July 3, 2007
As we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks, parades, cookouts, and speeches, we should be grateful to our many forebears who risked their property, reputation, and lives to attain our independence. Some of them are well known and highly revered, most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry. The man, however, who arguably played the most significant role in the colonists’ decision to declare independence is largely forgotten. Today most Americans connect him only with the beer that bears his name.
If George Washington is the “indispensable man” in winning the Revolutionary War and insuring that the new republic succeeded, Samuel Adams deserves this title for his role in the colonies’ declaration of independence from England. More than any other American, Adams publicized colonists’ grievances, defended their rights, and mobilized them to protest English policies While doing this, the devout Congregationalist continually argued that Americans’ cause was righteous. If they pursued their aims virtuously, he believed, God, who providentially directed history, would enable them to gain their independence. Adams continually exhorted Americans to maintain their religious fervor and lead godly lives. Fired by Puritan zeal and hatred of British rule, Adams used his political acumen and rhetorical skills to persuade many of his contemporaries to support independence.
After graduating from Harvard in 1740, Adams failed at a business enterprise, worked in the family brewery, wrote briefly for a newspaper, and served as a tax collector. The “helmsman of American independence” achieved little of note before age 42, but his life changed dramatically after the British decided to tax the colonists to raise revenue to help fund their operations in North America. Upset by British intervention in American affairs, Adams organized Committees of Correspondence, which served as a model for other colonies, and helped lead the Boston Sons of Liberty. While serving as a member of the Massachusetts General Court from 1765 to 1774, he vigorously protested British policies and agitated for independence primarily by writing legislative reports, publishing essays in the Boston Gazette, and organizing protests and boycotts. Adams also led Boston’s economic warfare against England in response to the Coercive Acts of 1774.
His dogged determination and extraordinary political skills enabled Adams to play a pivotal role in the colonists’ decision to sever their ties with England and declare independence. Through his speeches and private conversations Adams helped convince many other colonial representatives to promote joint objectives. He served in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1781, signed the Declaration of Independence, and participated in the Massachusetts state constitutional conventions of 1779 and 1788. After the war, Adams served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts from 1789 to 1794 and the state’s governor from 1794 to 1797. His numerous contributions have led historians to label him a militant champion of democracy, the nation’s first professional politician, the father of the American Revolution, and the nation’s political parent. In an era when age was highly respected, Adams was the new nation’s senior statesman.
More than any other American, Adams made the Revolution happen. “Would you believe,” a British officer wrote in 1775, “that this immense continent, from New England to Georgia, is moved and directed by one man!—a man of ordinary birth and desperate fortune?” Adams, the officer complained, had used his “talent for factious intrigue” to foment revolution. John Adams declared that his cousin had been “born and tempered a wedge of steel to split” the lifeline “which tied North America to Great Britain.” Some New England Tories denounced Adams as the “grand Incendiary” who ignited the colonial conflagration, and labeled Boston’s resistance the “Adams’ conspiracy.” When Massachusetts’ royal governor Thomas Gage offered pardon to American rebels in 1775 if they laid down their arms, he excluded Samuel Adams and John Hancock because he deemed their offenses too villainous to be forgiven. Jefferson called Adams “truly the Man of the Revolution.”
Few of the founders made as great a financial and personal sacrifice as did Adams to help Americans win their independence and the fragile new republic to survive, and few of them cared as little about his legacy. As Adams told his wife, “I have long ago learned to deny my self many of the sweetest Gratifications in Life for the Sake of my Country.” Speaking for many, the Boston Independent Chronicle declared that “the Father of the American Revolution” had been “the undeviating friend of civil and religious liberty.” Throughout his long life, Samuel Adams, inspired by his faith in God and confidence in republican principles, worked energetically and effectively to achieve and sustain American independence. So as we eat hot dogs, watch fireworks, and sing patriotic songs, let’s remember the man who contributed so greatly to the freedoms we now enjoy.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).