Story type: Essay
The body of the people are now in council. Their opposition grows into a system. They are united and resolute. And if the British Administration and Government do not return to the principles of moderation and equity, the evil, which they profess to aim at preventing by their rigorous measures, will the sooner be brought to pass, viz., the entire separation and independence of the Colonies.
—Letter to Arthur Lee
Samuel and John Adams were second cousins, having the same great-grandfather. Between them in many ways there was a marked contrast, but true to their New England instincts both were theologians.
John was a conservative in politics, and at first had little sympathy with “those small-minded men who refused to pay a trivial tax on their tea; and who would plunge the country into war, and ruin all for a matter of stamps.” John was born and lived at the village of Braintree. He did not really center his mind on politics until the British had closed all law-courts in Boston, thus making his profession obsolete. He was scholarly, shrewd, diplomatic, cautious, good-natured, fat, and took his religion with a wink. He was blessed with a wife who was worthy of being the mother of kings (or presidents); he lived comfortably, acquired property, and died aged ninety-two. He had been President and seen his son President of the United States, and that is an experience that has never come and probably never will come to another living man, for there seems to be an unwritten law that no man under fifty shall occupy the office of Chief Magistrate of these United States.
Samuel was stern, serious and deeply in earnest. He seldom smiled and never laughed. He was uncompromisingly religious, conscientious and morally unbending. In his life there was no soft sentiment. The fact that he ran a brewery can be excused when we remember that the best spirit of the times saw nothing inconsistent in the occupation; and further than this we might explain in extenuation that he gave the business indifferent attention, and the quality of his brew was said to be very bad.
In religion, he swerved not nor wavered. He was a Calvinist and clung to the five points with a tenacity at times seemingly quite unnecessary.
When in that first Congress, Samuel Adams publicly consented to the opening of the meeting with religious service conducted by the Reverend Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, he gave a violent wrench to his conscience and an awful shock to his friends. But Mr. Duche met the issue in the true spirit, and leaving his detested “popery robe” and prayer-book at home uttered an extemporaneous invocation, without a trace of intoning, that pleased the Puritans and caused one of them to remark, “He is surely coming over to the Lord’s side!”
But in politics, Samuel Adams was a liberal of the liberals. In statecraft, the heresy of change had no terrors for him, and with Hamlet, he might have said, “Oh, reform it altogether!”
The limitations set in every character seem to prevent a man from being generous in more than one direction; the bigot in religion is often a liberal in politics, and vice versa. For instance, physicians are almost invariably liberal in religious matters, but are prone to call a man “Mister” who does not belong to their school; while orthodox clergymen, I have noticed, usually employ a homeopathist.
In that most valuable and interesting work, “The Diary of John Adams,” the author refers repeatedly to Samuel Adams as “Adams”! This simple way of using the word “Adams” shows a world of appreciation for the man who blazed the path that others of this illustrious name might follow. And so with the high precedent in mind, I, too, will drop prefix and call my subject simply “Adams.”
On the authority of King George, General Gage made an offer of pardon to all save two who had figured in the Boston uprising.
The two men thus honored were John Hancock (whose signature the King could read without spectacles), and the other was “one, S. Adams.”
Adams, however, was the real offender, and the plea might have been made for John Hancock that, if it had not been for accident and Adams, Hancock would probably have remained loyal to the mother country.
Hancock was aristocratic, cultured and complacent. He was the richest man in New England. His personal interests were on the side of peace and the established order. But circumstances and the combined tact and zeal of Adams threw him off his guard, and in a moment of dalliance the seeds of sedition found lodgment in his brain. And the more he thought about it, the nearer he came to the conclusion that Adams was right. But let the fact further be stated, if truth demands, that both John Hancock and Samuel Adams, the first men who clearly and boldly expressed the idea of American Independence, were moved in the beginning by personal grievances.
A single motion made before the British Parliament by we know not whom, and put to vote by the Speaker, bankrupted the father of Samuel Adams and robbed the youth of his patrimony.
The boy was then seventeen; old enough to know that from plenty his father was reduced to penury, and this because England, three thousand miles away, had interfered with the business arrangements of the Colony, and made unlawful a private banking scheme.
Then did the boy ask the question, What moral right has England to govern us, anyway?
From thinking it over he began to formulate reasons. He discussed the subject at odd times and thought of it continually, and, in Seventeen Hundred Forty-three, when he prepared his graduation thesis at Harvard College he chose for his subject, “The Doctrine of the Lawfulness of Resistance to the Supreme Magistrate if the Commonwealth Can Not Otherwise be Preserved.”
When Massachusetts admitted that she was under subjection to the King, yet argued for the right to nullify the Acts of the English Parliament, she took exactly the same ground that South Carolina did a hundred years later. The logic of Samuel Adams and of Robert Hayne was one and the same.
Yet we are glad that Adams carried his point; and we rejoice exceedingly that Hayne failed, so curious are these things we call “reasons.”
The royalists who heard of this youth with a logical mind denounced him without stint. A few newspapers upheld him and spoke of the right of free speech and all that, reprinting the thesis in full. And in the controversy that followed, young Adams was always a prominent figure. He was not an orator in the popular sense, but he held the pen of a ready writer, and through the Boston papers kept up a constant fusillade.
The tricks of journalism are no new thing belonging to the fag-end of this century. Young Adams wrote letters over the “nom de plume” of Pro Bono Publico, and then replied to them over the signature of Rex Americus. He did not adopt as his motto, “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” for he wrote with both hands and each hand was in the secret.
During the years that followed his graduation from college he was a businessman and a poor one, for a man who looks after public affairs much can not attend to his own. But he managed to make shift; and when too closely pressed by creditors, a loan from Hancock, or John Adams, Hancock’s attorney, relieved the pressure. In fact, when he went to Philadelphia “on that very important errand,” he rode a horse borrowed from John Adams, and his Sunday coat was the gift of a thoughtful friend.
In Seventeen Hundred Sixty-three, it became known that the British Government had on foot a scheme to demand a tribute from the Colonies. On invitation of a committee, possibly appointed by Adams, Adams was requested to draw up instructions to the Representatives in the Colonial Legislature. Adams did so and the document is now in the archives of the old State House at Boston, in the plain and elegant penmanship that is so easily recognized. This document calls itself, “The First Public Denial of the Right of the British Parliament to tax the Colonies without their Consent, and the first Public Suggestion of a Union on the part of the Colonies to Protect themselves against British Aggression.”
The style of the paper is lucid, firm and logical; it combines in itself the suggestion of all there was to be said or could be said on the matter. Adams saw all over and around his topic–no unpleasant surprise could be sprung on him–twenty-five years had he studied this one theme. He had made himself familiar with the political history of every nation so far as such history could be gathered; he was past master of his subject.
However, when he was forty years of age his followers were few and mostly men of small influence. The Calkers’ Club was the home of the sedition, and many of the members were day-laborers. But the idea of independence gradually grew, and, in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-five, Adams was elected a member of the Massachusetts Colonial Legislature. In honor of his writing ability, he was chosen clerk of the Assembly, for in all public gatherings orators are chosen as presidents and newspapermen for secretaries. Thus are honors distributed, and thus, too, does the public show which talent it values most.
On November Second, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-two, on motion of Adams, a committee of several hundred citizens was appointed “to state the Rights of the Colonies and to communicate and publish them to the World as the sense of the Town, with the infringements and violations thereof that have been or may be made from time to time; also requesting from each Town a free communication of their sentiments on this Subject.”
This was the Committee of Correspondence from which grew the union of the Colonies and the Congress of the United States. It is a pretty well attested fact that the first suggestion of the Philadelphia Congress came from Samuel Adams, and the chief work of bringing it about was also his.
It was well known to the British Government who the chief agitator was, and when General Gage arrived in Boston in May, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-four, his first work was an attempt to buy off Samuel Adams. With Adams out of the way, England might have adopted a policy of conciliation and kept America for her very own–yes, to the point of moving the home government here and saving the snug little island as a colony, for both in wealth and in population America has now far surpassed England.
But Adams was not for sale. His reply to Gage sounds like a scrap from Cromwell: “I trust I have long since made my peace with the King of Kings. No personal consideration shall induce me to abandon the Righteous Cause of my Country.”
Gage having refused to recognize the thirteen Counselors appointed by the people, the General Court of Massachusetts, in secret session, appointed five delegates to attend the Congress of Colonies at Philadelphia. Of course Samuel Adams was one of these delegates; and to John Adams, another delegate, are we indebted for a minute description of that most momentous meeting.
A room in the State House had been offered the delegates, but with commendable modesty they accepted the offer of the Carpenters’ Company to use their hall.
And so there they convened on the fifth day of September, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-four, having met by appointment, and walked over from the City Tavern in a body. Forty-four men were present–not a large gathering, but they had come hundreds of miles, and several of them had been months on the journey.
They were a sturdy lot; and madam! I think it would have been worth while to have looked in upon them. There were several coonskin caps in evidence; also lace and frills and velvet brought from England–but plainness to severity was the rule. Few of these men had ever been away from their own Colonies before, few had ever met any members of the Congress save their own colleagues. They represented civilizations of very different degrees. Each stood a bit in awe of all the rest. Several of the Colonies had been in conflict with the others.
Meeting new men in those days, when even the stagecoach was a passing show worth going miles to see, was an event. There was awkwardness and nervousness on the swarthy faces; firm mouths twitched, and big, bony hands sought for places of concealment.
The meeting had been called for September First, but was postponed for five days awaiting the arrival of belated delegates who had been detained by floods. Even then, delegates from North Carolina had not arrived, and Georgia not having thought it worth while to send any, eleven Colonies only were represented. Each delegation naturally kept together, as men will who have a fighting history and a pioneer ancestry.
It was a serious, solemn business, and these men were not given to levity in any event. When they were seated, there was a moment of silence so tense it could be heard. Every chance movement of a foot on the uncarpeted floor sent an echo through the room.
The stillness was first broken by Mr. Lynch, of South Carolina, who arose and in a low, clear voice said: “There is a gentleman present who has presided with great dignity over a very respectable body and greatly to the advantage of America. Gentlemen, I move that the Honorable Peyton Randolph, one of the delegates from Virginia, be appointed to preside over this meeting. I doubt not it will be unanimous.”
It was so; and a large man in powdered wig and scarlet coat arose, and, carrying his gold-headed cane before him like a mace, walked to the platform without apology.
The New Englanders in homespun looked at one another with trepidation on their features. The red coat was not assuring, but they kept their peace and breathed hard, praying that the enemy had not captured the convention through strategy. Mr. Randolph’s first suggestion was not revolutionary; it was that a secretary be appointed.
Again Mr. Lynch arose and named Charles Thomson, “a gentleman of family, fortune and character.” This testimonial of family and fortune was not assuring to the plain Massachusetts men, but they said nothing and awaited developments.
All were cautious as woodsmen, and the motion that the Council be held behind closed doors was adopted. Every member then held up his right hand and made a solemn promise to divulge no part of the transactions; and Galloway, of Pennsylvania, promised with the rest, and straightway each night informed the enemy of every move.
Little was done that first day but get acquainted by talking very cautiously and very politely. The next day a notable member had arrived, and in a front seat sat Richard Henry Lee, a man you would turn and look at in any company. Slender and dark, with a brilliant eye and a profile–and only one man in ten thousand has a profile–Lee was a gracious presence. His voice was gentle and flexible and luring, and there was a dignity and poise in his manner that made him easily the foremost orator of his time.
Near him sat William Livingston, of New Jersey, and John Jay, his son-in-law, the youngest man in the Congress, with a nose that denoted character, and all his fame in the future.
The Pennsylvanians were all together, grouped on one side. Duane, of New York, sat near them, “shy and squint-eyed, very sensible and very artful,” wrote John Adams that night in his diary.
Then over there sat Christopher Gadsden, of South Carolina, who had preached independence for full ten years before this, and who, when he heard that the British soldiers had taken Boston, proposed to raise a troop at once and fight redcoats wherever found.
“But the British will burn our seaport towns if we antagonize them,” some timid soul explained.
“Our towns are built of brick and wood; if they are burned we can rebuild them; but liberty once gone is gone forever,” he retorted. And the saying sounds well, even if it will not stand analysis.
Back near the wall was a man who, when the assembly stood at morning prayers, showed a half-head above his neighbors. His face was broad, and he, too, had a profile. His mouth was tightly closed, and during the first fourteen days of that Congress he never opened it to utter a word, and after his long quiet he broke the silence by saying, “Mr. President, I second the motion.” Once, in a passionate speech, Lynch turned to him and pointing his finger said: “There is a man who has not spoken here, but in the Virginia Assembly he made the most eloquent speech I ever heard. He said, ‘I will raise a thousand men, and arm and subsist them at my expense and march them to the relief of Boston.’” And then did the tall man, whose name was George Washington, blush like a schoolgirl.
But in all that company the men most noticed were the five members from Massachusetts. They were Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Gushing and Robert Treat Paine. Massachusetts had thus far taken the lead in the struggle with England. A British army was encamped upon her soil, her chief city besieged–the port closed. Her sufferings had called this Congress into being, and to her delegates the members had come to listen. All recognized Samuel Adams as the chief man of the Convention. His hand wrote the invitations and earnest requests to come. Galloway, writing to his friends, the enemy, said: “Samuel Adams eats little, drinks little, sleeps little and thinks much. He is most decisive and indefatigable in the pursuit of his object. He is the man who, by his superior application, manages at once the faction in Philadelphia and the factions of New England.”
Yet Samuel Adams talked little at the Convention. He allowed John Adams to state the case, but sat next to him supplying memoranda, occasionally arising to make remarks or explanations in a purely conversational tone. But so earnest and impressive was his manner, so ably did he answer every argument and reply to every objection, that he thoroughly convinced a tall, angular, homely man by the name of Patrick Henry of the righteousness of his cause. Patrick Henry was pretty thoroughly convinced before, but the recital of Boston’s case fired the Virginian, and he made the first and only real speech of the Congress. In burning words he pictured all the Colonies had suffered and endured, and by his matchless eloquence told in prophetic words of the glories yet to be. In his speech he paid just tribute to the genius of Samuel Adams, declaring that the good that was to come from this “first of an unending succession of Congresses” was owing to the work of Adams. And in after-years Adams repaid the compliment by saying that if it had not been for the cementing power of Patrick Henry’s eloquence, that first Congress probably would have ended in a futile wrangle.
The South regarded, in great degree, the fight in Boston as Massachusetts’ own. To make the entire thirteen Colonies adopt the quarrel and back the Colonial army in the vicinity of Boston was the only way to make the issue a success, and to unite the factions by choosing for a leader a Virginian aristocrat was a crowning stroke of diplomacy.
John Hancock had succeeded Randolph as president of the second Congress, and Virginia was inclined to be lukewarm, when John Adams in an impassioned speech nominated Colonel George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The nomination was seconded very quietly by Samuel Adams. It was a vote, and the South was committed to the cause of backing up Washington, and, incidentally, New England. The entire plan was probably the work of Samuel Adams, yet he gave the credit to John, while the credit of stoutly opposing it goes to John Hancock, who, being presiding officer, worked at a disadvantage.
But Adams had a way of reducing opposition to the minimum. He kept out of sight and furthered his ends by pushing this man or that to the front at the right time to make the plea. He was a master in that fine art of managing men and never letting them know they are managed. By keeping behind the arras, he accomplished purposes that a leader never can who allows his personality to be in continual evidence, for personality repels as well as attracts, and the man too much before the public is sure to be undone eventually. Adams knew that the power of Pericles lay largely in the fact that he was never seen upon but a single street of Athens, and that but once a year.
The complete writings of Adams have recently been collected and published. One marvels that such valuable material has not before been printed and given to the public, for the literary style and perspicuity shown are most inspiring, and the value of the data can not be gainsaid.
No one ever accused Adams of being a muddy thinker; you grant his premises and you are bound to accept his conclusions. He leaves no loopholes for escape.
The following words, used by Chatham, refer to documents in which Adams took a prominent part in preparing: “When your Lordships look at the papers transmitted us from America, when you consider their decency, firmness and wisdom, you can not but respect their cause and wish to make it your own. For myself, I must avow that, in all my reading–and I have read Thucydides and have studied and admired the master statesmen of the world–for solidity of reason, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion under a complication of difficult circumstances, no body of men can stand in preference to the general Congress of Philadelphia. The histories of Greece and Rome give us nothing like it, and all attempts to impress servitude on such a mighty continental people must be in vain.”
In the life of Adams there was no soft sentiment nor romantic vagaries. “He is a Puritan in all the word implies, and the unbending fanatic of independence,” wrote Gage, and the description fits.
He was twice married. Our knowledge of his first wife is very slight, but his second wife, Elizabeth Wells, daughter of an English merchant, was a capable woman of brave good sense. She adopted her husband’s political views and with true womanly devotion let her old kinsmen slide; and during the dark hours of the war bore deprivation without repining.
Adams’ home life was simple to the verge of hardship. All through life he was on the ragged edge financially, and in his latter years he was for the first time relieved from pressing obligations by an afflicting event–the death of his only son, who was a surgeon in Washington’s army. The money paid to the son by the Government for his services gave the father the only financial competency he ever knew. Two daughters survived him, but with him died the name.
John Adams survived Samuel for twenty-three years. He lived to see “the great American experiment,” as Mr. Ruskin has been pleased to call our country, on a firm basis, constantly growing stronger and stronger. He lived to realize that the sanguine prophecies made by Samuel were working themselves out in very truth.
The grave of Samuel Adams is viewed by more people than that of any other American patriot. In the old Granary Burying-Ground, in the very center of Boston, on Tremont Street–there where travel congests, and two living streams meet all day long—you look through the iron fence, so slender that it scarce impedes the view, and not twenty feet from the curb is a simple metal disk set on an iron rod driven into the ground and on it this inscription: “This marks the grave of Samuel Adams.”
For many years the grave was unmarked, and the disk that now denotes it was only recently placed in position by the Sons of the American Revolution. But the place of Samuel Adams on the pages of history is secure. Upon the times in which he lived he exercised a profound influence. And he who influences the times in which he lives has influenced all the times that come after; he has left his impress on eternity.
Was this helpful?
0 / 0