How Samuel Adams Helped Ferment a Revolution

Young Sam soon became politically active, securing various posts—he was once elected tax collector, essentially on a platform of not collecting taxes—and then fell into a series of feuds with the royal governors of Massachusetts, resident in Boston. He had a hand in all those diorama-ready skirmishes and battles that we learned about in elementary school, and which readied the colonists’ minds for war, including Lexington. He was called “the Father of the American Revolution” at a time when it was hardly out of its cradle.

“Honey, you remember my co-worker Jan and her husband, whose name I never say because I’m too embarrassed to ask what it is again.”

Cartoon by Teresa Burns Parkhurst

Yet what is impressive is how devoted he was, in the twenty years or so before the Declaration of Independence, to what we would once have called “publicity stunts.” It is a reminder, to those who preach the necessity of real political work over empty theatricalized protest, that empty theatricalized protest set the stage for the American Revolution. In the decade before the Revolution, it was all symbolic warfare designed to infuriate the Brits by making them look foolish and incompetent, or even more foolish and incompetent than they already were.

The origin of Adams’s ferocious quarrel with the British is somewhat obscure. The radicalizing affront, essential to the movie image of a rebellious patriot—the moment when the Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson character finds his family killed or his farm despoiled, down to the last dog—never happened to him. It’s true that his father had, rather in George Bailey style, helped oversee a “land bank,” a kind of early savings-and-loan company, which had been squashed, Potter style, by rivals who persuaded the royal governor in Massachusetts to get it shut down. But this setback, though it damaged the family’s finances, hardly seemed permanently traumatic, and, anyway, Schiff tells us, it proved politically fruitful for Sam’s father, who got elected a Boston selectman in 1744 and, soon thereafter, to the Massachusetts legislature. So Sam Adams was scarcely oppressed by the Crown’s governors. He just didn’t like being told what to do without first being asked if he wanted to do it. When the British, desperate for money for the imperial budget, began to tax America in the mid-seventeen-sixties, he didn’t ask, Is this tax fair? He asked, Who are people like that to tax me? He began by making this emotion regional, throughout New England, and then invented a nation in the image of the insult.

He was perhaps the first in the modern pattern in which revolutionary leaders rise from the well-off cohorts of a subject population, who turn on the colonial power more from principle than from immediate oppression. In the cases of Nehru and Che and Castro and so on, their sympathies were also lit by a sense of the groaning oppression of their poorer peasant countrymen. For Adams, who lived in a more prosperous society, the sympathies spread not so much downward as outward, to other members of the Colonial élite who might share his abstract but compelling sense of injustice.

This helps explain why it has always been so hard for American schoolchildren to understand the spiral of offenses and responses that led to 1776. What was so outrageous about the Stamp Act, and how could taxing tea lead you to throw it into Boston Harbor in the dead of night? Schiff reminds us that the colonists themselves had a hard time answering these questions. The Stamp Act of 1765—the scheme was to make colonists pay for an embossed stamp on their official documents—essentially never went into effect, and the tea tax lowered the price of tea, inconveniencing mostly the Colonial middlemen. The Stamp Act simply became a synonym for horror; Schiff tells of a New England servant who refused to enter a barn at night, for fear that the Stamp Act might be there.

What Sam Adams grasped was that these things could be imagined as symbolic outrages demanding symbolic revenge—the eighteenth-century equivalent of mask mandates, which infuriate people by their seemingly capricious insistence, quite apart from their actual burdens. The arbitrary nature of these acts underlined the arbitrary nature of Colonial rule, the absurdity of a continent’s being ruled from a faraway island. As so often in human affairs, popular protest was stirred by the perception of embattled sovereignty, not by economic self-interest.

The American tradition of tabloid political theatre begins here. There is, for instance, the improbably large role of effigies in the patriotic campaigns that swirled around Sam Adams in the seventeen-sixties in Boston—the making, burning, and hanging of stuffed dolls meant to represent royal officials and British Members of Parliament. Seeing yourself hanged and burned in effigy was outraging as a sign of disrespect and of a loss of social control. But imprisoning people suspected of hanging and burning a life-size stuffed doll bearing your likeness suggested a loss of social control, too. You looked ridiculous either way. So the governors muttered and fumed and wondered if they couldn’t get a job running Nova Scotia or Barbados instead.

Adams was also behind what was effectively a news service, called, beautifully, the Journal of Occurrences, composed in Boston but intended to be circulated, and reprinted, elsewhere in the colonies. “The cross-pollination meant that one heard in Virginia that effigies of Governor Bernard and Sheriff Greenleaf had hung in New York for their Massachusetts misdeeds,” Schiff writes. She also makes it clear that Sam had Murdochian standards of truthtelling: “By the time the dubious tale of the worthy old man who discovered a soldier in bed with his favorite granddaughter had boomeranged back to Boston, it arrived as news, displacing memory.”

Adams wrote for other publications, providing stentorian commentary on his own fake news, under a charming variety of classical pseudonyms: Candidus, Vindex, Populus, Valerius Poplicola. The comic luxuriance of Roman references should not blind us to the significance of these constant appeals to the Roman Republic and to classical virtue. For the astonishing truth was that hardly anyone in two thousand years had actually seen what a republic or a democracy looked like, or how it might act in the world. The patriots referred to Rome not simply because they were classically educated but because—the marginal cases of Switzerland and Venice aside—it was the last famous, functional republic to look back on. (The Cromwellian Commonwealth, which scarcely managed to outlive its charismatic founder, though occasionally invoked, largely served as a cautionary tale.)

The agitation surrounding the Stamp Act made Adams the secret master of Massachusetts. He had a knack for balancing overt legalistic opposition with covert extralegal intrigue. Late in August of 1765, a crowd of protesters gathered outside the splendid house of the loyalist lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and it was soon overrun and looted. Hutchinson and his family escaped without injury, but the harm done was evident. A month later, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, where he led a revolt against any censure of the incident, and handed the governor, Francis Bernard, a statement of the inalienable rights of the people of Massachusetts. Where the moderates insisted that American representation in the London Parliament would fix things, Adams insisted that Americans can “no more be judgd by any Member of Parliament than if they livd in the Moon.”

Up and down the colonies, effigies of the excise officers known as Stamp Men were hanged and burned, alongside effigies of the Pope—not exactly a player in the Stamp Act disputes, but, then, burning the Pope in effigy was an early Colonial rite, tied to the celebration of the defeat of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Adams had a genius for taking events and shaping them in such a way as to inflict maximum moral damage on the oppressors without actually moving toward overt rebellion. After years of such agitation, British troops, occupying Boston in a halfhearted way, found themselves backed into a corner in the midst of a mob, and fired, killing several people. No one there was sure who among the redcoats had fired the first shot, or whether an order had been given. The event was pure chaos; the firing was seemingly done impulsively by a handful of the frightened, uneducated ex-cons who filled the British ranks. Within days, though, Adams—helped by the artist Henry Pelham, who made an incendiary graphic image of the event, and the engraver Paul Revere, who augmented and bootlegged it—had turned this incident into a fixed image of deliberate atrocity, the unified firing of a line of disciplined redcoat troops into a gathering of helpless civilians. He had also made sure it got its permanent name: the Boston Massacre.

By an act of remarkable guile, which Sam must have approved, his cousin John Adams was encouraged to defend the British soldiers accused of the massacre in court, and he got most of them off. A masterstroke on the part of the Adamses, it enabled them to offer a demonstration of the patriot’s high-minded decency, while still leaving the door wide open for the commemorative services and funeral orations of the American dead that, for the next twelve years, became an annual feature of Boston life.

Schiff’s depiction of Sam Adams, recounting such feats, is a wildly entertaining exploration of the roots of American political theatre. Unreliable rumormongering, slanted news writing, misleading symbolism, even viral meme-sharing—it was all right there at the start. In John Singleton Copley’s great portrait of Sam Adams, from the early seventeen-seventies, the best portrait ever produced by that early American master, this self-knowing conspiratorial figure emerges. We see Sam in a suit of bright-red clothes, a kind of wry parody of British military wear, his head turned mischievously into clandestine half-light while his left hand makes, with elegant crablike tension, what has been, since Raphael’s depiction of Aristotle, the classic pictorial gesture of empiricism: hand facing downward, toward the facticity of earth. It says not, like Copley’s portrait of a seated Hancock, quill in hand, “I am a man of mind” but, rather, “I am here, dealing with real things only, a maker of minds.” It is the perfect image of a mastermind at work, Sam Adams as a Machiavelli of liberty.

For all the connivance in Adams’s character, another side of the Adams legacy is also plain. Like his relatives, and, indeed, like his Founding fellows, from Franklin to Madison, he was a man of mind. The patriots, however flawed, really were driven by ideas, and the ideas they were driven by were mainly good ones.

Schiff shows how central Thomas Paine’s 1776 “Common Sense” was to the making of the Revolution, the literary equivalent, as Sam Adams recognized, of his work as an agitator. “Common Sense” repays rereading, for the simple fact that this most popular of pamphlets is hardly like a pamphlet at all. It is not common, and contains little of what we think of as sense. Instead, it begins with an abstract account of the difference between “society” and “government”—society being the healthy gathering of people with common impulses who depend on one another, government the necessary but unfortunate force that reins in their worst tendencies. It is a view that anticipates our own distinction between civil society and the state. Society, for Paine, was healthy, in its towns and cities and commerce; government was arbitrarily imposed from above by a distant Colonial master. To make government more like society and less like government was a noble national goal.

It’s significant, even astounding, that Paine had arrived in America, from London, only in 1774. He was bringing British radical fire to light what he saw as a provincial powder keg. The communion of British and American radicals in the period is impressive. Justin du Rivage’s 2017 study of the American Revolution, “Revolution Against Empire,” makes the critical point: the English-speaking radicals of the time, whom du Rivage calls “radical Whigs,” were transatlantic in their nature and orientation. They went from Bristol to Boston with, in effect, the same effigies to hang. Even Copley, the greatest visual chronicler of the American revolutionaries, had left for London by the time the Revolution itself began. It was a narrow ocean.

The necessary mythology of American independence holds that it was the result of long-brooded-on injustices and long-marinated traditions of independence, fed by Puritanism, Unitarianism, town meetings, and the like. Yet the year 1776 was not notable merely for the Declaration of Independence; it was the annus mirabilis of the entire English-speaking Enlightenment, with the publication of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” as well as the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” with its famous chapters on the growth of Christianity, placing it in the realm not of the miraculous but of practical political history. The Declaration was the climax of a decade’s worth of agitation in America, but it was also a typical product of its year, and again needs to be interwoven with the work of the motherland’s minds. Even the Puritanism often cited as a shaping force was more local color than foundational beam: few thinkers had more influence in the colonies than the Londoner John Wilkes, who was as notorious as a libertine as he was known as an enemy of privilege.

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