Rockstars of the Revolution: Samuel Adams

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What’s interesting and inspiring about Samuel Adams?

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By Ira Stoll

When I started researching my book, Samuel Adams: A Life, I had a vague idea that Samuel Adams was among the most determined and steadfast of all the founders. That turned out to be true – at moments when others in the revolutionary cause gave up, wanted to compromise, or took a break, Samuel Adams forged ahead and fought on, even though he faced death if captured by the British. He was sustained by his faith that God would be on the side of the revolutionaries if they acted worthy of His aid.

As I researched the book, I found that Samuel Adams is fascinating and relevant to today for many other reasons as well. He had a surprisingly difficult family life. He was one of only three of 12 children in his family to survive past age 2. Infant mortality overall was higher then, but even by the standards of the day, his family had it rough. After Samuel Adams married, only two of the six children the couple had survived. From the death of his first wife in 1757, until his remarriage in 1764, Samuel Adams took care of his two young children on his own.

He was one of the poorest of the founding fathers — so poor that when he first went off to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the people of Boston had to take up a collection to buy him a new suit. “I glory in being what the World calls, a poor Man,” he wrote to his wife. She wrote back that she was short of cash.

Adams played a significant, even a central role in founding our country — a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he gave the order to begin the Boston Tea Party and gave the name to the Boston Massacre.

He was a genius at mass communications, using newspapers, “committees of correspondence” that wrote letters from town to town, public speeches, parades, and rallies, and just about any other method of communication available at the time. He was an opponent of slavery, refusing to accept a slave he was given as a gift, and helping to pass a resolution in the Massachusetts House of Representatives banning the slave trade, which he called “odious” and “abhorrent.” The British-appointed governor vetoed it.

The father of a daughter named Hannah, Samuel Adams opened the way to the inclusion of girls in Massachusetts’ public schools.

Though he began his public career as an elected tax collector for the town of Boston, earning his income as a percentage commission of what he collected, Samuel Adams would became leader of one of the greatest tax rebellions in the history of the world. I think that as a tax collector, he realized that people didn’t like paying taxes even when those taxes were imposed by a representative government, never mind when they were imposed by a remote king and a parliament they did not elect.

He played a key role in the Massachusetts convention that ratified the federal Constitution at a moment when it was unclear whether the Constitution would be ratified, and he pressed for an amendment that included elements of what would become the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.

He is responsible for inventing Thanksgiving as an American national holiday, drafting a Congressional resolution of thanks to God following the American victory over the British in the battle of Saratoga. When Samuel Adams became governor of Massachusetts following the revolution, he declared so many days of thanksgiving and prayer that some of his younger and less religious political opponents joked that it would be a time for a real day of Thanksgiving when Samuel Adams finally retired.

Though Samuel Adams did eventually retire from politics, his influence and legacy are still with us today. And that, for those of us who love freedom, is a real reason for thanksgiving.

Ira Stoll is author of Samuel Adams: A Life and editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com.