Book Review – SAMUEL ADAMS: A LIFE by Ira Stoll

In a dinner party discussion of David McCullough’s recently released biography of John Adams, Ira Stoll volunteered that his favorite Adams was Sam. Everyone thought he meant the beer. Actually, Stoll admires the uncompromising and incorruptible Samuel Adams, who was an indifferent brewer but a zealous patriot. This volume is Stoll’s attempt to clear away the fog which settled on Sam Adams’ legacy.

Samuel Adams was indefatigable. He thought deeply, wrote convincingly, argued passionately for the liberties of men born free and accountable to God before the King. John Adams said of his cousin, “Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that his first inaugural address was based on Adams’ thought: “In meditating the matter … I often asked myself, is this exactly in the spirit of the patriarch of liberty, Samuel Adams? Is it as he would express it? Will he approve of it?” Although he never held a federal office above the level of congressman, Adams occupied nearly every level of state and local office between sanitation inspector and governor of Massachusetts.

Yet the vague obscurity he suffers today seems almost pre-ordained — which Adams, a staunch Calvinist, would have found unsurprising. Only a week after his death, friends warned that he would be “basely forgotten.” John Adams had to intercede with Massachusetts officials not to replace a state portrait of the late Governor Adams with a painting of George Washington.

Stoll spends most of the volume displaying the thought and character of the man, rather than pondering on history’s treatment of him. Stoll says that Adams burned much of his personal papers and did not leave a wealth of documentary records to study, but he brings him to life through a succession of letters, state documents, and newspaper articles. Adams was first and foremost a journalist, writing under several pen names to focus public attention on the blessings of liberty and its erosion under royal governors. He was effective, too; one governor, recalled by George III after an Adams-led petition, muttered on his way out, “Damn that Adams, every dip of his pen stung like a horned snake.” After independence, his editorializing moved toward policy statements, but he still itched to write for newspapers. “It is painful for me, you know, to keep secrets,” he confided to a friend.

Most importantly, says Stoll, Adams was a devout Christian who saw all of life through biblical lenses. Boston was moving away from its original Puritan culture, but Adams never did. He saw civil liberties as inseparably linked with religious freedom, and the failure in one would destroy the other. “We shall succeed if we are virtuous,” he wrote, and said that one who truckled to despotic royal officials had “very little if any true religion”; the habit would render him a “hardened sinner against GOD and COUNTRY.” When Governor Gage tried to bribe him to drop his revolutionary activities and “make peace with his King,” Adams replied calmly, “Sir, 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.”

This free and unashamed mixing of religion and politics is one reason, Stoll thinks, that Adams has suffered in history; it’s hard for modern, secularized historians to understand him. Like many Puritans, Adams had strong views against Roman Catholicism, and he found the supposedly neutral Quakers too Tory — “If they would not pull down kings, let them not support tyrants,” he growled. However, he was liberal enough to support the general freedom of religion, and was quite friendly with noted skeptics like Thomas Jefferson and willing to defend patriotic-minded heretics on occasion. It doesn’t fit the popular (and inaccurate) view of Puritans, leading some writers to accuse Adams of cynicism, yet a lifetime consistency in his personal writings and public statements rules out a faith of political expedience. There was a serenity in his faith, Stoll says, that gave Adams both energy and stability that others remarked.

It was not the only factor in Adams’ thinking, though. Stoll writes:

“If there is an alternative explanation to religious belief for Adams’s motivation in the revolutionary cause, it is economic. Adams stressed property rights almost as much as religious rights in arguing against Britain’s treatment of the colonies, and he described taxes imposed by Britain as an infringement upon those rights. And as a tax collector for the town of Boston who had trouble collecting what he was supposed to, Adams had a deep understanding of how much colonial Americans did not like to pay taxes.”

Adams remarked in 1768, “It is observable, that though many have disregarded life, and contemned liberty, yet there are few men who do not agree that property is a valuable acquisition, which ought to be held sacred. Many have fought, bled, and died for this, who have been insensible to all other obligation. … Now, what property can the colonists be conceived to have, if their money may be granted away by others, without their consent?” Like many of his words, these ring true 241 years later.


(This review originally appeared in Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation)

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