Yesterday I listed a litany of factual errors in William H. Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began. Such misstatements and exaggerations pile up so badly when it comes to Samuel Adams that I suspect they reveal outright bias on the author’s part.
As a start, Hallahan ascribes practically every political development in greater Boston to Adams. If he mentions other Massachusetts organizers at all, they’re either nobly opposed to Adams’s methods or under his thumb. Often they disappear from their own stories. For example, it’s well established that James Otis, Jr., broke with the Crown in 1760 after Gov. Francis Bernard appointed Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice of the province instead of Otis’s father. Yet Hallahan calls that moment the “Start of bitter quarrel between Hutchinson and Sam Adams” . Adams was a local political figure in that year; he wasn’t elected to the Massachusetts legislature until 1765.
As another example, the Suffolk Resolves were drafted by a committee of Whigs from inside and outside Boston in September 1774, with Dr. Joseph Warren usually credited as the principal writer. They followed a series of similar resolutions adopted by county meetings to the west. At the time, Adams was in Philadelphia. But Hallahan says those resolves were “written under Sam Adams’s direction” , and he had “prepared for dominating the Continental Congress with this document” .
Hallahan rarely passes up opportunities to denigrate Adams, even when there are no facts to back up such a judgment. In a timeline entry for 1768, he writes, “Sam Adams and Sons of Liberty fail to stop troops from landing as threatened, becomes [sic] laughingstock of the colonies” . Adams had never threatened to stop the troops from landing; William Molineux did, and the evidence of even him becoming a “laughingstock” in thin indeed. For 1770: “Adams’s gang enforces nonimportation agreement. Many small businessmen bankrupted.” Molineux and Dr. Thomas Young are documented as leading the nonimportation protests, not Adams. And who were these “many small businessmen” who went bankrupt?
James M. O’Toole’s article “The Historical Interpretations of Samuel Adams,” published in the New England Quarterly in 1976, describes how other authors have fallen into similar errors. Biographies of Adams in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries portrayed him as behind everything good that happened in Boston during the Revolution. After that it wasn’t such a big leap, once Americans recognized that violence, disorder, and intimidation were also part of the resistance movement, to blame those on Adams as well. But he wasn’t in charge of everything, either good or bad. He was a leading voice in a mass movement, but there were other leaders, there were lots of people involved, and in life there are many events no one can control.
Part of the received wisdom about Adams is that he was vital for bringing on the Revolution, but had nothing to contribute after independence. Hallahan is only too happy to subscribe to that idea. It requires ignoring Adams’s admired service in the Congress through 1781 and in Massachusetts government for the rest of his life. Hallahan writes, “He fought bitterly against the new constitution, which he was as an intrusion on the rights of the states.” While Adams had doubts about the U.S. Constitution, he eventually voted to ratify it. The book never acknowledges Adams’s terms as Massachusetts governor.
When The Day the American Revolution Began characterizes Adams’s thinking and importance in history, Hallahan appears to be looking for ways to criticize the man, and his rhetoric gets tied up in knots. The result are head-scratchers like this:
Samuel Adams’s reputation was unequivocal. In his inner circle, among those who worked under his direction—and they included well-educated, intelligent idealistic men such as Dr. Joseph Warren—he was revered. Most people outside his own circle hated him, some with a murderous passion. He was well-known throughout the colonies, admired and emulated by some few but hated by many who regarded him as a waterfront thug, a manipulator, a political jobber, an intimidator, a blackmailer, a mob leader, a destroyer, and a newspaper propagandist of the worst sort. A criminal out of control, a terrorist and an outlaw. Aside from there being no evidence for Adams as “a waterfront thug,” “a political jobber,” or “a mob leader,” much less “a terrorist and an outlaw,” this rant makes no internal sense. If Adams was “revered” and “admired and emulated” by some people but “hated” by others, then his reputation couldn’t have been “unequivocal,” which means beyond questioning or doubt. Adams’s reputation was obviously mixed.
I find Hallahan’s other commentary on Adams to be so contradictory that it’s hard to see the rational thought behind it. Page 231 describes Adams this way: “A true democrat, he believed all people in society should live on the same level. No privileges. No lording it over others.” Yet two pages earlier, Hallahan writes: “Samuel Adams was not seeking justice. He wanted power—the king’s power.” These statements are contradictory, and they’re both false.
On page 234, Hallahan declares, “Samuel Adams was not an innovator.” Yet just one page earlier he writes, “Samuel Adams had forged a new political weapon,” and on page 240 he goes back to stating, “Adams was the first man in history to learn how to brilliantly use newspapers as instruments of propaganda.” Does Hallahan bear such animus that he can’t grant that Adams was an innovator? And does he fear Adams’s newspaper essays enough to suggest that the British government should have attacked the free press (“Perhaps it is not too strong to say that the gravest mistake made by Crown authorities in the colonies was in not shutting down the newspapers” )?
The book’s most ridiculous accusation against Adams appears in the timeline entry for 1769: “Adams breaks into mansion of absent Bernard, finds his private papers, starts newspaper propaganda campaign” . Some of Gov. Bernard’s letters were indeed printed in Boston that year, but they had been leaked by people inside the government in London. Hallahan’s belief that Samuel Adams was a housebreaker is laughable.
I’ve already written about how Hallahan accuses Adams of arranging for some unknown individual to fire a gun as British troops marched onto Lexington Green so as to produce “a few dead farmers” and start the Revolutionary War. That accusation appears over and over in the book with increasingly incendiary rhetoric but not increasing evidence—no evidence at all, in fact.
It’s not a period term, but the best label I can think of for how The Day the American Revolution Began treats Samuel Adams is “swiftboating.”