Founding Father Samuel Adams was a thorn in the side of the British in the years before the American Revolution. As a political activist and state legislator, he spoke out against British efforts to tax the colonists, and pressured merchants to boycott British products. He also was an important leader in the Sons of Liberty, a radical group that engaged in violent civil disobedience and retaliation against those who cooperated with the British. Additionally, as a writer, Adams was a skillful propagandist, churning out scores of newspaper articles, pamphlets and letters to promote resistance to British rule.
In fact, while George Washington led the American colonists to victory in the Revolutionary War, there might not have been a revolution at all if it weren’t for provocateurs such as Samuel Adams.
Adams and other firebrands helped push moderate colonial leaders into joining in the resistance against the British, which eventually led to the war. But Adams wasn’t just a rabble rouser. He also was a serious political theorist who championed the notion of individual rights, which became a core American value. During the Revolutionary War, Adams served in the Continental Congress, and helped draft the Articles of Confederation, the document that was the predecessor to the U.S. Constitution.
Samuel Adams' Background and Early Life
Adams was born in Boston on September 27, 1722 to an affluent Puritan family. His father, Samuel Adams Sr., was a prominent local merchant and religious deacon who was also active in local politics. His mother, Mary Adams, was the daughter of a local businessman.
Adams attended Boston Latin School and then went to Harvard College. It was there that Adams was introduced to the writings of John Locke, a philosopher in the Enlightenment, who argued that all people were born with certain rights that could not be taken away, and that governments exist by the consent of the people. That idea made a powerful impression upon Adams, who wrote his 1743 master’s degree thesis at Harvard on the legality of resisting British authority.
When Adams’ father died in 1748, he inherited the family business of making malted barley and supplying it to brewers. He also may have tried his hand at brewing, judging from a 1751 newspaper advertisement in which he offered “strong beer, or malt for those who incline to brew it themselves; to be sold by Samuel Adams, at a reasonable rate.”
But Adams wasn’t very good at running the business, and eventually went bankrupt. He was similarly unsuccessful as a city tax collector, performing his duties so ineptly that his ledgers came up short by thousands of pounds.
WATCH: How the Sons of Liberty Helped Ignite the Revolution
Sons of Liberty
Though Adams wasn’t very good with money, he was a good writer. He and some friends started their own short-lived newspaper, The Public Advertiser, which published Adams’ opinion pieces. He used that opportunity to exhort other Bostonians to cherish and protect their personal freedom.
Adams’ voice became more prominent in the mid-1760s, when the British government tried to pay off debt from the Seven Years War by imposing new taxes upon the American colonists. While others merely grumbled about the economic harm, Adams argued in print that the British were violating the colonists’ rights, because they were being taxed without representation in Parliament. He denounced the Stamp Act, a 1765 tax law, as an attempt “to destroy the liberties of America as with one blow.”
That same year, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, an office he would hold for nine years. Around that time, he also joined a secretive group of activists called the Loyal Nine, which eventually evolved into a more radical organization called the Sons of Liberty.
When British troops arrived in Boston in 1768, Adams became more heavily involved in organizing resistance against the Crown. He wrote scores of newspaper articles under pen names, attacking the British. He also pressured Boston merchants to boycott British goods.
Role in the Boston Tea Party
After the British Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773, which sought to force the colonists to buy their tea from the British East India Company, Adams helped organize Bostonians to hinder the tea shipments. One group of resisters took matters even further, dressing up as Indian warriors and boarding several British ships to dump their tea, in what became known as the Boston Tea Party. Adams, who may have played a role in planning the event, afterward he praised it publicly, writing that the protesters “have acted upon pure and upright principle.”
Eventually, British authorities had enough of Adams and his agitation. In 1775, British General Thomas Gage led a force of soldiers from Boston to Lexington, on a mission to arrest Adams and fellow colonial radical John Hancock. But American spies got wind of the plan, and American militiamen confronted the British on Lexington Common. The ensuing Battles of Lexington and Concord were the opening armed confrontations that sparked the Revolutionary War.
As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, and continued his inflammatory rhetoric. In a 1776 speech in Philadelphia, he castigated Americans who sided with the Crown. “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom—go from us in peace,” Adams said. “We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you.”
As a member of the Continental Congress, Adams also helped draft the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to the U.S. Constitution.
Samuel Adams' Later Years
After leaving the Continental Congress in 1781, Adams went back to Boston, and eventually got back into state politics. He served for a time as president of the Massachusetts Senate and as Lieutenant Governor under Governor John Hancock, his former fellow radical. When Hancock died in office, Adams took over for him, and subsequently was elected to three one-year terms before retiring.
Adams died at the age of 81 on October 2, 1803.
Samuel Adams Quotes
“Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.”
“Some of our politicians would have the people believe that the administration are disposed or determined to have all the grievances which we complain of redressed, if we will only be quiet. But apprehend this would be a fatal delusion.”
“There can be no property in that which another can of right take from us without our consent.”
“If the British administration and government do not return to the principles of moderation and equity, the evil which they profess to aim at preventing by their own rigorous measures, will the sooner be brought to pass—the entire separation and independence of the colonies.”
“We cannot make events. Our business is to wisely improve them.”
“Shame on the men who can court exemption from present trouble and expense at the price of their own posterity’s liberty!”
“How strangely will the tools of a tyrant perve the plain meaning of words!”
Rights of the Colonists, by Samuel Adams.
The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. III (1773-1777) by Samuel Adams.
Biographical sketch of Samuel Adams, American Battlefield Trust.
Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War, by Lee Standiford
Biographical sketch of Samuel Adams, National Park Service.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary, by John K. Alexander.