SAMUEL ADAMS: FATHER OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
BY MARK PULS
PALGRAVE/MACMILLAN, 240 PAGES, $24.95
These days, most Americans know the Revolutionary War figure Samuel Adams only as a beer maker—his name and image adorn one of one most popular and acclaimed premium brews in the country.
But as every label on every bottle of Sam Adams suds attests, Adams was a "Brewer Patriot," and an engaging and timely new biography does a great job of redressing our national ignorance concerning the character who, Mark Puls argues, was "the father of the American Revolution."
Born and raised in Boston, Adams (1722-1803) was instrumental in securing independence from Great Britain. He not only armed American colonials with unassailable legal and historical arguments for home rule and civil and economic rights, he helped create political and cultural institutions such as the Sons of Liberty (the group that fought against British occupation and masterminded the Boston Tea Party); the "committees of correspondence" (which coordinated activities among pro-independence colonial assemblies), and the Continental Congress (which produced the Declaration of Independence) that made the Revolution possible.
As Puls, a former reporter and the coauthor of 2005's "Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War," notes, "of the major founding fathers, only . . . Adams advocated independence before [the battle of] Lexington. In the critical prewar years, it was Adams who mapped out what became known as American values about liberty, self-government and natural human rights."
An indifferent businessman, Adams was a bust as a brewer and he similarly proved incompetent during a short stint as a tax collector (of all things). But he was a complete success as a patriot, spearheading remarkably effective boycotts against English goods in response to the Sugar and Stamp Acts and writing voluminous, widely reprinted anonymous essays, tracts and articles that made the case for no taxation without representation.
Dubbed "the patriarch of liberty" by Thomas Jefferson, Adams, who eventually served as governor of Massachusetts, helped make the "theme of individual liberty . . . central to the American psyche," Puls writes. More than a decade before the Declaration of Independence, Adams wrote that individuals were "unalienably entitled to those essential rights in common with all men," the core sentiment of Jefferson's manifesto.
He was principled to a fault, even to the point of criticizing the presidential administration of his second cousin, John Adams, when it began to restrict free speech and passed oppressive measures such as the Alien and Sedition Acts. That sort of consistency made Sam Adams revered in his day, and also feared by politicians who were seeking mostly to maintain or increase their power. Adams' reputation, Puls notes, declined after his death partly because he left no memoir or autobiography trumpeting his central role in the founding of the country.
Yet Adams is precisely the sort of figure Americans would do well not only to remember but to use as a standard for measuring contemporary politicians, who all too often betray their ideals, if they have any in the first place. Puls' book goes a long way toward creating the day when, one hopes, Sam Adams will set the standard for good politicians every bit as much as he does for good beer.
Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason. This review originally appeared in the New York Post.