Samuel Adams: American Rebel With a Cause

Updated on August 17, 2019
Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams

Early Years

Some people are born with a zeal for change, not accepting the status quo—they are rebels. Samuel Adams was such a man. John Adams, Samuel’s cousin and a future president of the United States, wrote his wife Abigail in January 1794: “I pity Mr. Sam. Adams for he was born a Rebel.” Why some people choose the path of nonconformists fighting against the system and others grudgingly comply is a matter for psychologists to ponder. In the case of Samuel Adams, maybe it was his strict Puritan upbringing and his strong belief in the rights of man that lit his revolutionary fire. His father was a deacon in the Old South Congregation Church in Boston and his mother was known as a woman “of severe religious principles.” Born on Purchase Street in Boston on September 27, 1722, Samuel was one of twelve children and one of only three to live past their childhood; life could be short and harsh in the New England colonies.

His father’s success in business allowed young Samuel to attend the Boston Grammar School and then go on to Harvard College at age fourteen. At that time, Harvard was primarily a training ground for young men bound for the clergy, and that is what Samuel’s father planned for his son. At Harvard, he studied the Greek and Latin classics and graduated in 1740. He went on to study for a master’s degree, arguing in the affirmative on the thesis: “Whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved.” The seeds of the rebel were born!

After college he tried his luck as a business owner and failed miserably. He was much more interested in politics and writing. His father gave him a job at his malt house. Contrary to what you might see on the popular Samuel Adams beer commercials, the real Samuel Adams was not a brewer; however, he was engaged in the process of malting barley, which is the key ingredient in beer.

Harvard College circa 1740.
Harvard College circa 1740.

Political Life Begins

In 1748, Samuel’s father died and left him one-third of the malt house and the family’s home on Purchase Street. The next year he married Elizabeth Checkley. They had two children together, but she died eight years later, leaving him a widower with two young children. Not finding success in his own business, he went to work for the city of Boston as a tax collector from 1756 to 1764. He wasn’t a particularly good tax collector as he often allowed citizens to delay tax payments to curry favor to bolster his political ambitions.

His zest for politics became apparent when he joined the “Caucus Club,” a group that met regularly to discuss public affairs. Things in the colonies got very heated with the imposition of the Sugar Revenue Act by the British in 1764. The tax on molasses was a reduction on the previous tax that was expiring, but the colonists had managed to avoid paying the tax by smuggling. Parliament hoped that by reducing the tax they could collect a much larger portion of the taxes. The British government had gone deeply in debt to finance the war with France, part of which occurred in America and was known as the French and Indian War. Adams wrote a report for the Massachusetts assembly denouncing the act as an infringement on colonists, who were British subjects. With outrage growing in the colonies and few taxes being collected, Parliament repealed the tax in 1766.

Samuel was elected to the House of the Massachusetts assembly in 1765 and would remain there for nearly a decade. He became an outspoken critic of the British and was the leader of the radical faction. The English Crown imposed two new taxes on the colonists to try to raise money for the troubled treasury of Great Britain. The Stamp Act of 1765 and the following Townshend Acts further provoked the colonists. They cried “taxation without representation,” as they had no voice in the British parliament. In the eyes of the colonists, lack of representation made the taxes unconstitutional. The reaction was swift as groups started to form within the colonies to oppose the taxes and British control. Adams was one of the ring leaders of a group of radicals known as the Sons of Liberty. This loose group would meet at clandestine locations, such as the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street, to make plans to derail the oppressive British tactics. Rioting broke out, and many of the stamp tax collectors were forced to resign. The British loyalist lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Hutchinson, was a flashpoint for the mobs as they looted his house in protest.

As the protests worsened, the commissioners of the Customs Board found it impossible to enforce the trade regulations in Boston. They sought help from the military to restore order so they could tax and regulate trade within the colonies. Help came in the form of a fifty-gun warship, which arrived in Boston Harbor in May 1768. To make matters worse, the British began to conscript local young men into the British navy. Fearing for their own safety, the customs officials and their families moved to safety on the British warship and were transported to Castle William, an island fort within the harbor. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent word to London that more troops were needed to restore order.

The Occupation of Boston by the British

British troops arrived in Boston and put the city under military control. The colonists deeply resented the occupation of their city, believing it was unjust. Adams opposed the occupation and wrote numerous letters and essays in response to local papers using various pen names. In 1769, British officials gained control of the city and some of the troops were removed. During the occupation, unruly British soldiers were reported to have assaulted local men and raped women with impunity. Tensions continued to escalate between the Bostonians and the occupying army, which resulted in a flashpoint were five colonists were killed by British troops. Adams wanted the soldiers to receive a fair trial to show the British that Boston was not ruled by angry mobs. The deaths of the civilians became known as the Boston Massacre.

British ships in Boston Harbor 1768.
British ships in Boston Harbor 1768.

A Period of Quiet and the Formation of a Government

The British repealed some of the taxes they had imposed on the colonists and the friction between the locals and the occupying British soldiers reached a period of quiet. Adams encouraged the colonists to continue to boycott British goods, but people needed products from the English and the merchants needed the business. Fellow Sons of Liberty members John Adams and John Hancock focused on their businesses while Samuel Adams continued to agitate. He wrote over forty letters to local newspapers espousing hatred for the British and their harsh tactics. In late 1770, Samuel led the effort to set up the Committee of Correspondence. This was a way to link all the colonies together through a series of communiques to alert distant colonies of the events in Massachusetts as well as their individual towns. The Committees of Correspondence formed the seed of a new government that would link the distant colonies loosely together.

Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party

The period of quiet in Boston and the other colonies ended abruptly when the British enacted the Tea Act in 1773. The British East Indian Company, which was closely linked to the British government, was in financial difficulty and found themselves with millions of pounds of surplus tea that needed to be sold. To ease the financial burden on the troubled state sponsored company, Parliament granted a virtual monopoly on tea sales to the East India Company for the American colonies. This enraged the Americans as the monopoly would hurt the local merchants, who couldn’t compete with the pricing of the cut-rate tea, and the smugglers, who had been secretly importing Dutch tea to circumvent British taxes on the tea. Samuel Adams wrote an article in the Boston Gazette under the pen name “Observation” proposing that “a congress of American States be assembled as soon as possible, to draw up a Bill of Rights;…choose an ambassador to reside at the British court to act for the united colonies; appoint where the congress shall annually meet.” Adams and the other members of the Sons of Liberty declared anyone who aided in unloading or selling the tea to be “enemies of America.”

The outrage grew not only in Boston but in the other colonies as British ships laden with tea were turned away in the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. The British loyalist governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, demanded that the three ships loaded with tea be unloaded at the Boston wharf. The riots and protests came to a head the night of December 16, 1773, when Adams and his fellow patriots held a large rally at Boston’s Old South Church. The colonists, with no legal remedy, decided to take matters into their own hands and a band of around 160 men lightly disguised as Mohawk Indians marched to Griffin’s Wharf. The men worked throughout the night, throwing the tea on board the Dartmouth, Beaver, and Eleanor into Boston Harbor. The British estimated the value of the destroyed tea at 10,000 pounds sterling—a huge sum of money at the time.

Boston Tea Party. 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier was entitled The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor; the phrase "Boston Tea Party" had not yet become standard.
Boston Tea Party. 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier was entitled The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor; the phrase "Boston Tea Party" had not yet become standard.

The British Response to the Tea Party

As soon as word of the destruction of the tea by the colonists reached England, the retaliation was swift. Parliament issued a set of punitive laws called the Coercive Acts; the colonists called them the “Intolerable Acts.” The most egregious of the acts was the closing of Boston harbor. This threw the city into economic chaos. Few roads existed at the time and most of the food stuffs not grown locally and the commerce of the city flowed through the port. The British demanded payment for the destroyed tea before the port could be opened. Samuel Adams took the lead in organizing the resistance to the acts. At a Boston town meeting on May 13, with Adams as moderator, they approved measures to boycott all British goods. The measure was circulated to other colonies through the correspondence committees, and though opposed by the merchant class, a boycott of British products had begun.

First Continental Congress Meets

Through the Committees of Correspondence, the first Continental Congress was organized to meet in September 1774 to deal with the Coercive Acts and the growing hostility between the British and the Americans. Thomas Hutchinson had been replaced by General Thomas Gage as the military governor of Massachusetts in 1774. General Gage was a lifelong British soldier who previously had been the provisional governor of Montreal.

Samuel and John Adams were chosen to represent Massachusetts at the meeting held in Philadelphia. Samuel’s friends realized he was short on funds and rallied behind him, buying him new clothes and suppling his living expenses for the journey to Philadelphia. John and Samuel set out by carriage for the two-week journey as two of the fifty-five delegates of the meeting of the First Continental Congress.

Twelve of the thirteen colonies were present at the meeting. Georgia refused to send delegates due to their strong British loyalist leanings. The meeting quickly broke into two camps. The more conservative members sought remedies with Great Britain to repeal the Coercive Acts, while the more radical faction, led by Patrick Henry, Roger Sherman, Samuel Adams, and John Adams, believed their task was to develop a statement of their rights and liberties as colonists, as guaranteed under Colonial Charters and the English Constitution.

If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.

— Samuel Adams

The Battles at Lexington and Concord

With such a large contingency of British troops in Boston, around three thousand, the patriots had stockpiled ammunition and supplies for the minutemen in the nearby town of Concord. Fearing arrest by the British, Sam Adams and John Hancock fled the city of Boston in early April 1775 and sought refuge in the home of Reverend Jonas Clark. The two had been attending the Massachusetts Provisional Congress that met in Concord. As the patriots became aware of the British plan to capture the supplies at Concord as well as Adams and Hancock, the patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren sent for William Dawes and Paul Revere about 10 P.M. on April 18 to warn to the people of Concord and to alert Adams and Hancock that the British troops were seeking their arrest. As the first shots were fired at Lexington between the minutemen and the British troops, in what has come to be known as the shot heard around the world, the American Revolutionary War began. Revere found the two at Mr. Clark’s house and spirited them down the road to Philadelphia were the Second Continental Congress was set to meet in May. As Adams and Hancock traveled to Philadelphia in the wee hours of morning with the sound of gun fire in the distance, Adams said to Hancock, “What a glorious morning this is!” Apparently thinking Hancock took his comment as a weather report, he added, “I mean for America.” Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, General Gage issued a general pardon to anyone willing to lay down their arms and cease hostilities—with just two exceptions to the amnesty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Both men became marked men destined for a British prison or worse.

General George Washington.
General George Washington.

The American Revolutionary War

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia starting in early May. The battles at Lexington and Concord had changed everything. Most of the members from the first congress were present with some notable new members: Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Hancock of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson from Virginia. Georgia sent delegates to the second congress to give representation from all the thirteen colonies. The conservative members gave way to the more radical faction that sought to build a new, independent nation. Just a month into the congress, John Adams motioned that George Washington be named as the commander of the Continental Army, and Samuel Adams seconded the motion.

To formalize their quest for freedom, the delegates crafted the Declaration of Independence, which was made public in early July of 1776. Samuel was one of the signers of the historic document. To establish a new government during the heat of the Revolutionary War, Samuel was on the committee to establish the Articles of Confederation in 1777. These Articles became the first form of government for the new nation until the United States Constitution could be ratified a decade later. Carl Becker, in the Dictionary of American Biography, gives a less than flattering account of Samuel Adams as a legislator: “As Adam’s effective career began only with the opening of the quarrel with Great Britain, so it may be said to have ended with the final breach. Essentially a revolutionary agitator, he possessed little talent as a constructive statesman. Nevertheless, for twenty-five years of declining popularity and influence he played a minor role without blemish if without distinction.”

Later Life

As the war for independence with Great Britain was ending in 1781, Samuel returned to Boston. Now sixty years old, in diminished health, and no longer the revolutionary firebrand he had been a decade before, he settled into a more domestic life with his second wife. With politics still in his blood, he helped draft the Massachusetts Constitution, serving as a senator and member of the Council. When the United States Constitution was sent to the individual states for ratification, Adams was on the state committee that ratified the Constitution for Massachusetts. From 1789 to 1797, he served as the lieutenant governor, and then governor of Massachusetts upon the death of the sitting governor John Hancock.

Samuel Adams, American patriot, died on October 2, 1803. He was buried at the Granary burial ground in the center of Boston, the same cemetery where his revolutionary brother, John Hancock, and the victims of the Boston Massacre lay. The United States House of Representatives resolved unanimously that its members would wear black crepe on their sleeve for a month to mourn the man who “made an early and decided stand against British encroachment, while souls more timid were trembling and irresolute.”

References

Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. David McKay Company, Inc. 1966.

Charles River Editors. The Sons of Liberty: The lives and Legacies of John Adams, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2013.

Fisher, David. Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies The Patriots. Henry Holt and Company. 2016.

Johnson, Allen (editor). Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1928.

Standiford, Less. Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War. HarperCollins Publishers. 2012.

Stoll, Ira. Samuel Adams A Life. Free Press. 2008.

West, Doug. John Adams: A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2015.

West, Doug. Samuel Adams: A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2019.

“Harvard University” Encyclopedia Britannia. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Harvard-University

Questions & Answers

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      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        5 days ago from U.S.A.

        Great article, Doug. Samuel Adams was a strong figure we needed for our nation to form. As always, you told the story of his life with clear facts and interesting stories. Respectfully, Tim

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        5 days ago from Missouri

        Mary:

        You are right, we do need people like Sam Adams that are willing to correct the wrongs in the world.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 days ago from Ontario, Canada

        We do need men like Samuel Adams at certain points of history to propel our countries to independence. He is a truly great man.

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