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Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution

by Mark Puls; Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton and John Adams have all been subjects of recent popular biographies, but not all members of the founding generation have received equal treatment. The man who more than anyone else was responsible for American independence, Samuel Adams, has gone woefully underappreciated.

What biographer Mark Puls shows is that Sam Adams (1722- 1803) was the first, and most consistently determined, advocate for national independence. As Puls explains in his introduction to this concise and eminently readable biography, “Of the founding fathers, only Samuel Adams advocated independence before Lexington. In the critical prewar years, it was Adams who mapped out what became known as American values about liberty, self-government, and natural human rights. His arguments were later echoed in the Declaration of Independence.”

So why has Sam Adams received such insufficient attention? “Adams was indifferent about his place in history,” explains Puls. “He left no memoirs, no autobiography, and chose not to write letters for posterity’s sake.” By 1776, with his paramount goal of American independence achieved and lacking any personal ambition for power, Adams faded from the scene, leaving room for a younger generation.

Puls relates an incident where John Adams walked into a room to find his cousin Sam shredding letters that described his indispensable role in the formative events in the nation’s history. John begged his cousin to reconsider, to save these letters for posterity, but Sam kept on shredding. With a relative scarcity of primary sources, it’s little wonder that biographers have been so reluctant to take on Sam Adams. And some of those who have written about him, such as Russell Kirk (The Roots of American Order), have simply dismissed Adams as a mere demagogue, a rabble-rouser without political sophistication.

Sam Adams was, as Puls proves, a political thinker of the highest magnitude, a man who spent his time at Harvard studying the political theories of John Locke and who would spend his life championing Lockean principles of liberty and republican government. Yet Adams went far beyond theory. He was a brilliant speaker and writer who knew how to inspire people to action. Above all, Adams had a singular focus, sounding a constant drumbeat for American independence from 1764 onward.

Young Sam Adams learned how to question authority from his father, a Boston brewer who ran afoul of British rule when he established a bank without authorization from London. In 1741 Parliament dissolved the bank and held its organizers, including Sam Adams Sr., personally liable for its debts. The elder Adams would spend the rest of his life in litigation, trying to save his property from British authorities.

After graduating from Harvard, Sam Adams turned to journalism. As a journalist, he defended the rights of the colonists against overreaching by royal authorities, citing liberties guaranteed by the English constitution and the colonial charter. When his father died, those political beliefs became personal, notes Puls. The son assumed his father’s debts and thus had to fight constantly to protect his property. It was in this personal fight against British authority that Adams first tested his political beliefs about liberty and limited government.

When the Sugar Act was enacted in 1764, Adams immediately recognized it as an invasion of the natural right of the colonists to tax themselves through their duly elected representatives. Adams took up his pen and began arguing his case, largely as a lone voice in the political wilderness. Adams, even before Adam Smith, also argued that such taxation would have a damaging impact on the colonies’ economic development. In addition to publicizing his views in lucid and widely read essays, Adams organized an economic boycott, thus hurting British merchants in their pocketbooks. Puls points out that Adams implicitly understood that British merchants hurt by the boycott would become strong advocates for repeal of the tax. The tactic worked.

Then came the Stamp Act in 1765, and Adams again organized a boycott and additionally called for a congress among the colonies to unify their protests. As a result of this congress, and with the trade boycott pinching British merchants, the Stamp Act was repealed. Yet Parliament refused to give up the “principle” that it had the right to tax the colonists. Parliament and King George III grew infuriated by Adams and his stubborn assertions of the colonists’ natural rights. More tax measures were enacted, and Adams kept up the drumbeat of opposition in the press and public meetings.

In the face of such noncompliance, the British sent troops to intimidate Boston into obedience. A fearless Adams never once considered backing down, says Puls. After the 1770 Boston Massacre, Adams demanded that British troops be withdrawn from Boston, and they were. Adams established committees of correspondence to communicate the message of opposition to British rule throughout the colonies. In 1773 came the Boston Tea Party, an Adams-inspired act of political defiance that enraged the Crown.

Puls shows us how Adams called for a Continental Congress to meet in 1774, and how he locked the doors of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to prevent the royal governor from entering and dissolving the assembly before it could elect Adams as a delegate. Finally, the British decided to arrest Adams and extradite him to London to face treason charges. British troops marched toward Lexington in April 1775 to seize Adams, but he escaped. The ensuing battle at Lexington was the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and set the nation on a course of independence. With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Adams’ dream of the prior dozen years was realized.

After describing the events of July 1776, Puls has little else to do. Adams wanted to retire, though he did play an important role in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and became governor of Massachusetts. Always anxious about unchecked authority, Adams advocated the constitutional separation of powers, and a Bill of Rights intended to protect individual liberties. Despite Adams’ lifelong attempts to avoid the public spotlight and posterity’s glare, Mark Puls has written an accessible and consistently engaging biography that gives Adams the credit long overdue him as “the father of the American Revolution.”


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.