Among the leaders of Boston’s revolutionary era, few possessed the fervent passion of Samuel Adams.
Born on September 16, 1722, in Boston into two shipping families, Samuel Adams grew up in a household that encouraged both strict Puritan values and political activism.1 His critical assessment of political systems first emerged during his time at harvard, where adams published a thesis arguing, “is it lawful to resist the supreme magistrate, if the community cannot otherwise be preserved?”
Adams’s borderline obsession with government and his lack of business acumen prevented him from holding steady work until his election to the post of tax collector in 1756. His personal life faced its own challenges. His first wife, Elizabeth Checkley, died in 1757 after less than ten years of marriage. The tragedy spurred Adams to become more involved in politics. He remarried Elizabeth Wells in 1764.
When the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act in 1764, Adams’s role in government changed radically. The act disproportionately affected Massachusetts, prompting the Boston City Meeting to task Samuel Adams with speaking out against it. Adams took up the task with enthusiasm, writing: “if taxes are imposed on us in any way without legal representation where they are established, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tax slaves?” 2
parliament continued to pass taxes and duties despite adams’s fierce protests. When the stamp act was passed in 1765, Samuel Adams was elected to represent Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. he organized boycotts and petitions in opposition to the townshend laws. And throughout, Adams published articles under the pseudonyms ‘vindex’ and ‘candidus’. public turmoil led to british troops being sent to occupy boston. the military presence and its clashes with Bostonians eventually led to the Boston massacre.
the massacre played squarely into adams’ hands. with blood in the streets, adams and the council demanded that massachusetts governor thomas hutchinson withdraw troops from boston and arrest the soldiers involved in the massacre. Samuel Adams’ own cousin, John Adams, defended the troops during their trial, winning most of them with “not guilty” verdicts.
after british troops withdrew to william castle, unrest simmered in boston until the passage of the tea act of 1773. failing to reach a resolution with the royal government regarding imported tea with high taxes, the colonists took direct action. On December 16, 1773, colonists stormed from the Old South Meeting House to Griffin’s Wharf, destroying over 300 tea chests. Adams praised this act of resistance, writing, “You cannot imagine the height of joy that sparkles in the eyes and enlivens the countenances and hearts of all we meet on this occasion.”3
Parliament’s response to this event came in 1774 with the coercive acts, later known as intolerable acts. the laws closed the port of boston, stripped massachusetts of its charters, limited city meetings to one a year, and stationed troops within boston itself. The First Continental Congress was formed in response to this alarming escalation, with Samuel Adams representing Massachusetts as one of its delegates. Adams quickly discovered that representatives from other colonies did not entirely trust Massachusetts. Some even feared that Massachusetts would declare its independence, defeat Great Britain, and then invade the other colonies. Calming these fears and rallying the help of the other colonies to protest the intolerable acts became Adams’s main concern.4
While in Philadelphia, Samuel Adams encouraged his fellow revolutionary, Joseph Warren, to create an opposition government in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. When Adams returned to Massachusetts, he joined the Provincial Congress in Concord and stayed in Lexington with John Hancock. As British troops marched in unison to destroy stored weapons, Adams and Hancock met the assembled militia on Lexington Green. His encouragement helped spark the resulting Battle of Lexington and Concord.
fleeing to philadelphia, adams and hancock joined the second continental congress. With the fighting going on, Adams came out strongly in favor of independence rather than reconciliation. Like many of the other delegates, Adams signed the Declaration of Independence. He also nominated George Washington for the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.5
As the war continued, Samuel Adams returned to Massachusetts in 1779 to help write the new Massachusetts Constitution before withdrawing from the Continental Congress in 1781. He remained active in politics after the Revolution, becoming Lieutenant Governor under John Hancock From 1789 to 1793. After Hancock’s death, Adams won the governorship for himself, serving from 1793 until his retirement in 1797. Adams died on October 2, 1803 in Boston.
- “samuel adams | biography, history, achievements, boston tea party, & Facts”, Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 6 October 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/samuel-adams.
- samuel adams, “samuel adams to the boston representatives, may 24, 1764”, in the writings of samuel adams vol i 1764-1769, edited by harry alonzo cushing (g.p. putnum, 1904) 5.
- from samuel adams to arthur lee 31 december 1773, accessed november 2021, samuel adams heritage society.
- nathaniel philbrick, bunker hill: a city, a siege, and a revolution (new york, new york: penguin books, 2013) 74.
- ron chernow, washington: a life, (the penguin press, 2010), 186.