Sam Adams: the first professional revolutionary

It’s high time we reclaimed and celebrated this gleeful scheming propagandist and rabble-rouser of the first order, without whom the American Revolution might not have occurred.

Guy Rundle

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One night in 1775, with the British approaching, a Massachusetts silversmith who was part of the radical movement to free the American colonies from Britain took to his horse, to make a dangerous ride ahead of the British army. His principal purpose was to warn two revolutionary leaders that events were on the move, and on the way to rouse as many of the revolutionary minutemen as he could.

Today Paul Revere, for it was he, remains famous, even proverbial. But it is one of the ironies of history that the principal man he went to warn – Samuel Adams – is half-forgotten by the citizens of the country that he, perhaps more than any other single person, caused to come into being. Indeed, Adams is now most famous to Americans as a brand of boutique beer that is made in his hometown.

As George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, year by year, ascend further to heaven on a growing pile of studies and biographies – themselves outdone by the Lincoln industry – Sam Adams occupies a marginal place in the American imagination, as one of the early Boston patriots, an agitator eclipsed by the momentous events of the Revolutionary War itself and the Declaration of Independence. Every five or 10 years, a new study or biography comes out, telling the story of this man who welded first Boston and then the colonies into a unified force defined by the notion of independence; who shaped the event that shaped the more famous founding fathers. Every five or 10 years, there is a brief flurry of interest, and then Adams is forgotten again.

Though Ira Stoll’s new biography is at best only a middling effort in bringing Adams to life, it may succeed where others have failed, for reasons that have much to do with the reasons why big Sam usually drops down the memory hole.

Contrary to received opinion, the American Revolution began not with the drafting of noble and soaring documents by a Virginia philosopher-slave owner, but in the roiling and turbulent port of Boston in the 1760s. More than any other city in the thirteen colonies, Boston took both its politics and religion seriously, its Established Congregationalist church identifying firmly with the revolutionary Puritan traditions of seventeenth-century England. Its seat of learning, Harvard College, had branched out from the training of clergymen, to become a seat of rationalist philosophy and the early Enlightenment, the focus of a passionate interest in the New England colonies in the question of natural rights and laws, independent of traditional notions of attachment, rank and privilege.

Adams, the son of a maltster, was part of that rising generation of the mid-eighteenth century. One of the first recorded comments about him is that he was too busy reading books on politics to be much use around the counting house to which he had been apprenticed. The reading, and soon the writing for Boston’s numerous publications, occupied him so much that his efforts in one or two early professions were indifferent at best – he was eventually relieved of his job as a tax agent because so many levies went uncollected. The reasons for his distraction are not hard to find: by the 1760s, the British authorities were imposing an increasingly arbitrary series of taxes on commodity trade – tea, sugar – as a way of paying for their wars with other European powers.

In the received, and off-puttingly tedious, version of that period, the Bostonians rise as one group of free citizens and toss the tea and the British back into the Atlantic. The reality was more complicated, and it is here that Adams emerges as an historical figure. The taxes, though high-handed, were hardly crippling, and many were as happy to get around them as to challenge them on principle. Throughout the eighteenth century, the colonies had been criss-crossed with conflicts – town and country, small farmers versus large ones – and they were by no means all revolts against the British.

It was Adams more than anybody who turned these haphazard impositions into something other – matters of principle that went to the heart of natural rights and liberties; acts that brought into focus the notion of what it meant to be free. Through protest committees, newspaper columns under a dozen pseudonyms, public meetings, and one-on-one persuasion in the taverns and on the docks, Adams hammered the issue of taxation over the mid-1760s into a matter which defined Americans as an oppressed and dictated-to people – brilliantly so, by constructing Americans as British subjects with rights deriving from 1649 and 1688. It was thus the Americans who were the true heirs of England’s Glorious Revolution, while the increasingly imperial Britain of George III represented the negation of that revolution.

What is most striking about Adams at this time is the thing most remarked upon by his contemporaries: the extreme versatility of his means combined with the clarity of his ends. Well before anyone else, Adams had understood that the colonies were on a path not to a better deal, representation in Westminster and/or limited home rule, but to full independence, and that such an event would have a world historical import.

Such a state was to be achieved by any means necessary… and it is here that American historians, who would prefer their republic to have been born out of pure Spirit, have struggled most with the memory of big Sam. Because this devout Protestant was unquestionably a gleeful scheming propagandist and rabble-rouser of the first order. Practically the first move of Adams’ anti-Stamp Act committee was to hang the effigy of the appointed Stamp Master, before cutting it down and beheading it – a prelude to storming the lieutenant governor’s house and burning it to the ground, a protest visibly led by Adams’ associates.

When outrage and grievance flagged, Adams stirred it up again. When the city was in such foment that British troops were quartered there, his columns were full of outrages – rapes of old women, etc – of which there is no other record, and in his hands events which began with the shooting of an 11-year-old boy during a confused scuffle with troops in 1770 became ‘the Boston Massacre’. The boy’s funeral – organised by Adams as a procession through the town – had by all reports a political feel and function reminiscent of another Adams: Gerry’s IRA specials. The period culminated in that early piece of political performance art, the Boston Tea Party.

Essentially under Adams’ leadership, the Boston radicals had developed the combination of argument, agitprop, coalition-building, manifesto-writing and sheer theatre that we have come to think of as the full armoury of revolutionary politics. We can recognise it as familiar, in a way that we do not extend to earlier events in which political action is still bound up in the contestation of differing religious worldviews. Perhaps the most important thing Adams did in those years was to create a series of correspondence committees – a network of towns in Massachusetts, and then between the colonies – who traded ideas about what they were struggling for, news, strategic ideas, and so on. If the United States has a beginning, it is in that network, which built a unity of understanding amongst colonies that were days and weeks apart in terms of travel, and which had varying ways of life.

Here one must fight the urge to continue at length – to go into great detail on Adams’ key argument that Americans were, de facto, already independent by right; his manoeuvring to have Washington named head of the revolutionary army; his drafting of the articles of Confederation, the more forcefully republican document that preceded the Constitution, and so on. By the time the revolution was underway, other figures were coming to the fore – yet when the British offered an amnesty to leaders should the revolution be abandoned, only Adams (and John Hancock) were excluded from the offer. As his cousin John Adams noted, by the time the actual war began, the revolution had already occurred in American hearts, due largely to Sam Adams.

Sam Adams’ story is key to what the US is, and is also inspiring and page-turningly thrilling to boot. Furthermore, he is morally uncompromised by the great American contradiction – when his wife was offered a slave as a gift, Adams said that the slave woman would have to come to their household as a free citizen, or not at all, which stands up a lot better than Jefferson’s position.

So why is it that Adams is continually covered over in the retelling of the birth of a nation? Part of it is circumstantial. He neither succeeded in becoming president of the young America, nor do his voluminous writings contain anything of the durability of the Declaration of Independence or The Rights of Man. Indeed, Adams never collected his writings together, though his cousin John did so later for the benefit of history.

But more importantly, the answer to his absence is bound up in why Adams is a figure of such historical importance – for he has a claim in history to being the world’s first professional revolutionary; the first figure for whom the revolution is a thing to be made, an entity in itself, not simply the result, byproduct or last resort of a religious or national struggle.

For Adams in 1760s Boston, a revolution reaffirming and transcending the view of human liberty established in 1688 had become the goal to which all effort must tend. The goal should shape the conditions, not vice versa. If Bostonians were coming to terms with British rule, then the only thing to do was rile them up to a fresh pitch of outrage. If the Convention seemed willing to consider some form of home-rule compromise with Britain, then it had to be pushed beyond the point where that was possible. Quite aside from the dirty tricks that go into the making of it, Adams’s life makes visible the ab nihilo character of revolution, its radical bringing into being of new conditions, its reframing not only of a future but of the past which led up to it.

However, for a ‘union of sovereign states’ that rapidly consolidated into a federal nation, and then from the Louisiana purchase onwards, what America needed to emphasise was not the voluntary character of its creation, its origin in human freedom, but rather its status as an ordained and necessary entity – and an entity which made subsequent assertions of independence, from the early post-revolutionary ‘whisky rebellion’ to the Civil War to Third World rebellions against projected American power, illegitimate. And so Adams’ reputation fell, for both the right and the left, especially in the early twentieth century. For the right, he was a discredit to the cause of the revolution, which had to be given an exceptional and quasi-theological gloss. For the left, the American revolution was a messy and compromised affair, a tangle of bourgeois revolt and slave-owner rebellion, which compared unfavourably with the purer historical moment of 1789.

Ira Stoll, in his new biography of Adams, is also intrigued by this forgetting – but he comes to somewhat different conclusions than mine, and ones that issue from his emphasis on religion in Adams’ life. This illustrates both the usefulness and limits of Stoll’s book. For Stoll, Adams’ Puritan lifestyle – when he went to the first Congressional Convention, Bostonians had to chip in for some unpatched clothes for their pious representative; and his writings were saturated with the sense of a Christian God imminent in everyday action – distances him from an industrious America that identifies with secular, science-oriented figures like Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin.

Perhaps. But you could hardly say that revealed religiosity is absent from American life today. When a political culture-hero like Sarah Palin says she will run for president ‘if God opens that door’, it might be argued that a sense of God’s imminence is greater in America today than at any time in history. What separates the Palin style from Adams’ Puritanism, of course, is that contemporary American Protestantism is overwhelmingly fatalist, in its endless search for signs and clues, its elevation of neediness, its Rapture-hunger. Sam Adams was never like that. Having concluded that there were (God-given) rights of man, Adams decided to fight for them, and thus saw God’s will bodied forth in every political success, without ever doubting that such successes must be won by ceaseless and rational human effort.

In the end, the revolutionary was uppermost, and there are limits to the degree that Stoll, a conservative commentator (though a markedly non-hysterical one), can imaginatively enter into that mindset. Which might explain why this elegantly written work manages to conjure up the normal daily life of Boston but is less successful at conveying the radical feel of the place when things began to fall apart in the 1760s. Nevertheless, previous lives have neglected the religious dimension and this fills in the picture. And any place is good to start when it comes to a man without whom the American Revolution cannot be fully understood.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Election. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Samuel Adams: A Life, by Ira Stoll is published by Free Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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