Samuel Adams was born on September 27, 1722 in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1740.
A strong opponent of British taxation, Sam Adams, as he is affectionately known by most Americans today, helped organize resistance to the Stamp Act (1765), and he played a vital role in organizing the Boston Tea Party. Sam was a cousin to John Adams, America’s second President, with whom he urged a final break from Britain. Both signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776.
An iconic American hero, Samuel Adams is, nevertheless, a controversial figure in American history. Disagreement about his significance and reputation began before his death and continues into our time. His contemporaries, both friends and foes, regarded him as one of the foremost leaders of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, for example, characterized Adams as “truly the man of the revolution.” Leaders in other colonies were often compared to him: Cornelius Harnett was called the “Samuel Adams of North Carolina”, Charles Thomson the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia”, and Christopher Gadsden the “Sam Adams of the South”. When John Adams traveled to France during the American Revolution, he had to explain that he was not Samuel, “the famous Adams”.
Although supporters of the Revolution praised Adams, Loyalists viewed him as a sinister figure. Peter Oliver, the exiled chief justice of Massachusetts, characterized Adams as a devious Machiavellian with a “cloven foot”. Thomas Hutchinson denounced Adams as a dishonest character assassin, emphasizing Adams’s failures as a businessman and tax collector, in his History of Massachusetts Bay.
Whig historians challenged the negative Loyalist versions of Sam Adams. William Gordon and Mercy Otis Warren, two historians who knew Adams, wrote of him as a man selflessly dedicated to the American Revolution. George Bancroft portrayed Adams favorably in his monumental History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent (1852). The first complete biography of Samuel Adams appeared in 1865, and was a three-volume set written by William Wells, Adams’ great-grandson. The Wells biography is still valuable today for its vast wealth of information.
I say, let the historians have their battles, if it makes them feel better. The truth is that the American Revolution might not have happened without Samuel Adams, though it required wiser men than he to make it successful; most particularly the aforementioned Jefferson, Sam’s cousin John, and America’s indispensable man, George Washington.
Samuel Adams served as governor of Massachusetts from 1794 to 1797, his term overlapping the Presidential terms of George Washington and John Adams. He died on October 2, 1803, during Thomas Jefferson’s first term as President.
Samuel Adams’ simple and un-pretentious cenotaph may still be viewed from the sidewalk that runs past the Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston. If you’re ever in Boston, I urge you to visit that site, and take the free, short, and fascinating guided tour. mh