Samuel Adams – more than a beer

Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Samuel Adams II

Many volumes have been written about Sam Adams, and we can’t hope to cover all the relevant research here – but for a quick look at the colorful colonial founder, follow along. Sam was born on September 22, 1722, in Quincy, Massachusetts. Formally known as Samuel Adams II, his father was Deacon Samuel Adams, and his great grandfather Joseph Adams Sr. emigrated to the colonies from Somerset, England in the mid-1600s. His father was a member of the Massachusetts Assembly for many years.

Sam was part of a well to do family. He had a private tutor, Mr. Lovell, and attended Harvard beginning at fourteen years of age, normal for the times, and during a period when Harvard was a religious school whose motto was “Christ and Church”. He was unusually distinguished in his studies, and graduated in 1743 with a master’s degree, at the age of nineteen.

He was a man of middle size, well-formed, with a countenance beaming with intelligence, indicating firmness of purpose and energy of action.

Predictive of his future role, he raised the question in his studies of “Whether it be lawful to resist the supreme magistrate if the commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved?” He maintained the affirmative.”

His father destined him for the law, his mother for a merchant, but he proved uninterested or untalented for both.  His father made him a partner in the family’s malthouse, which was next to the family home on Purchase Street. Several generations of Adamses were maltsters, who produced the malt necessary for beer.

The elder Samuel Adams was a great friend of Reverend Checkley of South Church in Boston, who had a daughter, Elizabeth Checkley. Young Sam and Elizabeth grew up together, and in 1749, they married. They had five children, but only two survived to adulthood. Their surviving son was a surgeon who died in the Revolution. Elizabeth died on July 25, 1757 shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. After this date in the family Bible, there is written, in the hand of Samuel Adams: “To her husband, she was as sincere a friend as she was a faithful wife. Her exact economy in all her relative capacities, her kindred on his side, as well as her own, admire. She ran her Christian race with remarkable steadiness and finished in triumph! She left two small children. God grant they may inherit her graces!”

Sam’s genius, however, was in politics, bringing together diverse factions for a common cause. He formed a club of like-minded men, called the Whipping Post, and published pamphlets that railed against the abuse of power by the Crown governor, Shirley. Elected to the Massachusetts assembly in 1760, he became a vocal advocate of liberty and opposed attempts of the Crown to tax the colonists for trade, land, or anything else. Sam helped draft a letter, called the Massachusetts Circular letter in 1768 to gather support for resistance to the taxes of the Crown among sister colonies.

Samuel Adams was forty-two years old when he married Elizabeth Wells, in 1764, fifth daughter of his intimate friend, Francis Wells, an English merchant who came to Boston with his family in 1723. She was twenty-nine years old at the time of the marriage. He was not a successful man according to the standard of most of his thrifty neighbors. This union produced no children.

The Massachusetts Circular stated:

It is, moreover, their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, that the Acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those Acts, grant their property without their consent.

Massachusetts Circular Letter to the Colonial Legislatures; February 11, 1768

When the offensive stamp act was promulged, he protested the taxes upon various articles of daily consumption, for the support of a corrupt and corrupting foreign ministry, which denied the right of representation to the colonies, Samuel Adams proclaimed to his countrymen, that the time had arrived when forbearance was no longer a virtue, and that forcible resistance had become their imperious duty. He showed conclusively that the parliament of Great Britain had violated the constitution that should have guided their deliberations.

From the time he was elected in 1765, he remained in the assembly of his native state until he was chosen as a member of the Continental Congress. He exerted the noblest powers of his mind to prepare the people for the approaching crisis and kindled a flame of patriotic fire that increased in volume as time rolled on. He was the first man who proposed to the people of Massachusetts the non-importation act, the committees of correspondence, and the congress that assembled at Philadelphia in 1774. Nor did he confine his exertions or limit his influence to New England alone; he corresponded with the eminent patriots of the middle and southern states, and contributed largely in producing a unity of sentiment and concert of action in the glorious cause of liberty throughout the colonies.

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 1608-1613).

In addition to opposing the unlawful taxes, Samuel led the fight against quartering British troops in private homes in Boston. His efforts at peacekeeping forestalled further bloodshed after the “Boston massacre”.

Adams’ opposition to the Stamp Act was successful, but Parliament imposed the Townshend Acts to establish their right to tax the colonies, with or without Parliamentary representation. Opposition to these acts grew at a slow boil. The British put a fifty cannon man ‘o war in the harbor and threatened military reprisal. They also perceived John’s influence and attempted to buy him off with royal commissions that would enrich his purse. John would have none of it, and when that failed, the Crown threatened him with arrest and trial on a charge of treason. Replying to the royal emissary sent to him, John asked Colonel Fenton if he would truly deliver his reply to Governor Gage. On receiving an affirmative assurance, he rose from his chair, and assuming an air of withering contempt, he said “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 exasperate the feelings of an insulted people.

In May 1773, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act, a tax law to help the struggling East India Company. Britons could buy smuggled Dutch tea more cheaply than the East India Company’s tea because of the heavy taxes imposed on tea imported into Great Britain, and so the company amassed a huge surplus of tea that it could not sell. Adams reputedly was at the heart of the resistance to the tea taxes, and may have given the signal that caused “Mohawk Indians”, the Sons of Liberty, to board ships in Boston Harbor, and dump the tea – the famous Boston Tea Party.

Tensions continued to mount, and British troops marched west from Boston to Lexington, with a goal of seizing arms and arresting both John Adams and John Hancock, who narrowly escaped. The shot heard round the world on April 19, 1775, was the beginning of the American revolution in terms of armed resistance.

In the Congress of 1776, he was among the first to propose and strongly advocate the declaration of independence; and always contended it should have followed immediately after the battle of Lexington.

When the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress, on the 4th of July, 1776, he most cheerfully affixed his name to that sacred instrument without the least hesitation. He had been an able and eloquent advocate of the measure; he had long cherished and fondly nursed the project of an unequivocal separation from the mother country, and rejoiced at the final consummation of his ardent desires.

Adams never looked back, even when the revolution seemed the most likely to fail. He maintained that the cause was just, and heaven would see them through.

In 1779, Samuel Adams and John Adams were appointed by the committee of which they were members, to draft a constitution for the state of Massachusetts, under the new form of government.

Mr. Adams was also a member of the convention of his native state, convened in 1787, to act upon the Constitution of the United States, then submitted for consideration. Some of its features appeared objectionable to him, but he cautiously avoided any opposition, lest he should endanger its final adoption, which he considered the best policy. He was concerned about the power of the US Supreme Court over the states, a concern that has since proved valid.

From 1789 to 1794 Mr. Adams was lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts, and from that time to 1797 was governor of that state.

His health continued to decrease gradually with each returning autumn, and on the 3d of October, 1803, his immortal spirit left its tenement of clay.

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 1695-1696).

He was a consistent every-day Christian, free from bigotry and fanaticism, not subject to sudden contractions and expansions of mind, rather puritanical in his views, yet charitable in his feelings, and not disposed to persecute anyone for the sake of opinion. He adorned his profession of Christianity by pure moral conduct, and the most scrupulous honesty, during his whole life.