Founding Fathers - Samuel Adams

Samuel Adams

Born: September 27, 1722 (Boston, Massachusetts)

Died: October 2, 1803 (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

When I considered who deserved to be the final entry in our study of America's Founding Fathers, it only seemed appropriate that this week's focus was the logical choice.  As perhaps the person more singularly identified with the movement for independence, Samuel Adams embodied the passion of the patriot cause.  As the eldest son of 12 children born to Samuel and Mary Adams, both of whom came from families involved in the shipping industry, the younger Samuel was raised with the ideals of Puritan virtue and self-government.  The elder Adams had become a successful brewer and served as deacon of the nearby Third Church (the congregation occupied what is now known as the Old South Meeting House, a building that was then the largest in Boston) who kept active in local politics as part of an informal group known as the Boston Caucus.  When young Samuel completed his education at Boston Latin School by the age of 14, he enrolled at Harvard where his parents intended for him to study theology in preparation for ministry.  Enthralled by thinkers such as John Locke and Algernon Sydney, however, Samuel saw the application the Puritan model of covenant agreements in the arena of politics - the necessity of mutual acceptance and mutual responsibilities.  He wrote his master's thesis in 1743 on the legality of opposing the supreme magistrate for the preservation of the commonwealth.  Once his education was complete the young man struggled for many years, as he had a brief stint practicing law and working in the counting house of a local merchant before failing in his own small business and returning home to work in his father's malthouse.  In 1748 Samuel helped start a short-lived publication known as The Independent Advertiser, which included editorials urging residents to resist threats to their constitutional rights as British subjects, and while he was a regular contributor the death of the elder Adams just a few months later forced him to take on management of family affairs.  His business abilities had not improved after his first failed attempt, however, and the malthouse was soon lost to bankruptcy.

Despite his vocational turmoil, Samuel Adams began to find success in his personal life, as he married Elizabeth Checkley in 1749.  She was the daughter of Adams' pastor, and the couple had six children together.  His interest in politics finally resulted in public service when he was elected as a clerk at the Boston market, followed by an appointment as tax collector in 1756 by the Boston Town Meeting (a pure democratic meeting of local voters).  Adams had little time to enjoy the upturn in his fortunes, however, as one year into his work Elizabeth died after giving birth to a stillborn baby.  In his grief, he threw himself into politics but his leniency in collecting the ever-increasing taxes made Adams popular with many of Boston's citizens, but resulted in his personal responsibility for the shortage on his books.  After Parliament proposed the Sugar Act in 1763, Adams quickly published the argument that because the colonists were not included in the British legislature that they were being taxed without representation, and that this was a breach of their covenant as well as a violation of the British constitution.  As his influence began to grow once again, Adams also found a new wife in the person of Elizabeth Wells, the daughter of an English merchant.  Although she never had any children of her own, Elizabeth raised the two surviving children of Adams' first marriage.  The Sugar Act was unpopular, but the Stamp Act that was passed in 1765 caused an outcry across the colonies and riots in Massachusetts.  Adams, who had by that time been elected to the Massachusetts Assembly, helped organize protests and boycotts, and joined a group of activists that would eventually become the Sons of Liberty.  In 1768, British troops arrived in Boston to enforce laws, and the conflict between soldiers and citizens eventually led to bloodshed two years later.  Labeled the Boston Massacre and quickly publicized by Adams and Paul Revere, the event caused the deaths of five civilians, the arrest of 13 more, and the trial of eight British soldiers.  John Adams, Samuel's second cousin, defended the men accused of murder and succeeded in getting six released and two having reduced sentences.  The city council convinced acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson to remove the troops to a nearby fort, and an uneasy peace was established for three years.

The inevitable march toward war was rekindled in 1773, and with it the date with destiny for Samuel Adams.  Parliament passed the Tea Act in an attempt to rescue the flailing East India Company by granting them a monopoly, and although it made the product cheaper it also set precedents on how the British were allowed to rule in violation of the Massachusetts Charter.  On December 16, a meeting of roughly 8,000 citizens of Boston met for over 8 hours to debate the response, and when no agreement could be reached a small band from the Sons of Liberty decided to act by raiding the ship and destroying its cargo of 342 crates of tea.  News of the Boston Tea Party sped across the colonies, and although nobody could prove that Adams participated he certainly praised those who did.  Britain responded with the Intolerable Acts which closed Boston Harbor, and in 1774 General Thomas Gage attempted to threaten Adams with arrest for treason while also attempting to bribe him to change his political behavior.  Neither attempt worked, and Adams was chosen as a representative to the First Continental Congress that same year - his first time to journey outside of Massachusetts, and such a financial strain that his friends had to purchase clothing and pay many of his expenses to travel.  By 1775, Gage decided to send troops to Lexington, where Adams was staying with John Hancock, and Concord, where the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was meeting, to arrest the agitators and destroy a stockpile of weapons.  On the night of April 18 the British left Boston but were preceded by Paul Revere and others, who raced ahead to warn patriots along the route, and the first battle of the American Revolution took place.

With any remaining hopes for peace dashed by violence the Second Continental Congress began its work, with Samuel Adams tirelessly steering the body towards independence.  After signing the Declaration he held his seat until 1781, supporting the war effort the entire time and helping frame the Articles of Confederation.  In 1779 he returned to Boston for a time where he was chosen to a three-man team to draft the Massachusetts Constitution.  Once the Revolution ended Adams left his seat in Congress and resumed his political career at the state level.  He was elected to the senate and frequently opposed his former roommate and protégé, Governor John Hancock, who did not share the Puritan values that Adams espoused in a leader.  Hancock continued to easily win re-election ever year,  however, until he resigned in 1785 and paved the way for the election of Governor James Bowdoin.  The popularity of his term was dashed when faced with Shays' Rebellion, an armed group that attempted to halt government activity by shutting down local courts, at which time he took the advice of Adams by sending troops to end the uprising by force.  Not only did this pave the way for Hancock to return to office, but also helped popularize the call for a stronger federal government.  Adams was an anti-federalist and when he was sent to the Constitutional Convention in 1788 he opposed the effort to create the new government at the national level.  Massachusetts was seen as pivotal in the effort to ratify the document, and for a time the influence of Adams seemed to have the potential to derail the effort.  It was a surprise, therefore, when a sudden reconciliation between Hancock and Adams paved the way for them both to agree to support the Constitution once they had been given assurances of future amendments to assure the rights of individuals and states.  The two men returned to Boston and Adams was elected to team up with his former rival as Lieutenant Governor, a position he held for the next nine years.  Upon Hancock's death in 1793, Adams became the acting governor and won re-election each of the following four years.  He received 15 electoral votes to become Vice President alongside Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1796, but the Federalist party led by John Adams won.  At the age of 75, Samuel Adams followed the example of George Washington and declined to seek another term of office.  Suffering from a tremor that made it impossible to write, he retired to live out his final years at home before his death shortly after his 81st birthday.  Nearly penniless despite his contributions to independence and lifelong insistence on virtue, Adams' estate was able to cover the costs of his burial only because of the earlier death of his only adult son that relieved his poverty.  He was laid to rest in Boston's Granary Burial Ground and the local paper eulogized him as the "Father of the American Revolution".

The signature of Samuel Adams can be found as the third name on the sixth (farthest right) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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