Adams, Samuel 1722–1803

Writer, organizer, and agitator, Samuel Adams led the revolutionary movement in Massachusetts against English rule. Born in Boston on September 27, 1722, Adams was one of a dozen children born to Samuel and Mary Fifield Adams. His merchant father was a leading figure in town politics, serving both as town selectman and as representative to the provincial assembly. After attending the Boston Latin School, Adams entered Harvard College at the age of 14, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1740 and a master’s degree in 1743. Although his parents hoped he would become a minister or a lawyer, Adams rejected both careers. He demonstrated little promise as a businessman, quitting a job at a counting house and failing in his own business despite a substantial loan from his father. Adams did work in the family malt house, and he assumed control of the family’s business interests, including several commercial investment properties, when his father died in 1748, but he never enjoyed commercial success. He was married twice, in 1749 to Elizabeth Checkley, who died in 1757, and then in 1764 to Elizabeth Wells. Only two of his children survived to adulthood. As he took over his father’s business interests and began a family, Adams also entered upon a career of public service, with appointments to minor municipal posts. In 1756, he began nearly a decade of service as one of Boston’s tax collectors. It was a task for which he demonstrated little diligence, and he ended up 8,000 pounds in arrears to the town. Nonetheless, town leaders found Adams useful and drew upon his talents as a writer. He drafted the town meeting’s instructions to Boston’s representatives in the provincial legislature. Thereafter, Adams rapidly became a leader in town politics. Because he belonged to several political clubs, both those of merchants and those of artisans, he became a key figure in the town caucus, an informal organization of merchants and artisans that essentially ran the town meetings. Adams particularly enjoyed the company of Boston’s artisans, often dropping by their clubs and taverns. He even came to see himself as a defender of the interests of the artisan class. As Adams’s star rose in town politics, the attention of many shifted to changes in imperial policies. After its victory over France in the French and Indian War in 1763, the English government sought new ways to pay for the increasing costs of its expanding empire. Because of growing opposition to taxes at home, British leaders turned to the colonies as a source of revenue. Beginning with the Sugar Act in 1764, Parliament passed a series of revenue measures, including the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1767 Townshend duties, all of which Adams opposed. Writer, orator, and publicist, Samuel Adams was a leading light of the American Revolution in colonial Massachusetts. The royal governor complained that Adams obtained such ascendancy as to direct Boston just as he pleases. (The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) Adams drew upon several sources in condemning these British impositions. At Harvard, he had become an advocate of John Locke’s political theory. He embraced the notion that a covenant existed between government and the people. Citizens owed their compliance to government only as long as it preserved their life, liberty, and property, the natural rights of all men. When it failed to do so, citizens had an obligation to resist. From his father’s experiences, Adams had also learned that it was dangerous to entrust the liberties of citizens to a distant government. In 1739, his father had helped create a land bank in Massachusetts that issued paper money to borrowers who secured loans with their real estate. Two years later, Parliament, influenced by Boston merchants who wanted a sole currency backed by gold or silver, dissolved the bank, leaving the directors, including Samuel Adams, Sr., liable for the bank’s debts. Although his father died in 1748, Adams was still struggling to protect the estate from legal challenges ten years later. Most important in framing Adams’s opposition politics was his faith. A pious man, Adams shared with the seventeenth-century Puritans a profound belief that America had a mission to create a virtuous society of frugal, temperate, and hardworking people who would subordinate self-interest to the needs of the community. The biggest threat to this mission lay in liberty’s vulnerability to power. If government was not in the hands of virtuous men, the only check to this threat lay with a vigilant citizenry, ever ready to respond to the challenges to their rights.

Presentation “Famous People of the American Revolution (Otherwise … Samuel Adams (1722-1803) Photograph by Granger

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