Samuel Adams: The Righteous Revolutionary

by Derrick G. Jeter

“Without the character of Samuel Adams,” his more famous cousin John Adams wrote to a friend,  “the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.”1

Ironically, during the 1770s Samuel Adams was more famous than the future Vice President and President. In fact, when John was introduced to the upper-crust of French society, while serving as America’s ambassador, he was mistaken for the firebrand revolutionary Sam. And when French society was told no, it was John who represented America there was disappointment all around.

But, in another twist of historical irony, it is Samuel Adams who is now the forgotten one. If it wasn’t for the beer named after him, few, if any, today would know who he was. Ira Stoll’s book, Samuel Adams: A Life, should help change that vacuum in our historical memory.

Stoll’s biography is well documented and well written, but what I most appreciated about his book is his emphasis on Adams’s faith. We live in a time when talking about the Founders’ faith is taboo, or if not strictly off limits at least we should do so in the most general terms and always point people to the “truth” that our Founders were basically deists. I know not what Stoll’s religious convictions are, but hardly page in this book does not make mention of Adams’s deep faith in a God who intervenes in the affairs of men—particularly when His intervention touched upon the subject of liberty. So intertwined was a true faith in God—leading to virtue—and liberty that to destroy the people’s confidence in the benevolent, just, and saving God of heaven was to enslave them. In 1772, under the pseudonym “Valerius Poplicola,” Adams wrote:

Is it not High Time for the People of this Country explicitly to declare, whether they will be Freemen or Slaves? It is an important Question which ought to be decided. It concerns us more than any Thing in this Life. The Salvation of our Souls is interested in the Event: For wherever Tyranny is establish’d, Immorality of every Kind comes in like a Torrent. It is in the interest of Tyrants to reduce the people to Ignorance and Vice. For they cannot live in any Country where Virtue and Knowledge prevail. The Religion and public Liberty of a People are intimately connected; their Interests are interwoven, they cannot subsist separately; and therefore they rise and fall together. For this Reason, it is always observable, that those who are combined to destroy the People’s Liberties, practice ever Art to poison their Morals. How greatly then does it concern us, at all Events, to put a Stop to the Progress of Tyranny.2

A few years later, when writing to a friend, Adams warned, “I have long been convinced that our enemies have made it an Object, to eradicate from the Minds of the People in general a Sense of true Religion & Virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their Point of enslaving them. Indeed my Friend, this is a Subject so important in my Mind, that I know not how to leave it. Revelation assures us that ‘Righteousness exalteth a Nation’ [Proverbs 13:34]—Communities are dealt with in this World by the wise and just Ruler of the Universe. He rewards or punishes them according to their general Character. The diminution of publick Virtue is usually attended with that of publick Happiness, and the publick Liberty will not long survive the total Extinction of Morals.”3 Indeed, even during that overtly religious time in our nation’s history, Adams would bemoan: “I wish we were a more religious People.”4

History is one of those subjects that has always drawn the short stick in school. It has almost become a proverb that high school students thinks history is boring and that they don’t learn anything in their history classes because their teachers are coaches. I don’t know what this says about coaches, per se, but I know it speaks volumes about the teaching of history in American high schools. If students are even introduced to the Founding Fathers—which may be an open question—they almost assuredly aren’t introduced to men like Samuel Adams; and they certainly aren’t given the picture of any Founder in the way Ira Stoll has painted this most righteous and religious of Founders.

We would do our country and our posterity a great service if we would only recapture in the American imagination and character the lives and faith of the men and women who risked everything for the sake of liberty. For without that knowledge and that same faith, which animates a virtuous life, we might lose our country. However, in the opinion of Samuel Adams, “He is the best Patriot who stems the Torrent of Vice, because that is the most destructive enemy of his Country.”5

There is much to glean from the life of men like Samuel Adams, if only we took the time to learn from this most righteous revolutionary.

1. John Adams to William Cunningham, quoted in Ira Stoll, Samuel Adams: A Life (New York: Free Press, 2008), 261.

2. Samuel Adams in the Boston Gazette, October 5, 1772, quoted in Stoll, Samuel Adams, 96.

3. Samuel Adams to a friend, April 30, 1776, quoted in Stoll, Samuel Adams, 180.

4. Samuel Adams to Elizabeth Adams, November 7, 1776, quoted in Stoll, Samuel Adams, 186.

5. Samuel Adams to Samuel Phillips Savage, July 3, 1778, quoted in Stoll, Samuel Adams, 204.