Magazine | February 9, 2009, Issue

Righteous Rebel

Sam Adams: A Life, by Ira Stoll (Free Press, 352 pp., $28)

When, in April 1775, Paul Revere set off from Boston to Lexington, his main mission was not, as generations of schoolchildren once were taught, to “spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm.” That Revere did, though his most urgent task was to warn two individuals that British troops were on the move. The two whom Revere was told the British wanted to seize (and most likely hang) were John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

These names remain familiar today, though if most Americans do not know quite who they were and what they did, this is not Longfellow’s fault. John Hancock is an insurance company. Paul Revere makes tableware. In the Midwest, he operates pizza joints promising “Revolutionary Home Delivery.” Sam Adams is a beer marketed to frat boys — odd, considering the upright character of this most pious of Bostonians.

Ira Stoll, in his well-researched biography Samuel Adams, does an admirable job reminding us just who this indispensable man was, what contribution he made to this country, and why the British wanted him dead. When George III, in July 1774, asked Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, why Adams mattered, Hutchinson cited his “great pretended zeal for liberty, and a most inflexible natural temper. He was the first that publickly asserted the Independency of the colonies upon the Kingdom.”

Adams did more than that, as the king would soon learn. After exploiting the Boston Massacre for its propagandistic possibilities, Adams played a still-controversial role in the Boston Tea Party, helped organize the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence, and served in the Continental Congress. There, Stoll writes, Adams “was further down the road to independence at this juncture than many others who later became known as founding fathers.”

Ben Franklin was in London, drafting a plan for a reconciliation requiring Massachusetts to pay for the tea in Boston Harbor. George Washington was arguing that “no such thing [as independence is] desired by any thinking man in all North America,” and Thomas Jefferson wanted an independent legislature for Americans, who would remain subjects of George III. In time, these and other founders came to agree with Adams. Some of them — the hard-drinking, theologically indifferent Anglicans of Virginia chief among them — had their own, often distinct and sometimes less high-minded reasons for supporting a break with the mother country, but Adams’s reasons were clear from the start. They were also clearly stated, and Stoll does not for one moment lose sight of his subject’s motives or allow the reader to do so.

“We are the descendants of ancestors remarkeable [sic] for their zeal for true religion & liberty,” Adams wrote five years before the Boston Massacre. “When they found it was no longer possible for them to bear any part in the support of this glorious cause in their native country England, they transplanted themselves at their very own great expense, into the wilds of America, till that time inhabited only by savage beasts and men: Here they resolved to set up the worship of God, according to their best judgment, upon the plan of the new testament, to maintain it among themselves, and transmit it to their posterity, & to spread the knowledge of Jesus Christ among the ignorant & barbarous natives.”

To Adams, Americans were no less than Hebrew slaves of Pharaoh. Religious references appear “in nearly every document touched by Adams’s quill,” Stoll writes, and they appear in nearly every page of this meticulously documented study. This is helpful to the reader’s understanding, but not always in ways the author might wish.

#page# “If Adams was so instrumental in achieving American independence and so influential even afterward,” Stoll asks, “why then has his fame faded so badly with time?” Try this: However effective Adams might have been, his was not an especially attractive personality, then or now. He was something of a prig and a nag. He had hoped Boston would become “the Christian Sparta.” He favored the suppression of “theatrical entertainments, horse racing, gaming, and other such diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners.” He wanted to stamp out “prophane [sic] swearing in our Army.” (Good luck.)

Infused with missionary zeal, Adams was also, as might be expected, an absolutist — except when it suited his purposes to be otherwise. In such cases, he was, as Stoll puts it, “flexible,” and it is not difficult to understand why Adams’s Tory contemporaries believed, as one critic wrote in 1781, that he concealed his schemes behind a “religious mask.”

An enthusiastic campaigner against Roman Catholicism (which leads “to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war and blood shed” [sic]), he incited the Mohawks to “whet your hatchet” against the British for having “made a law to establish the religion of the Pope in Canada, which lies so near you.” At the Constitutional Convention, Adams favored requiring officeholders to “denounce any principle (whether it be Roman Catholic, Mahometan, Deistical, or Infidel)” that might subvert the “religious rights” established by the Constitution. He distrusted the pacifist Quakers, whom he called “a sly artful People.” He feared the establishment of the Church of England on these shores, which made him surely the last American of discernment to find anything remotely threatening in the presence of an Anglican bishop.

Even so, Adams was perfectly willing, when seeking the support of the French, to recognize their Catholic monarch as “his most Christian majesty.” At the Continental Congress, when disagreements arose over the denomination of clergymen to open sessions in prayer, Adams claimed he was “no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country”: He could sup, in short, with any Christian “excepting those amongst them who Espouse the cause of our Enemies.”

Politics, for Adams, always trumped religion. Adams would not be the last of his countrymen for whom this would be the case. Americans have often confused the two and sought to make one an instrument of the other. Political leaders are expected to use secular means to achieve spiritual ends, with dubious consequences. This expectation was inevitable for Adams and his contemporaries, who believed, in Stoll’s words, “they were on a God-given mission to advance freedom.”

Many Americans persist in this belief, and Stoll does a thorough job exploring the extent to which this conviction motivated one remarkable figure who was, as John Adams put it, “zealous, ardent and keen in the Cause.” Stoll also makes plain, to anyone troubled today by claims that ours is a “Christian nation,” that this was how we began, no matter what we might be now.

– Mr. Crawford is the author of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.

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