J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Stoll Speaks on Samuel Adams at B.P.L., 20 Nov

On Thursday, 20 November, Ira Stoll will speak at the Boston Public Library about his new book, Samuel Adams: A Life. This event starts at 6:00 P.M. in the Mezzanine Conference Room, and concludes with a book-signing.

Many critical accounts of Samuel Adams’s career say that his contribution to the American Revolution basically ended with the outbreak of war, or with independence at the latest. That writes off his continued service in the Continental Congress, his agonized and influential decision to back the new U.S. Constitution in 1788, and his terms as Massachusetts governor.

It’s therefore notable that Stoll starts his book with a preface (available courtesy of the publisher) about Adams’s speech to the Continental Congress in September 1777, more than a year after the Declaration of Independence. Washington has just lost the Battle of Brandywine, and the Congress has fled Philadelphia for York, Pennsylvania.

“If we despond, public confidence is destroyed, the people will no longer yield their support to a hopeless contest, and American liberty is no more,” Samuel Adams said in the voice John Adams described as clear and harmonious. “Through the darkness which shrouds our prospects the ark of safety is visible. Despondency becomes not the dignity of our cause, nor the character of those who are its supporters.”

He went on, comparing the American revolutionaries to the Israelites who had left the slavery of Egypt. According to Exodus, chapter 13, God had guided them in the wilderness with a “pillar of cloud by day” and a ”pillar of fire by night.” Samuel Adams addressed the delegates:
Let us awaken then, and evince a different spirit,—a spirit that shall inspire the people with confidence in themselves and in us,—a spirit that will encourage them to persevere in this glorious struggle, until their rights and liberties shall be established on a rock. We have proclaimed to the world our determination “to die freemen, rather than to live slaves.” We have appealed to Heaven for the justice of our cause, and in Heaven we have placed our trust. Numerous have been the manifestations of God’s providence in sustaining us. In the gloomy period of adversity, we have had ”our cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.” We have been reduced to distress, and the arm of Omnipotence has raised us up. Let us still rely in humble confidence on Him who is mighty to save. Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.
Some writers on America’s modern political right still fear Adams as a radical organizer, based in part on misunderstandings and misrepresentations in the early 1900s. Stoll, managing editor of the late New York Sun, represents a new approach to the man from the same side of our politics: he emphasizes the man’s conservative religious ideas. As the passage above shows, Adams had the “humble confidence” of a faithful zealot.


Anonymous said...

The title notes the talk is on 20 November but in the first paragraph you made it Thursday Nov 21. I can manage to spot this in someone elses writing but darned if I can find it in my own. I had the Westford spinners all confused last summer...

J. L. Bell said...

Quite right, and I’ve fixed it now. Part of the problem was rushing, and part was the voice in the back of my head wailing, “It’s late November already!”