Adams, Samuel (1722–1803) editorialist, statesman - American Education
Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these:
First, a right to life; Second, to liberty; Thirdly, to
property; together with the right to support and defend
them in the best manner they can.
—“The State of the Rights of the Colonists”
Patriot leader Samuel Adams was born September 16, 1722 in Boston, the son of Samuel Adams, a prosperous brewer, and Mary Fifield Adams. Adams attended school in Massachusetts, beginning with a preparatory education at the Boston Latin School and continuing with two degrees at Harvard College. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1740 and his master’s in 1743. Adams’s education prepared him for one of three careers—law, commerce, or the ministry—and in a sense, he tried all three. He studied law for a brief period but did not complete his apprenticeship or apply for admission to the bar; he clerked for Thomas Cushing, one of the leading merchants in Boston, but he failed in his attempts to apply his training, both as a tax collector and as a shop owner; and although he did not become a clergyman, he punctuated his speeches and writing with references to religion and with Calvinist expressions.
Unsuccessful financially, Adams was among the first colonists to recognize the political value of the press. In 1748 he cofounded a short-lived newspaper; Adams thus received his initial training as a journalist. He became an editorialist, writing numerous articles on political and social subjects under a variety of pseudonyms. Adams was also active in the various informal political clubs that met in taverns, coffeehouses, and in the back rooms of Boston’s print shops. These meetings offered Bostonians the opportunity to exercise ideas, practice speaking, and form alliances. At the Monday Night Club, for example, Adams met with politically minded lawyers and merchants, including James Otis Jr. and John Adams.
In 1763 Adams was chosen to write the instructions from Boston to the Crown concerning newly enacted taxes. In polite language he rejected the legal foundation of the taxes, claiming that taxation without representation amounted to a violation of the colonial charter. In 1765 he played a key role in the protests against the Stamp Act, which resulted in riots. From then on, Adams was identified as an instigator of public demonstrations, even though he, like many other Patriot leaders, abhorred the mob. Immediately following the Stamp Act protests, Adams was elected as a representative to the state legislature, where he emerged as a leader of the opposition party. In 1766 he was elected clerk of the Assembly, a position he held until 1774.
Although opposed to royal interference in the politics and economy of Massachusetts, Adams was, at least in the early stages, a reluctant revolutionary. As the conflict with England expanded in the mid 1760s, his editorials continued to advise caution. By 1768, however, Adams was promoting organized resistance, serving as a cofounder of the Sons of Liberty, an urban militia made up of both upperand lower-class citizens. For the next two years Adams opposed the presence of troops in his many editorials, listing numerous offenses allegedly committed by the soldiers against the citizenry.
To a large extent, Adams contributed to the tensions that resulted in the so-called Boston Massacre, a clash between British sentries and a local crowd on March 5, 1770. Although the British sentries were tried and acquitted by a jury of Bostonians, Adams, writing in The Boston Gazette on December 24, 1770 under a pseudonym, continued to paint them as the guilty parties. Ignoring the mood and actions of the Boston crowd that had surrounded the soldiers, Adams insisted that the British soldiers had “behaved with an haughty air . . . abused the people as they pass’d along . . . and struck innocent persons there who offer’d them no injury.”
Adams was relentless in his attacks on English policy, publishing antigovernment editorials during the interim period of 1770 to 1773, often referred to as the quiet years of the Revolutionary era. In 1772 he played a leading role in founding the Boston committee of correspondence, which shared information with similar committees throughout Massachusetts and the other colonies. In “State of the Rights of the Colonists” (1772), issued as a report of the committee of correspondence, Adams drew upon the natural rights of man, inherent in each and every man irrespective of position or birth. The report kept the possibility and perhaps the probability of independence from England in the public mind. Adams’s argument reveals the depth of his education and reading: he makes references to classical literature, John Locke, British law, history, and current events in Europe.
In 1773 the quiet period was shattered by the Tea Act. Opposed to parliamentary taxes of any kind, Adams was a leader, at least in the planning stages, of the Boston Tea Party. He continued to lead the opposition against the series of retaliatory acts, which the colonists grouped as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. These acts and the opposition to them led to the first Continental Congress in 1774. Adams served as a delegate from Massachusetts in this first national congress, and he became a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Adams memorialized this event in one of his best-known speeches. Delivered in Philadelphia on August 1, 1776, the speech castigated moderates, who still sought an accommodation with England, and called for national unity among the thirteen new states. It was also a prime example of the Adams method—a political sermon or jeremiad, blending republican rhetoric with Calvinist preaching: “Our forefathers threw off the yoke of Popery in religion; for you is reserved the honor of leveling the popery of politics.”
Adams continued to serve in the Continental Congress until 1781. This service came at a cost, however. He was never able to win an election over his chief rival and former protégé, John Hancock (1737–1793), for state leadership. Adams settled into the role of political and social critic, periodically issuing editorials in opposition to the Hancock faction. The two remained bitter opponents until 1789, when Adams joined forces with Hancock and was elected lieutenant governor. Adams finally achieved the coveted post of governor when Hancock died in 1793. He was elected in his own right in 1794, holding the position until 1797. Adams died on October 2, 1803.
- Adams, Samuel. The Writings of Samuel Adams, 4 volumes, edited by Harry Alonzo Cushing. New York: Putnam, 1904– 1908. New York: Octagon, 1968.
- Adams. Papers, 1635–1859. New York: New York Public Library, 1964–1971.
- Maier, Pauline. The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York: Knopf, 1980.
- Miller, John Chester. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Boston: Little, Brown, 1936; Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967.
- Puls, Mark. Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 2006.