that they set the standard, that we are more like them than like the fiery Puritans. But acknowledging the role of religion then does not mean we have to ignore it now as a historical reality. My book Revolutionary Religion (Orchises Press, Alexandria, Va.) outlines the evidence of this neglect and offers several Radical sermons , long ignored by historians who slight religion, perhaps in fear of being identified with today’s Christian Nationalists, but religion was a strong part of the American character from the very start. We need to respect that reality if we are going to live together in peace.
    Dr David Williams
    PO Box 12
    Lincoln, Va 20160
    540-338-2503 dr*******@co*****.net

  • Thanks Tim for adding the lines about the book also dealing so much with James Otis and Thomas Hutchinson as well. That makes me more likely to read the book.

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