Review: The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams

The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, Stacy Schiff. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2022.

Summary: A biography of this Boston revolutionary who, working mostly behind the scenes, fanned into flame the colonists decision to seek independence.

For many, the name of Samuel Adams calls to mind a beer. And indeed, Adams was a maltster for part of his life. But one of the things that emerges is that Adams was a failure at everything he did except for kindling the fires that led to a revolution. He inherited debt from a failed land scheme of his father. He failed as a tax collector, perhaps unsurprisingly. He really got by with the help of his friends.

What Stacy Schiff makes clear is that there was one thing that Samuel Adams was good at: igniting a revolution. It might well be said that Samuel Adams played as large a part in stirring up the movement that led to a revolution as his more famous peers, is cousin John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Yet we know much less of him. What we learn from reading Schiff is that much of this was necessary because his activities could easily lead to arrest if known. As it is, he often had to flee writs of arrest, as he did in consequence of Paul Revere’s ride to warn him that the British authorities were marching to Lexington, in part, to arrest him, as well to seize ammunition stores. He often destroyed papers, or published pieces anonymously, planned in back rooms, maintaining an elusive presence that gave him what we might call “plausible deniability.” All of this makes the historian’s job harder.

Schiff focuses on the 15 years beginning with 1764 and the Stamp Act that inflamed feeling. Adams was able to put his finger on the fundamental issue of taxation without representation. He was not present at the destruction of the home of the man who represented the British opposition, Thomas Hutchinson, but he certainly inflamed the feeling of fellow-Bostonians that led to the act. He awakened his fellow colonists that they were being treated as inferiors with little or no say about how they were governed when, in fact they had shown them capable of self-government in their town councils and in colonial legislative bodies.

The introduction of British troops further escalated his efforts, and led to campaigns of misinformation, including allegations that the British troops assaulted young girls. Later a blockade on trade led him to set up committees of correspondence between the colonies, the first steps down the road to Philadelphia and the Declaration of Independence. He was one of the first to moot the idea of independence and to recognize this would mean armed resistance.

He was the skilled propagandist who turned a military action in which five Bostonians died into the Boston Massacre, memorialized each year with public speeches. When imports of East India tea were forced on Bostonians, he disingenuously arranged for the protection of the cargo while covertly planning its destruction by “redskins.” Schiff gives the most extensive account of this episode I’ve read, emphasizing that those who dumped the tea into Boston harbor even cleaned up the ship afterwards!

For anything else than making revolution, he wasn’t terribly practical. His second wife had to work while he was at the Continental Congress. People were relieved in his later years when he finally resigned as Massachusetts governor. But his ability to articulate the case for American independence emboldened others, including his younger cousin John Adams. His network of relationships, represented eventually in the committees of correspondence reflected his ability to forge a movement of disparate persons. While he was not above underhanded means, he held to high ideals for the country, including an early opposition to slavery. Offered a slave, he required her to be freed first.

Schiff’s work transforms Adams from a figure in the background to one whose dynamic role in fostering the revolution necessarily required work in the background. Schiff helps us understand how this singularly skilled man played a far bigger role in mobilizing colonies into the revolt that became what we call the War of Independence that created a nation. When most simply wanted to resolve grievances, Adams saw that, risky as it was, breaking with British rule was where things were headed, seeing further and sooner than most.

One thought on “Review: The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2022 | Bob on Books

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