Mr. Adams and Independence
In the gathering of forces and emotions which made for the American Revolution there was a deceptive pause between the fall of 1770 and spring of 1773. Troops were withdrawn from Boston and commerce with England was resumed. Sam Adams was in his glory in arranging for the first of these developments, but distressed by the second. Furthermore, there were quarrels between Adams and other Whig leaders who were not absolutely bent on independence. But the principal revolutionary of Boston did not relent. With the free-thinking Thomas Young, he founded the most radical newspaper in North America, the Massachusetts Spy. And they together, Puritan and Deist, kept up the flow of propaganda that followed from the town’s versions of what had happened in the Massacre—all ninety-six depositions, with unequalled fabrication and hatred beyond measure as standard components. Governor Thomas Hutchinson knew whereof he spoke in saying of Adams, “I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the King’s dominion or a man of greater malignity of heart, who less scruples any measure ever so criminal to accomplish his purposes.” Believing that there was no danger issuing from England, Adams contended, was the greatest possible threat to American freedom. With tales of atrocity, of trials following the Massacre and of the aftermaths of these trials of British soldiers, of relocations of the settings of the General Court, of Crown officers paid out of customs duties and of bishops to act over Zion, such laxity could be forestalled. For men are, he assumed, ruled more by fear or other emotions than by reason. And Sam Adams knew how to generate anger and fear.
During this period of hesitation, Adams did more than stoke the fires and wait. He continued to build and experiment with political structures spun off from his control of the Boston town meetings and his influence in the House of Representatives. The former body, on November 2, 1772 (and, once again, late in a session), gave him a strong Committee of Correspondence to “state the rights” of colonials “as men, as Christians, and as subjects; and to communicate the same to the several towns and to the world.” These committees on a limited basis had already functioned during the Stamp Act crisis and thereafter. Other colonies had experimented with them. But Adams had in mind something more like a political party than an information network. The 1772 committee was therefore different from its counterparts of November, 1770, and June, 1771, which were authorized by the Massachusetts General Court. On November 20, it adopted “The State of the Rights of the Colonists"—"life, liberty and property,” all “branches” of the “Duty of self-preservation, commonly called the First Law of Nature.” His appeal to “the law of nature” over Constitution and Charter took separation from one society and combinations in another as a matter of course. These resolutions were adopted by most of the Massachusetts towns; and thus the machinery and the theoretical grounds for revolution in part of America were put in place. Only a few additional provocations were needed to translate their combination into action. Thomas Hutchinson and Lord North provided several.
In January of 1773 Governor Hutchinson made a speech on constitutional questions to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay. In replying to the doctrine of Adams and the town meeting (and also to more conservative Old Whigs) Hutchinson insisted that there was no position between acceptance of “the supremacy of Parliament” and full commitment to American independence. Many moderate men were persuaded by his presentation that they were in better agreement with Sam Adams than they had thought. Later in the same year Governor Hutchinson’s 1767-1768 letters to a friend in England (letters which had come by accident into the hands of Benjamin Franklin) were read aloud in the General Court and then published. The Whigs (led by Sam Adams and John Hancock) discovered a plan for tyranny in every line, a determination to “subvert the constitution.” Then in the spring of 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act. The Boston Tea Party followed on December 16, 1773; and, during the same period, related disturbances occurred in other American ports. Adams, of course, spurred on the mob in Boston, concluding a speech in Faneuil Hall the night the Mohawks struck with the admonitory peroration, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” The Coercive Acts (especially the 1774 Boston Port Bill) brought the business to its completion. When the Massachusetts Charter was suspended and General Gage’s garrison settled in full control of Boston, when the Association was in force, the “Solemn League and Covenant,” Sam Adams’ career as a revolutionary was complete—except for a little persuasion in the Continental Congress. With the door of the House of Representatives locked against Gage’s messenger, thus preventing a premature conclusion of what was clearly to be its last session, Sam Adams was chosen in that June 17, 1774, meeting to be one of Massachusetts’ representatives in the new inter-colonial legislature scheduled to convene in Philadelphia. To protect his dignity as a leader of the delegation his friends bought him the clothes of a gentleman, gave him a good purse and then sent him with his colleagues “in a coach and four, preceded by two white servants who were mounted and arm’d, with four blacks in livery, two on horseback and two footmen.”
The problem of Sam Adams, his cousin John Adams, young Mr. Hancock and the other New England delegates who hoped for decisive actions was that most of Congress still hoped to avoid a complete break with England. Furthermore, the delegates from New York, Pennsylvania, and the Southern commonwealths did not trust their Yankee counterparts. Even Bostonians agreed that Sam Adams had “too great an Idea of the Virtue of the State of Massachusetts Bay.” Of the Northern members as a group, one adversary observed that they were “a parcel of canting, Hypocritical, peculating Knaves” who planned to replace the tyranny of the British government with a tyranny of their own. In this context Sam Adams was mindful of his own reputation as a violent democrat and did not push matters too far. Instead he got to know the Philadelphia radicals, kept quiet, encouraged the adoption of another embargo on trade, and seconded a motion that the Congress call for prayer by a well-known Episcopalian clergyman: “He was no bigot [which the Southerners thought that he was] and could hear a prayer from a gentlemen of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.” The Tory who had spoken of him as “possessing a great deal of caution and court cunning” knew his man well. Adams did not press for independence when he knew the effort would fail. Instead, back at home he arranged for and then in Philadelphia got approved the powerful Suffolk Resolves, which bespoke the mood of his community and put the colonies in a posture for defending themselves in war should British forces do anything aggressive beyond the confines of Boston. On April 18, 1775, when firing began at Lexington, he cried out, “Oh, what a glorious morning is this.”
The Suffolk Resolves, written by Adams’ young friend Joseph Warren, had spoken of military preparation for the gathering of an American army (if needed) and the necessity for cooperation with other Patriots in other colonies if Massachusetts Whigs were to survive as free men. The idea of cousin John Adams for insuring such mutuality, an adoption of the New England army around Boston by the Continental Congress, won Sam Adams’ reluctant concurrence. George Washington was no Cromwell, not part of “the company of the saints.” But the Southern general in command of the siege of Boston made the army surrounding the city a national force. John Hancock, presiding officer of the Congress, was offended at not being preferred to the Virginian, with an anger that was finally to cost Sam Adams much of his political influence. But, as we should remember, he was an ideologue only about American independence and, even about making that official, he could wait. “We cannot make Events,” he observed. “Our business is wisely to improve them.” The Olive Branch Petition upset John Adams more than it did Samuel. The latter busied himself in searching for a Loyalist spy in their midst and in urging his new Philadelphia friends to muzzle Joseph Galloway, the leader of conservatives in his state. But he knew that a declaration of independence would come. He voted for and signed it with a joy which ordinarily belongs only to authorship, and then played a part in the drafting and adoption of the Articles of Confederation. But at that point Sam Adams lost his way—his vocation. As one historian remarked, he was “expert at overturning governments” and knew little about rebuilding or operating them. In consequence there is very little pattern in his career after 1776.
Samuel Adams continued in the Continental Congress until 1781, though not as a great influence. Always suspicious of any concentration of power, he opposed building a large standing army and the granting of pensions to regular army officers. He was also against the creation of Departments of Finance, War and Foreign Affairs. Above all else, he feared the creation of a Caesar and wished to leave the militia outside of Washington’s command until a national legislature had been approved by the States. An authority on that period is of the opinion that “his caution in the organization of the revolutionary government was a drag on the prosecution of the war.” Much of his time in Philadelphia Sam Adams found tedious. He was outraged by the balls, fetes, theatricals and horse races, at luxury and profiteering—but he appeared ridiculous in communicating his strictures to the rest of the Congress.