Sam Adams is the forgotten man of the Revolution, now known more for giving his name to a beer than for his contributions to creating America. In her beautifully written new biography, The Revolutionary, Stacy Schiff shows why Adams was essential to beating the British and why he has been glossed over in the standard histories of our nation.
Adams contributed greatly to the success of the rebellion by becoming its information man. He set up a fundamental infrastructure for leaders in the different colonies to communicate with one another—the so-called committees of correspondence. He had a talent for painting any British misstep as a perfidious act in a grand conspiracy against virtue.
But his talents also made him the disinformation man of the revolution. The stories he created of important events like the Boston massacre were frequently full of half-truths and even outright lies. Ironically, our own story of the revolution has indulged his own tendency to distortion in slighting his importance. We like to remember the grand political principles that should animate us still rather than the sometimes-scurrilous propaganda that motivated many citizens to take action at the time. John Adams, his second cousin, thus crowds out Sam.
Schiff is superb on the background that made a high-born colonist into the rabble-rouser of Massachusetts. Adams’s father was a prosperous merchant and deacon of the Congregationalist Church. Social standing counted for a lot in the still-hierarchical society of Boston: rank at Harvard College where Sam matriculated, Schiff tells us, was based more on how well you were born than how well you performed.
But Adams’s family suffered a precipitous drop in wealth from which his fortunes never recovered. And the reasons were political ones related to the principles on which the Revolution would be fought. Adams’s father, along with some other moderately wealthy members of the Bay Colony, created a land bank. The idea behind this financial institution was that by backing its notes with land, it could expand credit to their less prosperous, but ambitious, fellow citizens. The bank flourished at first but soon attracted powerful enemies. Some of the richest merchants in the colony resented it because it allowed competitors to spring up and cut into their profits. (An economist would observe that easier access to capital reduces barriers to entry and thereby the monopoly profits of established firms.) The British governor, Jonathan Belcher, did not like the new bank either. It threatened to become a power center outside his control, and he feared its easy money could spark inflation.
Thus, Belcher succeeded in persuading the British Parliament to ban the bank. Worse still for the bank’s backers, the legislation required that its backers pay back the bank’s note in gold and silver—a ruinous requirement. Even after the death of his father, Sam was still saddled with debt. Thus, his entire life was upended by an action of the British Parliament that overrode self-government in the colonies. No revolutionary had greater personal experience of the need for self-government or a greater resentment of the distant manipulation of colonial affairs by Parliament than Sam Adams. Schiff’s lucid description of the demise of the land bank (an event that deserves far more prominence in standard histories of America) alone makes the book worth reading.
Sam Adams never showed any talent for making or handling money. His malt business was marginally successful at the best of times. When he was elected a tax collector, he was so delinquent in collecting taxes that he risked being forced by the colony to pay for the shortfall himself. At the time of the revolution, wealthy well-wishers needed to furnish him with the clothes suitable for a delegate to the continental congress.
His neglect of business allowed him plenty of time for his main vocations—politicking and pamphleteering. In 1765 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives where he soon ascended to the influential position of clerk. He used his power to attack British interference in American affairs, such as the Sugar Act and Stamp Act. Opposition to these Acts was widespread among Boston’s merchant class. What distinguished Adams was his early radicalism. Likely influenced by his family’s unhappy experience with the institution, he thought of challenging Parliament’s sovereignty over the colonies on all matters, not only taxation.
But he also made politics intensely personal, feuding with Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of the colony. He complained that Hutchinson held too many offices and this salary was paid by Britain. He was suspected of being complicit in a mob that burned down Hutchinson’s house.
But Adams was more than a radical agitator. His revolutionary work hinged on the key insight that American colonies no longer resembled the hierarchies of Europe, including Great Britain. Because people were less deferential, public opinion was far more important in determining the course of events. And Adams was determined to shape that opinion to inflame passions against the British.
As Schiff shows, it was Sam Adams who shaped the narrative about the Boston Massacre, probably being the first to dub it the “horrible massacre.” It was already darkening that late afternoon of March 5, 1770, and more than four hundred angry citizens were on a narrow street, making it hard to hear or see exactly what happened. Some witnesses reported that Crispus Attucks had led “a roaring brigade” that pelted the British soldiers with stones and snowballs. Adams published an account that “rinsed the evening of all crowd action and premeditations” and emphasized the innocence of those killed. This narrative was then taken up in sermons across the state and artistic engravings that circulated throughout the colonies until the incident became a source of solidarity against the British.
Adams performed the same service after the Battle of Lexington four years later, establishing a narrative of “British atrocities, which squared little with the truth and which—buzzing up and down the Eastern Seaboard—electrified readers.” The revolution was ultimately made in the minds of men and it was Adams who largely stocked their minds with images of British treachery. As Schiff eloquently observes: “He knew that we are governed more by our feelings than by reason.”
As well as being the colonists’ preeminent propagandist, Adams was its chief networker. The Committees of Correspondence—for which he was largely responsible—were composed of men in the several colonies who wrote to one another to keep each colony abreast of what was going on elsewhere. This network was not only crucial to coordinating the rebellion, but it also established the connections between the leading colonists that later became necessary to forge a nation.
Adams, however, was better at making a rebellion than he was at contributing to the nation’s governing framework. While he signed the Declaration of Independence and was part of the Continental Congress that drew up the Articles of Confederation, he did not contribute much to either document. As Schiff writes, “The grievance sharpening and loophole-locating were better suited to rebellion than statesmanship.” The uncompromising attitude that sparked a revolution did not allow for the flexibility required for governance.
He was not part of the Philadelphia Convention that wrote the Constitution, but was elected to the Massachusetts ratifying convention. He was with difficulty persuaded to vote for ratification, though he objected to the failure to include a Bill of Rights in the document.
Adams was naturally suspicious of governmental power and he became allied with the movement that opposed the Federalists, among whom was his cousin John. Late in life, he was elected Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Massachusetts. Schiff’s treatment of his time in office is extremely brief and the weakest part of what otherwise will be the definitive biography for many years to come. She does not savor the irony of his ascending successively to the offices that the man he tormented, Thomas Hutchinson, once held.
And she tells us nothing of what he did there. As Walter Stahr reminds us in his own excellent biography of another Founder who became a governor, John Jay of New York, governors were important, given that the reach of the federal government was so limited. It would have been illuminating to know what Adams’s views and actions were on the important state issues of the day. Schiff notes that many of Adams’s letters have not survived and that he wrote no memoir. But governors’ actions are attested in state papers. It would be particularly instructive to know how a politician whose philosophy of governance was summarized as “Rulers should have little, the people much” put his ideals into practice.
Nevertheless, this biography is brilliant on what matters most about Adams—his contribution to our revolution. His cousin John declared that “Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.” Schiff has helped ensure that Adams takes his rightful place as a founder of a republic often still bubbling with the uncompromising attitudes and sometimes dubious narratives that gave it birth.