The son of a Boston merchant and maltster, Adams was a 1740 graduate of Harvard College where he publicly defended the thesis that it is “lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved.” Adherence to this principle was ever afterward a central theme in his career.
After failing as a brewer and newspaper publisher, Adams found that his chief preoccupation, politics, was his true calling. Following lengthy experience in Boston town affairs, he rose to prominence in the Massachusetts assembly during the opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765. An organizer of Boston’s Sons of Liberty, he played a key role from 1765 until the end of the War of Independence in Patriot opposition to what Adams believed was a British plot to destroy constitutional liberty.
Adams’s contributions to the independence movement were many and varied. During the 1760s and 1770s he frequently wrote polemical articles for the Boston newspapers, and he recruited talented younger men–Josiah Quincy, Joseph Warren, and his second cousin John Adams, among others–into the Patriot cause. It was Samuel Adams who conceived of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and took a leading role in its formation and operations from 1772 through 1774. He was among those who planned and coordinated Boston’s resistance to the Tea Act, which climaxed in the famous Tea Party, and he later worked for the creation of the Continental Congress, helping propel it into supporting Massachusetts in the crisis.
From 1774 through 1781 Adams represented Massachusetts in the Continental Congress, where his industry, stamina, realism, and commitment made him one of the handful of “workhorses” who served year in and year out on numerous committees. Although Adams’s influence in state and national affairs waned during the 1780s, he was elected to the Massachusetts convention on the ratification of the Constitution, which he was ultimately persuaded to support even though it contradicted some Whig principles. But, as in the past, he remained wary of centralized governmental power and never became part of the Federalists, the dominant party in Massachusetts.
After serving as John Hancock’s lieutenant governor from 1789 to 1793, Adams succeeded to the governorship at Hancock’s death. Although he opposed Jay’s Treaty with England in 1795, he was thrice reelected before infirmity led him to retire in 1797. Three years later, when Thomas Jefferson was elected to the presidency over his cousin John, Samuel congratulated the Virginian on the triumph of democratic republicanism.
Samuel Adams was a revolutionary of great self-discipline and patience. “We cannot make events,” he believed. “Our business is wisely to improve them.” After his death, one colleague likened him to John Calvin, “cool, abstemious, polished, refined,” although Adams was “more inflexible, uniform, consistent” than the Genevan reformer. Avoiding all social pretension and cultivating ascetic manners, Adams embodied an austere Puritan republicanism that was seen as exemplary in 1775, but became archaic by the 1790s. Uniformly respected, though not always liked, Samuel Adams was, in John Adams’s words, “born and tempered a wedge of steel to split the knot of lignum vitae” that bound America to Britain.
Pauline Maier, “A New Englander as Revolutionary: Samuel Adams,” in Pauline Maier, Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980); John C. Miller, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda (1936).
RICHARD D. BROWN
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.