Samuel Adams was a Founding Father of the United States and a political theorist who protested British taxation without representation, uniting the American colonies in the fight for independence during the Revolutionary War. He was the second cousin of John Adams and the architect of political ideals about liberty and independence that led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and America’s independence from Great Britain. In his home state of Massachusetts, Adams held a number of political offices, and served as governor from 1793 to 1797.
Who Was Samuel Adams?
Samuel Adams was born into an affluent Puritan family on September 27, 1722, in Boston, the largest city in the Massachusetts colony.
His father, Samuel Adams, Sr., was an accomplished merchant, brewer, deacon and political activist. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of a local merchant. Adams’ parents had 12 children, but he was just one of three who survived to adulthood.
He was raised in their home on Boston’s Purchase Street overlooking the colonial harbor. They had hoped he would pursue a career in the clergy, but it was his father’s political activism that sparked Adams’ curiosity.
After his initial education at Boston Latin School, he progressed to Harvard College where he studied the writings of John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher whose conviction that all individuals were born with certain inalienable rights would form the basis of Adams' political theories about colonial freedoms.
His disdain for British rule over the colonies was also forged by his family’s experience: In 1741, British Parliament dissolved the colonial “land banks,” established to help landowners mortgage their land to gain access to money. Samuel Adams, Sr. had helped create the program and was held liable for outstanding balances.
The British seized much of Adams’ property and finances, gutting the family’s wealth and leading to repeated legal battles that his son later inherited.
Sons of Liberty
Adams was not an instant success after his Harvard graduation. He failed as a brewer when he tried to run his father’s Boston malt business, and was later an unenthusiastic and unsuccessful tax collector.
Politics were his true passion, and in 1748 with his friends he published The Independent Advertiser, a newspaper to promote his opinion pieces, launching a career as a political leader and agitator.
Adams was also building his home life—in 1749 he married his pastor’s daughter, Elizabeth Checkley. They lived in his family home on Purchase Street and had six children before her death less than a decade later. He remarried in 1764 to Elizabeth Wells.
As Adams’ family grew, so did his voice in politics. When Britain imposed the Sugar Act of 1764, he wrote a critical response for the colonists in Massachusetts.
The Sugar Act was repealed, but Britain began a succession of harsher taxes, beginning with the Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on all printed documents. Adams joined John Hancock, Paul Revere and James Otis in secret meetings to form the radical group the Sons of Liberty to oppose the taxation without representation.
Violent protests in Boston targeted the homes of British authorities, making it nearly impossible for the British to enforce the Stamp Act.
Adams was continuing to publish newspaper articles in opposition to British rule, writing constantly about self-rule and liberty. He was also collaborating and debating politics with his second cousin and future president John Adams.
Britain continued exerting its power over the colonies, and hit back with the Townshend Acts of 1767, taxing a range of British imports. Adams knew a bigger response was needed than just protests in Boston. He drafted the Massachusetts Circular Letter, a direct appeal to King George III, to be shared among the colonies and sparking a united boycott of British goods.
It succeeded, and the Townshend Acts were eventually repealed, but tensions increased as the British sent troops to the streets of Boston. Their presence culminated in the Boston Massacre in 1770, a deadly confrontation in which the British shot five unarmed colonists.
On December 16, 1773, in a packed room in Boston’s Old South Meeting House when a peaceful solution seemed impossible, Adams exclaimed, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”
While the meaning of the quote has been debated, some historians believe it was a coded message alerting rebels to begin aggressively dumping crates of tea into Boston Harbor in a brazen act of defiance.
Samuel Adams Quotes
Other quotes attributed to Samuel Adams include the following:
“We cannot make events. Our business is wisely to improve them.”
“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.”
“The Constitution shall never be construed... to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”
“Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason.”
“If you love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.”
Declaration of Independence
It was becoming increasingly clear to Adams that the colonies could not live under British rule.
He was pushing for the colonies to form a government, and his vision of uniting the colonies was realized in 1774 when the first Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia. Adams was among the Massachusetts delegates (with John Adams) and representatives from other colonies included George Washington, John Hancock, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
The British were now after Adams, and he narrowly escaped arrest on the eve of the Revolutionary War’s first battles thanks to a warning from Paul Revere during his famed midnight ride.
As the colonial militia fought years of hard battles against the British, Adams was focused on creating a new colonial government.
Samuel Adams’ Later Life
During the Revolution, Adams helped draft the Articles of Confederation, which reflected his fears of a centrally controlled federal government. He returned to Boston and helped pass the Massachusetts constitution.
He was back in Philadelphia in 1776 for the Second Continental Congress and worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help ensure that on July 4, 1776, the colonies would pass the Declaration of Independence for the new nation.
Adams worked with the Continental Congress until 1781, when he retired in poor health and returned to Boston. Two years later the war ended, and the colonists won independence.
Despite his misgivings, he eventually supported Massachusetts’ ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. As Americans began to divide themselves along party lines, Adams aligned himself with the Whig Party, instead of the Federalist Party led by John Adams.
Adams continued his work as an elected official in the Massachusetts state government and would become the second governor of Massachusetts after John Hancock’s death. He retired due to ill health in 1797, and died on October 2, 1803, at age 81.
While Adams never sought the presidency, like some of the other Founding Fathers, and faced controversy over his politics later in life, his legacy as a Founding Father remains unquestioned. He played a crucial and influential role in forging the ideals of liberty and uniting the colonies to fight for freedom.
Samuel Adams: The American Revolution, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Samuel Adams: Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.
Samuel Adams: Samuel Adams Heritage Society.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors.
Samuel Adams. American Battlefield Trust.
Declaration of Independence. National Archives.
Mark Puls, Samuel Adams, Father of the American Revolution (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2006).
Samuel Adams. Journal of the American Revolution.