When John Adams traveled to France in 1779 to confer with America's Revolutionary War allies, Parisians lamented that they would not be playing host to "the famous Adams." That title was reserved for the future president's cousin, the muckraking journalist turned zealous revolutionary, Samuel Adams.
So it is odd, then, that this Zelig of independence, present at virtually every revolutionary convulsion of early America, is now remembered mostly for lending his name to a popular brand of beer. As Ira Stoll observes in Samuel Adams: A Life, his engaging and hagiographic biography of this forgotten founding father, a name once synonymous with the American independence movement was "lost in the attic of history."
This is unfortunate, says Stoll, the former managing editor of The New York Sun, because it was Adams who acted as the "moral conscience of the American Revolution." Indeed, it was Adams who helped precipitate the revolutionary unrest, skillfully whipping up public sentiment against British attempts to tax his fellow colonists without allowing them parliamentary representation and, through his pseudonymous newspaper column, inflaming public passions following the Boston Massacre.
Adams was an early and unwavering supporter of separation from Britain, and totally uninterested in compromise or reconciliation with America's imperial masters. When King George III asked Thomas Hutchinson, the former colonial governor of Massachusetts, to provide intelligence on the situation in America, he singled out Adams as "the first that publically asserted the independency of the colonies." As a measure of Adams influence, Stoll points out that when England proffered a pardon for all citizens engaged in revolutionary activity in exchange for a cessation of violence, the only two Bostonians exempted from the deal were Adams and his friend John Hancock.
But Adams was not merely an agitator of mobs. The Massachusetts constitution (1779), which Adams "patiently navigated .ñ.ñ. through revision after revision, and then to ratification," enumerated the "natural, essential and unalienable rights" of "all men." And as Stoll notes, it not only provided the foundation upon which the federal constitution was built, but was later cited when state courts abolished slavery and legalized same-sex marriage.
Stoll argues that, for a man of his times, Adams possessed enlightened, if imperfect, views of slavery and religious liberty (excepting his fanatical anti-Catholicism), and understood that the foundation of a free society was the constitutional guarantee of private property rights. "Property rights, after all," Stoll writes, "were one of Adams's main arguments against taxation by the British." It was the one issue he stressed "almost as much as religious rights in arguing against Britain's treatment of the colonies."
But Christianity was the dominant theme of his writing. He argued strenuously that liberty and religion were inextricably linked, commenting that "whether America shall long preserve her freedom or not, will depend on her virtue" because once Americans "lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader."
But he could also be a moral scold; at times sounding like a proto-social conservative. Adams stridently campaigned against "theatrical entertainments," inveighing against the supposedly deleterious effects of horse racing, theater-going, dancing, card playing and salty language. The curbing of such "idle amusements" was necessary, he believed, to restore virtue and to preserve revolutionary gains.
Stoll offers not only a compelling portrait of an overlooked figure, but a crisp intellectual history of the American Revolution and its main players. And he reminds readers that it was John Adams who remarked upon his cousin's death that "Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written." With Samuel Adams: A Life, Stoll has succeeded in returning the man Thomas Jefferson called "the patriarch of liberty" to his proper place in the pantheon of great revolutionaries.