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  Samuel Adams (1722–1803), by John Singleton Copley, c.1772 Samuel Adams (1722–1803), by John Singleton Copley, c.1772
Adams, Samuel (1722–1803), revolutionary politician in America, was born on 27 September 1722, one of three children (who survived to adulthood) of Samuel Adams (1689–1748) of Boston and his wife, Mary, née Fifield (d. after 1748). Adams inherited his political activism from his father, a brewer and member of the Massachusetts house of representatives. The elder Adams, who lost significant funds when the British parliament outlawed the Massachusetts land bank of 1740–41 at the behest of Governor William Shirley, was active in the ‘Boston Caucus’, the town's leading opposition political organization. Meanwhile young Samuel was attending Harvard College, from which he graduated BA in 1740. He obtained his MA in 1743, arguing in the affirmative a thesis that set the agenda for the rest of his life: whether it was ‘lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved’.

After failing in business, the younger Adams became involved with the opponents of Governor Shirley's vigorous prosecution of King George's War (1744–8) against the French in Canada. He was among the founders of the Independent Advertiser, a short-lived (1748–9) newspaper that was the American colonists' first anti-war periodical. Here he was among those who defended a crowd that protested against naval impressment as ‘an Assembly of the People’ rather than ‘a low-lived Mob’ (8 Feb 1748) on the grounds that their ‘liberty, property, and to some extent their lives’ had been threatened by the navy's action. This was the first use of John Locke's Second Treatise of Government to justify violent resistance to authority in the American colonies. Adams now also sought political office for himself. He served in a variety of Boston town offices, including that of scavenger (refuse collector), eventually becoming a tax collector. His extremely lax execution of this job may account for his popularity among the middling and lower sort. By 1764 his account was £8000 in arrears and the largest town meeting in Boston's history assembled to consider his fate. Adams, however, had become friends with John Hancock (1737–1793), whose uncle Thomas had died that year, leaving his nephew sole heir to the largest fortune in Massachusetts. Hancock paid off Adams's debts and the two men first took their seats in the Massachusetts assembly in 1765. Their election, following the announcement of parliament's passage of the Stamp Act, demonstrated how firmly the people of Boston and Massachusetts repudiated the party of Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who favoured milder, written protests against the new imperial regulations and, in the last analysis, submission if these proved futile.

From 1765 to 1775 Adams was among the principal leaders of the Boston resistance, though his own destruction or loss of many of his papers makes it nearly impossible to determine his true role in various proceedings. As clerk of the assembly, he certainly signed, even if he did not necessarily write, its protests to the governor and crown. Friends and enemies both placed him at the centre of the ‘caucus’, the political machine which exerted great control over town meetings and public assemblies. He also wrote numerous pamphlets under pseudonyms such as Vindex and Candidus urging his fellows to defend their liberties from what he considered the illegal incursions of the crown and parliament. Two principles encapsulate Adams's writings in this period: government cannot abridge man's ‘natural’ rights to life, liberty, and property without his consent by representation; and only a morally virtuous people that repudiated luxury and sloth would be inclined to stand up for these rights.

Historians argue about Adams's connection to the rioting that plagued Boston from the Stamp Act protests of August 1765 to the Tea Party of 16 December 1773. While loyalists believed him to be heavily implicated, there is no convincing evidence in his writings or elsewhere that he urged anything other than written protests and the boycott of British imports. He persuaded Governor Hutchinson to evacuate the British troops after the Boston massacre of 5 March 1770, perhaps hinting that these 600-odd men were in mortal danger from an incensed populace, but no hard evidence links him with a conspiracy to drive the soldiers from the town. In 1772 he was principally responsible for organizing the committees of correspondence, which kept the American people informed about the condition of Boston and Massachusetts as they struggled against new impositions. Adams's role in the Boston Tea Party is again disputed: some sources say he (and Hancock) participated in disguise, and that having chaired the town meeting which tried in vain to have the tea sent back, he signalled the ‘party’ by announcing: ‘This meeting can do nothing further to save this country’. However, another account states that he and the town leaders tried to prevent the town from taking this extreme measure and so further provoking the British.

In any event the British government—like scholars who take the charges of leading loyalists such as Hutchinson at face value—believed Adams to be the ringleader of revolt. According to the Impartial Administration of Justice Act, one of the so-called Intolerable Acts of 1774, people could be tried in Britain for crimes they committed in America. When General Thomas Gage arrived with a large army that year to implement these laws, rumours circulated that Adams and John Hancock were to be sent to Britain and tried for treason. In February 1775 both men fled Boston, and were present at Concord when the American War of Independence broke out that April. ‘What a glorious morning this is’, Adams is believed, but not proven, to have said once hostilities commenced. That the troops which marched on Concord had hoped to seize Adams and Hancock appears likely given that Gage exempted them from a general amnesty he offered all the rebels that June.

While Adams is best known for his role in beginning the revolution, his contribution did not end there. Between 1775 and 1781 he served in the continental congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and played an important role in Massachusetts from the 1780s until his death. Consistently for him, although paradoxically for others, he urged that those who protested against Massachusetts state taxes in Shays's rebellion (1786) ought to be hanged rather than accommodated: he reasoned that in monarchical governments people did not have the option of electing new representatives who could tax them as they pleased, which people in republics certainly did. (Hancock, elected governor in 1787, pardoned almost all the rebels who were not involved in random violence.) Although initially opposed to the United States constitution, Adams was persuaded by federalists who in 1788 orchestrated a demonstration of the Boston populace to change his mind and spoke powerfully in favour of ratification in Massachusetts.

Adams was a stern moralist who throughout his career mourned the moral degeneracy of his fellows. He hoped the new republic would institute a ‘Christian Sparta’, but was disappointed. He served as lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts from 1788 until Hancock, the perennial governor, died in 1793, and then as governor until he retired in 1797. But Adams, who joined the Jeffersonian democratic republicans, had little power in this predominantly federalist state: as it had Hancock, the populace continued to elect him as a symbol of the democratic revolution. When his fellow anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1801, Adams rejoiced that the nation might now secure its free institutions and establish the moral rectitude to guarantee them: in one of his final letters he wrote to Jefferson that there is ‘reason to believe, that the principles of Democratic Republicanism are already better understood than they were before’, and they would extend internationally until ‘the proud oppressors over the Earth shall be totally broken down and those classes of Men who have hitherto been victims of their rage and cruelty shall perpetually enjoy perfect Peace and Safety till time shall be no more’ (Writings, 4.410).

Adams was twice married: first in 1749 to Elizabeth Checkley (1725–1757), with whom he had two children, and second, in 1765, to Elizabeth Welles (1733–1808). He died on 2 October 1803 at Boston and, most fittingly, was buried in a simple grave in Boston's Granary burial-ground, behind the Park Street Church. The men killed in the Boston massacre surround him, much as the inhabitants of Boston had during the revolutionary era. Like Thomas Paine, never interested in business or acquiring more wealth than he needed to live on, Adams made resistance, then revolution, and finally reform his lifework.

To this day historians debate whether Adams was a master incendiary (C. K. Shipton and J. C. Miller) or a sincere defender of liberty who reluctantly (P. Maier) or eagerly (W. M. Fowler) moved the United States towards revolution. All agree he was an essential figure in Boston from 1765 to 1775; however, given the paucity of his unpublished papers, and the ongoing historical debates over the cause he supported, Adams's true motivation will always remain elusive.

William Pencak


W. V. Welles, The life and public services of Samuel Adams, 3 vols. (Boston, 1865) · W. M. Fowler, Samuel Adams: radical puritan (1998) · J. C. Miller, Sam Adams: pioneer in propaganda (1936) · C. K. Shipton, ‘Samuel Adams’, Sibley's Harvard graduates: biographical sketches of those who attended Harvard College, 10 (1958), 420–64 · P. Maier, The old revolutionaries: political lives in the age of Samuel Adams (1980), 3–50 · The writings of Samuel Adams, ed. H. A. Cushing (1908)


NYPL, MSS |  Mass. Hist. Soc., Warren-Adams letters


J. S. Copley, oils, c.1772, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

$16,000 real estate; $665 personal property: Shipton, ‘Samuel Adams’, 464