Founding Fathers Friday: Samuel Adams
by Derrick G. Jeter
Samuel Adams was a maltster—a beer maker, which is where most of us know him from. But Sam Adams was so much more than a beer maker.
He inherited the family’s Boston brewery after the death of his father, along with a sizable portion of his estate. But Adams proved to be a poor money manager and a poor brewer. It didn’t take long before his inheritance went dry and the brewery went belly-up. It seemed that Adams spent most of his adult life just one or two steps ahead of poverty. He had served as a tax collector but his sympathies for taxpayers meant that he collected few taxes. It just didn’t seem that ’Ol Sam could find anything that he was good at. Well, there were two things—but the pay was terrible—Adams knew how to politically organize and write opinions that stirred the passions of average citizens. If Adams were alive today he’d be a campaign manager, political talking head, or opinion writer for a newspaper.
Adams, like so many Bostonians, was disillusioned with British taxes (even though he was charged to collect them) and began to speak out (and write out) about them. As early as 1763 Adams drew up bold guidelines for the Massachusetts General Assembly asserting the rights of British citizens in Massachusetts while denying the right of Parliament to tax the colonists without their consent. Adams also suggested that a union be formed of all the colonies to protect themselves against aggressive taxing schemes by the Parliament. Political posturing like this eventually led Adams to establish the Sons of Liberty, which took part in the Boston Tea Party in 1773 (though recent research appears to cast Adams in the role of potential peacemaker during the event).
Regardless of Adams’s actual role in the Boston Tea Party, he was a man whose image would have appeared in English Post Offices; he was a marked man. In 1765 Adams became a representative in the General Assembly, where he distinguished himself in opposition to the royal governor. A role he played well, as a thorn in the side of every royal govern from that point on. In 1774, when Governor Thomas Gage, tried to silence Adams with bribes—and if that failed, with threats—Adams told Gage’s liaison, a Colonel Fenton: “I trust I have long since made my peace with the King of kings. No personal consideration shall induce me to abandon the righteous cause of my country. Tell Governor Gage, it is the advice of Samuel Adams to him, no longer to insult the feelings of an exasperated people.”
After the March 5, 1770, Boston Massacre, Adams organized a funeral procession through the streets of Boston, to the Liberty Tree on Beacon Hill and then to the Old Granary Burial Ground. Estimates of the processional ranged from ten to twelve thousand mourners. The Reverend Mather Byles, who witnessed the spectacle, turned to a friend and said, “They call me a brainless Tory, but tell me, my young friend, which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousands tyrants not one mile away.” For years to come, Adams would use the anniversary of the Boston Massacre as a rallying cry against the tyrant three thousand miles away.
By the spring of 1775 Adams and John Hancock were on the lamb. They were staying in Lexington on the evening of April 18 when Paul Revere warned them that British regulars were coming. Adams and Hancock made their escape the next morning as the Minutemen and the British Army were forming up on the village green and a shot rang out—beginning the American Revolution.
Back in Congress, where Adams was sent in September 1774, he, along with the entire Massachusetts delegation, increased their calls for independence after the battles of Lexington and Concord. Independence came on July 2, 1776, and Adams signed his name to the Declaration with the other rebel-patriots on August 2, 1776.
After independence, Adams served Massachusetts as a state senator and helped draft the Articles of Confederation—the federal form of government before the Constitution. When the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787, Adams, who was a member of the convention, refused to support the new form of government because it lacked a Bill of Rights. He feared the new Constitution concentrated too much power into a single hand, which could only be restricted by a Bill of Rights. Promised that such a bill would be added, Adams turned his opposition into support.
After his retirement from the Congress, Adams returned to Massachusetts and served as lieutenant governor under John Hancock. When Hancock died in 1793 Adams assumed the office of governor, serving in that position for four years. Adams died in 1803 at the age of eighty-one.
Sam Adams was, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the “patriarch of liberty.” During the heated debate for independence, when others faltered in their commitment, Adams said, “I should advise, persisting in our struggle for liberty, though it were revealed from Heaven that nine hundred and ninety-nine were to perish, and only one of a thousand were to survive and retain his liberty! One such freeman must possess more virtue, and enjoy more happiness, than a thousand slaves; and let him propagate his like, and transmit to them what he hath so nobly preserved.”
Sam Adams was one of the survivors and produced a race of children who still love liberty more than life—including the one writing these words.