History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman

Author: William James Jackman

Samuel Adams

Born, September 27, 1722; Died, October 2, 1803.

Samuel Adams was the Richelieu of the American Revolution. In his knowledge of human nature, his mastery of men, his political generalship, his sacrifice of all personal ambition for the good of his country and his singleness of purpose, he is the very counterpart of the immortal cardinal. Where Richelieu was a soldier, Adams was a parliamentarian; the one was a leader of men upon the tented field; the other of men in the invisible battles of political conflict.

The great Massachusetts leader was a descendant of Henry Adams, of Devonshire, England, who crossed the ocean and settled in Braintree, Mass., in 1636. From him descended a race, which generation atter generation has produced illustrious children of the Republic, and which can probably point to more members of distinction and public performance than any other family in the New World. Samuel’s father was a wealthy Bostonian, who held a prominent place in the community. Deacon and Trustee, Justice of the Peace, Selectman and member of the Colonial Legislature were among the offices which he held with great credit. By the governing classes, he was respected but disliked, as he invariably opposed any extension of Crown privilege or any curtailment of popular rights and liberties. He was a politician of no mean ability. Few in those days perceived the principles upon which political action must be carried on wherever there is to be honest, popular government. Among these were the elder Adams, who evolved methods strange enough in those days, but at the present time so common as to excite no comment. He formed clubs and societies in which he and his intimate friends were the moving spirits.

That which made him a power more than all others was one he had established in a district of the city devoted to maritime interests. Its members were captains, shipwrights, carpenters, caulkers, painters, supercargoes and ships storesmen. By his political antagonists, it was known as the "Caulkers’ Club," and on account of its meeting regularly in executive session, and always acting as a unit, the name by degrees evolved into the well known political word, "Caucus."

From the habit of the club members employing remarkable discipline in their political work came the slang phrase in election excitement "he is a caulker," meaning a delegate who obeyed his instructions no matter how great the pressure brought to bear to change his convictions and actions. The phrase continued long after the original vanished and was forgotten, and then degenerated into the ridiculous form "he (it) is a corker," a term still employed in New England and wherever New England influence is felt to indicate superiority or praiseworthiness in man, action, or thing.

With such a father, Samuel Adams could not be other than a clever politician. He was a leader among his playmates, the boys of the Boston Latin School and afterwards among the students at Harvard from which in 1740, he was graduated. In his student days he displayed the talents which were to mark him in after life. A good speaker, a strong debater, a quick writer and a tireless scholar, he kept himself prominently in the eyes of the high school and the college. Beside these gifts, he was suave, self-possessed and tactful to the last degree. On one occasion he was the moving spirit of a party which determined to screw up a professor’s door and so make that worthy an involuntary prisoner. As he began operations, he heard the professor coming to the door. With rare presence of mind, he rapped decorously and when the door was opened, he asked if it were true that the professor was sick and if he could be of any service in the premises. The pedagogue thanked the sympathetic student, and assured him that his only trouble came from the mischievous boys of the class. Whereupon the young statesman promptly acquiesced in the declaration, and asserted "that he was doing his best to keep his colleagues from engaging in objectionable mischief."

The young man’s family destined him for a theological career. The son had a deep love for the bar. Fortunately or unfortunately, a compromise was effected and Samuel went into business. His commercial talents were limited, and only through his dogged patience did he earn a fair livelihood in the world of trade.

He might have succeeded but for the generosity of his nature. When he had money, he lent ito any friend, even when the hope of return was insignificant. To the plea of distress, he could never give a negative answer. Thus, although at one time he seems to have prospered as a brewer, so far as output or sales were concerned, yet the profits at the end of a year were notably small. He was not as was declared by malicious enemies, one of his own best customers: but from a financial point of view he was almost as bad. He would give credit to failing taphouses, to poor widows and every other type of person to whom a prudent business man would never listen.

While his monetary returns were very small, his actions built up by degrees a veritable mountain of personal popularity. Hundreds of men, women and children regarded him as a second father, and among these there were scores who were attached to him so fiercely that the feeling might have been compared to that of a bull dog to its master. Though intellectual in a very high degree, he always had a warm love for the common people. He is said to have known every man by sight and name in the city of Boston. Young students, who were perplexed would stop him on the street for advice; blacksmiths would appeal to him as he went by to give them a hand with an unruly horse, children would call upon him to repair a broken toy, and anxious mothers would consult him often in preference to their physicians. He was humorous, but his humor was of that grim variety which marks the Puritanic character. In his case it was agreeable on account of his infinite tact. No matter how great the provocation, he never permitted his wit to inflict pain or to injure the self-respect of others.

To this democratic spirit and conduct may be ascribed much of his political success. His quick perception and powerful memory enabled him to ascertain in advance the sentiments of his fellow townsmen prior to any town meeting. When he appeared at the latter the views which he expressed were nearly always successful. People looked at him with amazement, because in many cases he took positions utterly opposed to those of the British administration, and even of the refined and educated classes of the community. They ascribed to him a personal power over the masses, which must have amused him. It is highly probable that in every instance he knew fairly well in advance the strength of the movement which he represented, and being a shrewd politician, he never wasted energy by advocating a cause which he knew would not receive the support necessary to its success.

At the age of thirty, he was the town meeting leader of Boston, and enjoyed the prestige which comes with success. Those who believed that some men are lucky and others are born to good fortune, flocked around him as a leader. In this wise by the time he was forty, he was probably the strongest man politically in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Fortune favored him in several ways. In early life he had had the advantages of wealth, and college education; he belonged to a family which was numerous and influential and which then as now was marked by a justifiable family pride. He had become the leader of the middle and working classes through his intellectual and political abilities. This was a matter of greater power than it is today. Social divisions were not as marked in those days and Massachusetts society was comparatively uniform. It was rather stern, religious and conservative. It was also grave, zealous and determined. NO one knew better than he, that when these men once made up their minds upon any course no Crown nor army could ever change it except by absolute extermination.

In 1764, the faint clouds upon the political horizon began to enlarge and darken. The proposed Stamp Act had become the subject of discussion, and its unjust provisions had aroused public opposition and resentment. None knew better than Adams the feeling of the townsmen on the subject. When the town meeting took place he spoke briefly but to the point. Every other speaker followed him employing fiercer and more virulent argument than he had done. To the surprise of the community, it looked as if he had become conservative and the people radical. Such was the impression produced upon the governing classes who were therefore pleased when he was appointed to draft the instructions given by Boston to its delegates in the Colonial legislature.

But public feeling soon changed. In May, Adams made the draft, and it fairly rang with what the administration regarded as disloyalty. The mere fact that it came from the lips of their leader made it the law and the gospel of Boston’s delegates and the legislature itself. Without knowing it, the man’s personality had impressed the entire colony as well as the town in which he lived. In 1765, he was elected to the legislature, where he was continued in office for nine years. Here he was made clerk of the House, a position he filled with great skill. During this period he drew the larger part of the State papers, papers which will ever remain models of official workmanship. Within a year the administration came to regard the legislature as being "that man or that traitor Samuel Adams." As a matter of fact he was simply a fitting representative of the Colony. His feelings were their feelings; his nature their nature. His most daring performances were not exceptional because they would have been those of nearly every other member had he had a similar opportunity. But to the outside world, it looked as if he were the master mind of the body, and they were the puppets and pawns which moved when he pulled the wires.

In 1767, immediately upon the passage of the Townshend acts, he wrote the petition of the Assembly to the King, a letter of instruction to the Massachusetts Colonial Agent in London, and what was the momentous paper of all a Circular Letter addressed to the other twelve Colonies inviting them to aid Massachusetts in the defense of the rights and liberties of America. Copies of all three papers were soon in the hands of the British monarch and cabinet. Astonishment rivaled rage in their minds, when they read the contents.

A royal order was immediately sent to Governor Bernard, requiring him to command the legislature to rescind or withdraw the Circular Letter under penalty of dissolution and other punishments. There were weak men in the Assembly but they formed a minority. The Governor’s communication was made the subject of a long discussion, in which Adams was the hero of the debate, and then by a vote of 92 to 17 the legislature refused to rescind its action. This determination was greeted with applause by patriotic colonials in every community and denounced by the supporters of the government, who in the coming struggle were to be the Tories of that time. It increased the bitter feeling in London, which now regarded Boston as the hotbed of rebellion and Samuel Adams as the arch rebel.

So strong was this feeling, that when in 1770 Samuel Adams, after a fiery town meeting in which more than five thousand Boston citizens were present, offered the resolutions which he had himself drawn and which had been passed amid wild cheers of the citizens demanding that the two regiments garrisoned in Boston should be removed to the castle in the harbor, and the troops after long negotiation were transferred, they were afterwards known in parliament as the "Sam Adams" regiments.

In 1772, in order to get around some legal forms which interfered with popular action, Adams devised a scheme which was to play a strong part in the Revolutionary drama. The English cabinet, with a view of punishing the Colonial malcontents in the local courts, determined to make the judges Crown officers payable from the royal purse instead of Colonial officials payable from the local treasury. This scheme would have made every tribunal a political engine to be manipulated by the Throne. The announcement aroused indignant protests throughout Massachusetts. The judges were notified that they would be impeached if they should consent to the transfer and receive their salaries from the royal treasurer. A town meeting was held and a resolution passed unanimously asking Governor Hutchinson to convene the legislature to take action upon the matter. As the law stood the legislature could only meet when so ordered by the Governor. Without the latter’s initiative it had no power nor jurisdiction. The Governor promptly refused, and Adams just as promptly suggested that the towns of the Colony should appoint committees of correspondence to consult with one another upon public affairs. This practically started a new autonomous and independent Assembly in Massachusetts. Within a few days the idea had been taken up and acted upon. Within a few months the eighty leading towns had elected Committees, and the whole system was in operation.

This move was a stroke of genius. Yet for nearly a year no one perceived its full significance outside of its author. It was discussed throughout the Colonies and praised in a lukewarm way. It was all very well, said critics but "cui bono?" How would it change matters? The royal officials in Massachusetts and other Colonies either treated it with contempt or else laughed at it in derision.

On March 3, 1773, Dabney Carr of Virginia moved in the House of Burgesses to appoint intercolonial committees of correspondence for the consideration of plans looking to the public welfare and protecting the Colonies against royal encroachment. He made an eloquent and scholarly address in favor of the resolution, which was adopted by the House. This was done after a careful discussion between Carr and his brother-in-law, Thomas Jefferson, and probably expressed the views of the latter as much as those of the mover of the resolution. If these committees had done nothing more they would have been of invaluable service in that for the first time they brought the Colonies together as a single body of men. Now they began to coalesce into an organic whole. Adams foresaw that the system of committees was bound to have two results; first, it would be adopted by all of the other Colonies, and second that it would develop into forms of state and national government. Both of these occurred. In Massachusetts by degrees the management of public affairs was voluntarily entrusted to the Committees of Boston and the five adjacent towns. At the head of this subcommittee, if it may be so termed, was Samuel Adams.

On December 16, 1773, occurred the memorable Boston Tea Party. A crowd of stalwart men, chosen by Adams and his committee, boarded the English tea ships in the harbor and emptied three hundred and forty-two chests of tea into the sea. The shores were crowded by patriotic citizens, who cheered the transaction to the echo, and at its close departed quietly to their homes.

The British ministry was infuriated at this outrage, as they termed it, and in April, 1774, a series of acts were passed by Parliament closing the Port of Boston, annulling the charter of Massachusetts, and placing the Colony practically under martial law.

Probably Adams had foreseen all this and made preparations for the event. He certainly had worked with care to start the movement for a Continental Congress, and had familiarized the public mind with the immediate necessity for such a body. In doing this he displayed a statesmanship of rare excellence. In those days Massachusetts was very unpopular with the other Colonies. Its reputation was that of austerity, intolerance, obstinacy and gloom. Knickerbocker New York disliked it on account of its greed. Knickerbocker New Jersey shared these sentiments; Pennsylvania, the Quaker State, remembered only too well the cruelty shown by the Old Colony to the peaceful followers of Fox. The cavalier Colonies still treasured up some antagonism to the descendants of the Roundheads. If the suggestion for a Continental Congress had come from Massachusetts, Samuel Adams knew full well that it would meet with a feeble response. With inimitable craft he induced his friends and correspondents in the other Colonies to inspire Virginia to take the initiative. His scheme worked to perfection. Virginia made the call and the Colonies responded. It is amusing to note that Adams worked so skillfully that no one at the time gave him credit in the affair. When the summons was issued for a Continental Congress, a few patriots were fearful that Massachusetts would not join the movement. There must have been some ground for this fear judging from the course Adams took in the Assembly hall when the legislature of Massachusetts met at Salem on June 17, 1774. The moment the delegates were seated, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. Taking the floor, he put through the measures for having Massachusetts represented at the Continental Congress in September. Two Tory members tried to jump out of the window but were hauled ignominiously back. A third feigned sickness and was allowed to go out in charge of a clerk, but the moment he got outside pushed the clerk over and ran at full speed to the Governor. The latter immediately drew up a writ dissolving the legislature and handed it to a clerk to serve upon that body. Accompanied by a guard the latter marched to the hall but found all doors locked and barred. While waiting outside for an opportunity to get in and serve the writ, the legislature finished its business and adjourned sine die, the motion to adjourn, one of the most delicious bits of parliamentary humor in our early history, having been made by Adams. The next legislature of Massachusetts was called by the People and not by the Crown.

At the first Continental Congress Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Cushing and Robert Treat Paine went from the Bay State. There were fifty-three delegates in the Convention, representing the flower of colonial manhood. Doubtless all realized in a vague way the majesty of the occasion, but for the time being they were perplexed with the strangeness of the situation. It was the first time the Colonies had come together in a representative body. Heretofore, they had been appendages of Great Britain, whose sole authority was the Crown. Today they were representatives and leaders, each of his own Commonwealth, recognizing no authority but right and justice. They were more or less distrustful of one another. Here together were Pilgrim and Puritan, Knickerbocker and Huguenot, Quaker and Anglican, soldiers, lawyers, planters, merchants, officials and adventurers.

On occasions such as this the political intellect comes to dominate the rest. Of all those present the craftiest and deepest was Samuel Adams. His conduct at this Congress was almost Machiavellian. He realized that nothing must intervene which would impair the harmony of the gathering and that all personal feelings and tastes must be subordinated, if not sacrificed for the public good. He saw clearly that Virginia and Pennsylvania were to be placated and compromised. The moment he arrived in Philadelphia he set about making the acquaintance of every delegate to the Congress. When the meeting was called to order, he probably was the only man there who knew everyone else by name and sight.

Determined that Virginia should become the leading colony of the convention he inquired among its delegates as to its ablest man, and found that Peyton Randolph was regarded as its most distinguished lawyer. Going to the South Carolina delegation, he picked out the finest looking man, Thomas Lynch, and suggested that if South Carolina would nominate Randolph, Massachusetts would be only too glad to second the nomination on account of the lawyer’s high distinction. This suited South Carolina perfectly, which had come to the Congress fearful that New England would try to run the affair in its own interests. Similar maneuvers created a Randolph sentiment, so that when Lynch named the Virginian, he was elected president by acclamation. Equally diplomatic was his treatment of the motion to open the proceedings with prayer. This was opposed by John Jay, who, though a very religious man, declared that he did not think it was right for him to force his views upon others, whose faith might require them to object to such action; that there were at least five sects in Congress, and it could not be expected that they should unite in formal worship. As Jay seated himself Samuel Adams rose and with his matchless suavity declared that he was no bigot and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend of his country. "I am a stranger in Philadelphia, but I have heard that the Rev. Mr. Duche deserves the character I have mentioned, and I therefore move that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, be pleased to read prayers for this Congress."

This was a thunderbolt, and before the surprise died away it was seconded by John Adams, who had been already coached by his crafty cousin, and went through without dissent. Religious feeling was very strong in those years and Adams’s action was most felicitous. Of the delegates present a majority of the New York, Virginian and South Carolinian members were Episcopalians. Mr. Duche was exceedingly popular in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and had many friends in New Jersey. He was moreover a fine looking, eloquent man who would grace any pulpit. Some people have gone so far as to say that Adams picked him out the day before and had him at the hall on purpose. At any rate his performance was like throwing oil upon troubled waters. It pleased the Episcopalians and it gratified the Middle and Southern colonies.

The work of this convention appears to have been directed throughout by Samuel Adams. He sat writing memoranda, and though taking the floor but little and briefly himself, he talked with and wrote to every speaker and gave information upon every point which came before the House. To nearly all present, he gave the impression of a quiet, well-bred, highly educated gentleman of remarkable urbanity and kindliness. Only two men measured him correctly. One was Patrick Henry, of Virginia, who said: that "the good that was to come from these Congresses was owing to the work of Adams" and the other was the traitor-member, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania who had promised with the other fellow members to make public no part of the transaction and who wrote to the British government that "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."

Other government agents sent similar messages to London, which resulted in the British Cabinet dispatching an order to General Gage to arrest Samuel Adams and his tool John Hancock, and send them over to London to be tried on a charge of high treason. The London newspapers in commenting on the news predicted gleefully that their heads would soon ornament Temple Bar, according to the barbarous custom then in vogue. An officer was detailed to make the arrests which was to take place on April 19, 1775, but fortunately the tidings leaked out and Paul Revere managed to warn Adams in time. He left his house a half hour before the soldiers arrived and reached Philadelphia in time for the Second Congress.

This was easier sailing than the first, but had its own difficulties and trials. He got through all with consummate address. Two incidents are worthy of notice. One was his making John Hancock president of the body, not because he desired to give his friend any particular honor, correspondents of the time say, but for the reason that Hancock had formed some views which Adams thought unwise, and to prevent that vote being cast, he placed Hancock in the chair. The other was his securing the appointment of George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces. He realized the latter’s military genius, and at the same time desired to conciliate the great colony of Virginia. In the third Continental Congress he delivered the famous address which even today is the delight of schoolboys. It was in this noble speech that he enunciated the words:

"We have explored the Temple of Royalty and found that the idol we have bowed down to has eyes which see not, ears that hear not our prayers, and a heart like the nether millstone. We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven and with a propitious eye beholds His subjects assuming that freedom and thought and dignity of self-direction which He bestowed on them. From the rising to the setting of the sun, may His Kingdom come."

In 1776 he signed the Declaration of Independence, and until 1782 was the most energetic member of the Continental government.

He took part in framing the State Constitution of Massachusetts. On the adoption of that instrument he was made president of the State Senate. In 1789 he was made Lieutenant-Governor, and in 1794 Governor. The latter part of his life was uneventful, in fact his career really closed when the Colonies became a nation. In the Bay State he found himself in what to his temperament must have been a very painful position. A deep feeling had grown up between the federalist and republican parties. His political instincts were in favor of the former, his personal liking for the latter. As between Hamilton and Jefferson he was a follower of the Virginian. During the long struggle between the Colonies and the Crown his hands were held up by his second wife Elizabeth Wells, who though a royalist of the strongest kind before marriage, became a self-sacrificing patriot afterwards. Even in the darkest hours when she was compelled to suffer, oftentimes wanting the necessaries of life, she never complained but resolutely counselled her husband to keep up the good fight if necessary until death. On one occasion, when about to attend Congress, Adams found that he had neither coat nor horse, and only enough cash to pay his expenses on the trip. His good wife, tradition says, borrowed both of these articles from John Adams and a friend and thus equipped him for the journey.

He gave the best part of his life to his country, and the life of his oldest son Samuel who served through the long struggle as a surgeon, and who died laboring in a military hospital.

In political activity, and statesmanlike qualities Samuel Adams was easily the first of the Colonial leaders. He had one mistress, his country, and to her he consecrated all the elements of his being. He cared little or nothing for wealth, place or distinction. In all things he was an ideal patriot.


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Chicago: William James Jackman, "Samuel Adams," History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.2475-2487 Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8NWPLZPRU8UJKL1.

MLA: Jackman, William James. "Samuel Adams." History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman, in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.2475-2487, Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8NWPLZPRU8UJKL1.

Harvard: Jackman, WJ, 'Samuel Adams' in History of the American Nation by William J. Jackman. cited in , William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.2475-2487. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8NWPLZPRU8UJKL1.