In the evening of August 25, 1765, Thomas Hutchinson, chief justice and lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, was having supper with his family in their three-story mansion in Boston’s North End. Mid-meal, a friend burst in to warn the Hutchinsons that they were about to receive unexpected guests. The lieutenant governor and his kin barely had time to escape to a neighbor’s home before an ax came through the front door. The mob that followed proceeded to destroy furniture, rip down wall hangings and wainscoting, demolish interior walls, plunder the cellar, and tear up the garden. For good measure, a party of marauders climbed to the roof, there to spend three hours toppling the cupola. Everything of value not nailed down was stolen—clothing, plate, £900 in cash. By four o’clock the next morning, all that remained of the house were bare walls and floors. The attack was, as historian Bernard Bailyn would write, the most violent mob action in the history of colonial America.
Proper Boston was shocked. Even Samuel Adams, a local political leader and a frequent critic of the colonial administration Hutchinson served, branded the onslaught “a high-handed enormity,” which Adams blamed on “vagabond strangers.” Three months later, one of the leading rioters—no vagabond stranger but a local cobbler named Andrew Mackintosh—marched arm in arm in a parade with a colonel of the Massachusetts militia, as if promising a new era of social peace.
The protestations of shock and the parade were all a sham. From Sam Adams’s point of view, the only enormity of the home invasion was excessiveness: its intensity conferred on its target, for a while at least, the aura of martyrdom. Adams had been defaming Thomas Hutchinson in print and in public meetings; it
was his polemics more than anything else that had stirred the mob up. Hutchinson in any case was, as far as Adams was concerned, a pawn in a greater game. The 1765 riot was but an episode in the years-long campaign Adams waged to curtail, and finally terminate, Britain’s control of Massachusetts—to make that colony, and the other 12, independent. To this end, Adams employed eloquence, arguments drawn from religion and political philosophy—and Boston’s mobs, disciplined and directed by him.
The city in which Samuel Adams was born in September 1722 was a flourishing port as well as British North America’s most populous city. A visitor compared the spectacle of the masts aboard ships crowding Boston’s harbor to the floating forest on display in the Thames.
Boston’s relationship with the mother country was often fraught. Its Puritan founders welcomed the revolutions that executed Charles I and deposed James II; their descendants chafed at imperial policies mandated by Parliament. One crisis during the 1740s involved Sam Adams’s father, also Samuel, a prosperous and politically engaged brewer. The elder Adams tried to set up a bank issuing paper money, to compensate for a local shortage of hard currency. Parliament quashed the inflationary scheme, and Adams père narrowly escaped ruin in the bank’s collapse.
Young Sam acquired a taste for oppositional politics at his father’s knee. He also learned the nuts and bolts of vote-getting in the semi-democracy that Massachusetts enjoyed, thanks to its colonial charter. Although the colony’s highest officers—governor, lieutenant governor, judges—were appointed in London, the colonial legislature, known as the General Court, was elected by an unusually wide franchise—perhaps three quarters of all adult males. Boston also had a Town Meeting, open to every voter, at which local issues were discussed. To win office in this system, one needed to know how to appeal to the public—and to wire-pullers. Sam’s father was a charter member of the Caucus Club, an early political machine, whose members met in garrets or taverns to smoke, drink, discuss issues of the day, and tap candidates. In later years, more radical groups, such as the Loyall Nine and the Sons of Liberty, appeared. Young Sam would join or befriend them all.
He encountered and absorbed other influences. At Harvard College—BA, 1740; MA, 1743—he imbibed John Locke, the great last-century philosopher of natural rights and self-rule. One Lockean point underlay all the young man’s later thinking: how could Massachusetts be justly ruled by Britain, 3,000 oceanic miles away? He was also stirred by the preaching of George Whitefield, the cross-eyed evangelical barnstormer who sparked the colonial religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Adams’s piety connected him, in his own mind, with Massachusetts’s Puritan past. He would hope all his life to wean his neighbors from the corrupting effects of “luxury”—a catch-all term of the era employed to impugn fancy dress, theatrical performances, and high-end British imports. Purified of such fripperies, Boston might become a “Christian Sparta.” But the path to achieving all these desirable goals lay through politics. And success in politics rested on knowing, and appealing, to the man in the street—as a voter, and, on occasion, a rioter.
Boston, like all other cities in the 18th-century Anglosphere, had no such thing as a police force. There was a sheriff, and municipal officers were assigned specific tasks—watchmen, trash collectors, justices of the peace. Neighborhood rowdies thus had a virtual free hand when it came to everything from revelry to mayhem. The unruliest day in Boston’s year was November 5, when the mobs of the north and south ends of town paraded images of the Pope, Guy Fawkes—a Catholic who had tried to blow up Parliament—and the Stuart Pretender, another Catholic. Each mob battled to destroy the totems of its geographical rival. In time Adams would direct them against targets of more current interest.
His climb up the political ladder was steady. In his twenties and early thirties, he was elected clerk of the Boston market, then town scavenger, then collector of taxes. That last job nearly cost him his reputation, for he was incapable of handling money. As a businessman, he ran his father’s brewery into the ground. As tax collector, he refused to dun deadbeats—they were, after all, voters—mixed receipts from different years to make his books balance and took money out of the till for personal use. Only the austerity of his life saved him from punishment when his malfeasance came to light. A man so poorly dressed—he wore the same coat, year in and year out—was clearly not enriching himself.
Adams’s upbringing supplied him with practical and intellectual tools. British imperial policy after the Seven Years War endowed him with a cause. Britain’s victory in that war yielded glittering prizes, from Canada to India, and enormous debts. London bean counters wanted the colonies to help shoulder the burden of empire but engineering that shift meant changing the way the empire worked.
Adams’s moment in the sun arrived with the March 1765 passage of the Stamp Act, a levy on every piece of paper colonists might use, from legal documents to playing cards.
Britain reasoned that most of the charges were so light Americans would not mind paying them. But the Stamp Act was unprecedented—a direct tax on Americans enacted by Parliament, not by their colonial governments, in which the inhabitants had a say.
Adams blasted the Stamp Act in essays in the Boston Gazette; newspapers were among the items taxed, making enemies of publishers and readers. He focused his wrath not on the royal governor, a Brit, but on Massachusetts natives like Hutchinson and his brother-in-law Andrew Oliver serving under him.
Adams wanted to make loyalty to the colonial administration odious, so he put the mob to work. His preferred technique was not wholesale destruction, but intimidation. On August 14, 1765, Oliver, who had agreed to become a distributor of stamps, was hanged in effigy at the Liberty Tree, a century-old elm near Boston Common. That night, a crowd carried the effigy to Oliver’s house, beheaded it, and broke his windows. The next day, Oliver announced his resignation from his new post.
The plundering of Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion two weeks later was a riot too far. If the mob got a taste for looting, they might target rich men siding with Adams, such as merchant John Hancock. Adams’s solution was to broker a peace between the North and South End mobs, sealed by a great Union Feast.
This made for a single disciplined municipal mob—and put that informal brigade more firmly under Adams’s direction. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766; meanwhile, Adams had won a seat in the General Court.
His management of the Boston mob would be tested repeatedly over the next decade. In 1767 Parliament passed a series of acts imposing duties on British imports to America and sending special commissioners to the colonies to collect those payments.
In March 1768, the second anniversary of the Stamp Act’s repeal, the commissioners assigned to Boston, well-informed by British newspaper coverage of Adams’s means and intentions, expected to be assaulted. But Adams, fearful that an attack on British functionaries would elicit a serious reprisal, ordered his foot soldiers to stand down.
As the spring passed, however, he grew cocky. Perhaps displays of popular fervor could drive out the British. In June, after the commissioners seized one of John Hancock’s ships for smuggling, Adams’s mob forced the King’s men to flee for safety to Castle William, a fort in the harbor. The British responded by stationing regiments of regular troops in Boston.
Occupation was a mixed bag for Adams. The redcoats imposed a complete lockdown. The soldiers inspected everyone entering or leaving the city, and aimed cannons directly at the Boston Town House in which the General Court met. On the other hand, the very heavy-handedness of the British response was rallying moderates to Adams’s side. Insults and fracases between soldiers and townspeople proliferated. Adams recounted all the rumpuses in lurid detail in a pop-up publication, “Journal of Events,” which circulated at home and throughout the colonies.
The inevitable confrontation occurred on March 5, 1770. Boys throwing snowballs at a sentry in front of the Customs House on King Street were joined by men tossing ice chunks, sticks, and cudgels. The platoon of soldiers who reinforced their comrade bore the barrage patiently for a time until one redcoat fired—the question of whether he did so with or without orders later became a point of controversy. A general volley followed, leaving four rioters and one spectator dead.
Adams denounced the Boston Massacre, as it came to be known, and the occupation that had generated it. In a meeting with Hutchinson, the summer before promoted to governor, Adams demanded that the troops be withdrawn from city streets. “Standing armies in populous cities in times of peace,” he declared, inevitably brought “dangerous, ruinous and fatal effects.” Hutchinson agreed to redeploy the military to Castle William; he also promised that the eight soldiers who had fired and their commanding officer would be tried for murder in a local court.
Behind the scenes Adams arranged for the defendants to enjoy the services of two of Boston’s top lawyers. One was his cousin and protégé John Adams. Historian Hiller Zobel speculates that Adams assumed any jury of Bostonians, primed by the “Journal of Events” and other patriot propaganda, would convict the redcoats. Whatever the verdict, a regular trial with competent defense attorneys would assure moderates in America and Britain that Bostonians were civilized folk—and hence, all the more to be pitied for suffering under military rule. John Adams and his co-counsel won acquittals for the commanding officer and six of his eight men; two were convicted on reduced charges. The defense was strengthened by the deathbed confession of one of the slain rioters, Patrick Carr, who forgave the soldiers who had killed him and admitted that they had fired in self-defense. Sam Adams dismissed Carr’s testimony on the grounds that he was an Irish Papist.
Following the massacre, renewed caution on Adams’s part and the threat of military force kept deaths to zero. During this interval of relative quiet, John Singleton Copley, the greatest artist in America, painted Adams’s portrait, a commission Adams himself could never have afforded. Hancock paid for the painting, and for a portrait of himself, and hung both in his parlor. Copley shows Adams the day after the massacre, when he confronted Governor Hutchinson.
Adams is dressed rather better than he probably ever was, though his collar is rumpled and two of his coat buttons are undone, implying carelessness. He points to the charter of the colony as justification for his demands; Copley might better have depicted him pointing to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and the Holy Bible. Posture and setting are dignified, but there is a whiff of belligerence. Art historian Carol Troyen notes that Adams “crowds the table, pushing forward and threatening the viewer’s space.” Do what I ask, he seems to be saying, or I’ll be seeing you in the streets.
The last hurrah for Adams’s mob came in late 1773. The British government, seeking to balance the East India Company’s books and raise revenue at the same time, came up with a scheme to increase colonials’ consumption of Indian tea. Americans preferred smuggled Dutch tea, which was cheaper. London discounted the Company’s brand to undercut the Dutch, even with a tea tax laid on. But principle seemed more important to Americans than bargains. Even consuming a cheap cup of tea was paying taxes to Britain, at Britain’s direction. Up and down the coast, tea ships rode low at anchor, holds heavy with tea packed in chests.
Adams had something more dramatic in mind for Boston. He summoned the captain of the first tea ship to enter the harbor and told the mariner that if he did not dock and unload everything but his tea, he would be tarred and feathered. The captain believed Adams, and complied, as did captains of succeeding ships. Now the imported tea was caught in a regulatory logjam. Having formally entered the port, cargo could not be sent back to Britain without clearances signed by Governor Hutchinson and the customs commissioners. Since doing so would have been bowing to Adams’s bullying, they declined to act. Check, and checkmate. Late on the afternoon of December 16, Adams addressed a capacity crowd at South Meeting House, a Congregational church. “This meeting,” he said, “can do nothing further to save the country.”
At this signal, men poured from the galleries and applied Mohawk makeup; Indian imagery has long been a favorite with white Americans, once the neighborhood had been cleared of Indians themselves (see “Dressing Up,” p. 7). This would be no rampage. Many “braves” were shipyard workers and shipmasters, who well knew their way around vessels. They worked quickly and efficiently and in minutes deep-sixed 342 chests of tea. Parliament responded the following March with the Boston Port Act, closing the rebellious entrepot to all traffic.
The road to revolution thereafter was quick. Adams, a leader in opening the break, faded gradually from prominence. In the Continental Congress he and cousin John, stiffing John Hancock, who yearned for the job, secured the post of commander-in-chief of American forces for the Virginian George Washington, in the interests of regional balance. Apart from that signal service, Sam Adams wasted his years in Congress in unproductive feuds. After the war he played a minor role in the ratification of the Constitution, at first vainly opposing the instrument, then converting at the last minute. One of his last public acts was to rebuke Tom Paine, his soulmate in radicalism, for Paine’s attacks on Christianity. He died in 1803.
Adams’s mob-craft has echoes in current-day protests, riots, and statue-cancelings, combining as both instances do means that were legal—parades, demonstrations—and illegal—vandalism and destruction of property. Both cases involved a great cause—self-rule in colonial Boston, racial justice in contemporary America. There the resemblance ends. Adams, because he operated on a smaller scale—in one city of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants—was able to establish and maintain firmer control of his supporters. He deplored violence that was aimless; he wanted it administered, like medicine, in prescribed doses. Adams’s ideals differed sharply from those of the hard core of today’s protesters: the founders of Black Lives Matter identify as Marxists, while the history of the 20th century suggests that Locke and Scripture may be better guides for modeling new societies.
The removal or toppling of statues of disfavored historical figures—no longer just Confederates, but Washington, Columbus, and Union Army veterans—is the most striking contrast between our moment and Adams’s. Purging statues of the dead recalls nothing so much as the North and South End mobs destroying images of the Pope and Guy Fawkes. Destruction is fun and makes a symbolic point. But Sam Adams knew that nothing changes unless someone someday gets to work.
This story appeared in the October 2020 issue of American History.