Biography of Samuel Adams, Revolutionary Activist and Philosopher

Statue of Revolutionary Patriot, Samuel Adams
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Samuel Adams (September 16, 1722–October 2, 1803) played an important philosophical and activist role in early advocating the independence of the North American British colonies, and the eventual founding of the new United States.

Fast Facts: Samuel Adams

  • Known For: Important activist, philosopher, and writer during the American revolution against Great Britain.
  • Born: September 16, 1722, in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Parents: Samuel and Mary Fifield Adams.
  • Died: October 2, 1803, in Boston.
  • Education: Boston Latin School and Harvard College.
  • Spouse(s): Elizabeth Checkley (m. 1749–1757); Elizabeth (Betsey) Wells (m. 1764–his death).
  • Children: Six children with Elizabeth Checkley: Samuel (1750–1750), Samuel (born 1751), Joseph, (1753–1753), Mary (1754–1754), Hannah, (b. 1756), stillborn son (1757). 

Early Life

Samuel Adams was born on September 27, 1722, in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest surviving son of twelve children born to Samuel (1689–1748) and Mary Fifield Adams: only Samuel, Mary (b. 1717), and Joseph (b. 1728) survived to adulthood. Samuel Adams, Sr., was a merchant, a popular Whig Party leader, and the Deacon of the local Congregational Church, and was known as Deacon Adams. Deacon Adams was one of 89 grandchildren of the Puritan colonist Henry Adams, who left Somersetshire in England for Braintree (later renamed Quincy), Massachusetts in 1638—Sam Adam's cousins included John Adams, who would become U.S. president in 1796. Mary Fifield was the daughter of a local businessman in Boston, a devout woman with an artistic bent. The Adams family early grew prosperous, building a large house on Purchase Street in Boston, which is where Samuel Adams and his siblings grew up.

Deacon Adams was a huge influence on Samuel Adams life. in 1739, he was chosen to help draft legislative instructions for the Massachusetts colony's general assembly, and became a formidable political force in the Whig party, serving as a representative to the provincial assembly. Together, Deacon Adams and his son fought a battle with the Royal government over a land bank scheme that lasted a decade after the Deacon's death. The elder Adams had been part of the creation of a bank to assist farmers and business people get started, and the colonial government rejected his right to do such a thing, and over the next two decades, fought father and son to take possession of their property and businesses as recompense.

Education

Adams attended Boston Latin School, and then entered Harvard College in 1736 at the age of 14. He started out studying theology but found his interests swinging towards politics. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard in 1740 and 1743 respectively. After graduation, Adams tried numerous businesses including one he started on his own. However, he was never successful as a commercial businessman—his father saw that Sam had a growing dislike for authority of any kind.

In 1748, Samuel Adams did find a direction: he and his friends formed a club to debate issues and launch a publication to shape public opinion called "The Public Advertiser," in which Adams exercised his considerable persuasive writing skills. That same year, his father died. Adams took over his father's business enterprise and turned to the part-time career that he would enjoy for the rest of his life: politics.

Marriage and Early Political Career

Adams married Elizabeth Checkley, the daughter of the pastor of the Congregational Church in 1749. Together they had six children, but all but Samuel (born 1751) and Hannah (born 1756) died as infants.

In 1756, Samuel Adams became one of Boston's tax collectors, a position he would keep for almost twelve years. He was not the most diligent in his career as a tax collector, but instead continued and increased his writing and activism, quickly becoming a leader in Boston's politics. He became involved in numerous informal political organizations that had a large control over town meetings and local politics. On July 25, 1757, his wife Elizabeth died, giving birth to their last child, a stillborn son. Adams remarried on December 6, 1764, to Elizabeth (Betsey) Wells; his first wife's father officiated.

Agitation Against the British

After the French and Indian War that ended in 1763, Great Britain increased taxes in the American colonies to pay for the costs that they had incurred for fighting in and defending them.

Adams strenuously opposed three tax measures in particular: the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the Townshend Duties of 1767. He believed that as the British government increased its taxes and duties, it was reducing the individual liberties of the colonists which in turn would lead to even greater tyranny.

Adams held two key political positions that helped him in his fight against the British: he was the clerk of both the Boston town meeting and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Through these positions, he was able to draft petitions, resolutions, and letters of protest. He argued that since the colonists were not represented in Parliament, they being taxed without their consent. Thus the rallying cry, "No taxation without representation."

Taxes and Tea Parties

Adams main suggestion for political action against the British was that the colonists should boycott English imports and hold public demonstrations. Although mob violence was common in the early days of the revolution, Samuel Adams never supported the use of violence against the British as means of protest and supported the fair trial of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.

In 1772, Adams helped found a committee meant to unite Massachusetts towns against the British, which he later expanded to other colonies. In 1773, the British passed the Tea Act, which was not a tax and would have resulted in lower prices on tea. However, it was meant to aid the East India Company by allowing it to bypass the English import tax and sell through merchants it selected. Adams felt that this was just a ploy to get colonists to accept the Townshend duties that were still in place.

On December 16, 1773, Adams spoke at a town meeting against the Act. That evening, dozens of men dressed as Native Americans boarded three tea importing ships that sat in Boston Harbor and threw the tea overboard, an act destined to be called the "Boston Tea Party."

The Intolerable Acts

The British responded to the Tea Party by closing down the port of Boston, cutting off the lifeblood of trade to the city's economy. Some British lawmakers such as Edmund Burke, a member of the House of Commons, warned it would be counterproductive, that instead they should focus their anger at the guilty persons: John Hancock and Samuel Adams. 

But instead of punishing Adams and Hancock directly, the British government passed what would become known as the "Coercive Acts" or, more tellingly, the "Intolerable Acts." In addition to the Boston Port Act, which itself included the limiting of town meetings to one a year, the government passed the Impartial Administration of Justice Act, that said that the Massachusetts governor should send government officials accused of capital crimes to England. The Quartering Act allowed British troops to use the colonists' buildings as military barracks. 

Rather than intimidating or deterring him, Adams saw this as further evidence that the British would continue to limit the colonists' liberty, and he counseled a hard line against George III and his government.

Representative Adams

On May 3, 1774, Boston held their annual meeting to elect representatives to the Massachusetts house: Adams won 535 of the 536 votes cast and was named the moderator of the Town Meeting. They met again three days later and adopted a resolution calling for unity with the other colonies in a boycott and embargo of Britain in protest of the Boston Port Act. Paul Revere was sent out with a letter to the southern colonies. 

On May 16, a March 31st report from London reached Boston: a ship had sailed with orders to bring Adams and Hancock back to England in irons. On the 25th, the Massachusetts House of Representatives met in Boston and unanimously elected Samuel Adams as clerk. The Governor, General Gage, ordered the House adjourned until June 7th and moved to Salem, but instead, the House met on September 1, 1774, in Philadelphia: the first Continental Congress. 

Continental Congresses

In September 1774, Samuel Adams became one of the delegates at the First Continental Congress held in Philadelphia, and his role included assisting with the draft of the Declaration of Rights. In April 1775, Adams, along with John Hancock, was finally a target of the British army advancing on Lexington. They escaped, however, when Paul Revere famously warned them.

In May 1775, the Second Continental Congress was held, but Sam Adams did not hold a public role. Instead, he was part of the Massachusetts ratifying convention for the US Constitution and helped write the Massachusetts state constitution.

Although his eloquent written and oral support for the revolution continued to be heard, Adams role in the Continental Congress was primarily military: he served on several committees for military defense and armaments, and those for assessing the colonies' defensive needs. That was his choice: he felt the importance of being prepared for the eventual war. Once hostilities began, he struggled to convince everyone that reconciliation was a "delusion leading directly to destruction."

Once the Declaration of Independence was made, Adams continued to work tirelessly as a leader for military activities, to gain foreign aid and to get the machinery of government in order and functioning. In 1781, even though the final battle had not yet been won, he retired from Congress

Legacy and Death

He had not given up on politics, however, and although in 1788, he lost a highly contested bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, when John Hancock ran for the Massachusetts' governor's seat in 1789, he agreed to run as his lieutenant. They were elected: Adams served as Hancock's lieutenant governor for four years and when Hancock died in 1793, he ascended to the governor's chair. 

During the late 1790s, those in the U.S. government were divided into federalists—those who preferred a strong central government—and Republicans, who did not. As a republican-minded governor in a federalist state, Adams could see that at least for the moment, the federalists were winning out, and when Samuel's federalist cousin John Adams won the presidency, Adams retired from public life. 

Samuel Adams died on October 2, 1803, in Boston.

Sources

  • Alexander, John K. "Samuel Adams: America's Revolutionary Politician." Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
  • Irvin, Benjamin H. "Samuel Adams: Son of Liberty, Father of Revolution." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Puls, Mark. "Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution." New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.
  • Stoll, Ira. "Samuel Adams: A Life." New York: Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2008.