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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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Samuel Adams, Riches, and Poverty

Yesterday’s Boston Globe included an opinion essay by Ira Stoll, most recent biographer of Samuel Adams, on the man’s relevance to our times. Ira was editor at the late New York Sun and, like Adams, is using the power of opinion journalism to catch public attention. This essay has the theme of living frugally.

Here are a couple of relevant observations from the diary of Adams’s second cousin John Adams, starting with 27 June 1770:

Took an Airing in the Chaise with my [metaphorical] Brother Sam. Adams, who returned and dined with me. He says he never looked forward in his Life, never planned, laid a scheme, or formed a design of laying up any Thing for himself or others after him.

I told him, I could not say that of myself, if that had been true of me, you would never have seen my Face—and I think this was true. I was necessitated to ponder in my Youth, to consider of Ways and Means of raising a Subsistence, food and Rayment, and Books and Money to pay for my Education to the Bar. So that I must have sunk into total Contempt and Obscurity, if not perished for Want, if I had not planned for futurity.Link
A couple of years later, on 30 Dec 1772, John Adams was a little more cranky about life, and perhaps even about the cousin he admired:
He affects to despize Riches, and not to dread Poverty. But no Man is more ambitious of entertaining his Friends handsomely, or of making a decent, an elegant Appearance than he. He has lately new covered and glased his House and painted it, very neatly, and has new papered, painted and furnished his Rooms. So that you visit at a very genteel House and are very politely received and entertained.
However, part of being an eighteenth-century gentleman was putting on the proper appearance for other eighteenth-century gentlemen. So John Adams’s remarks about Samuel’s wish to make a decent appearance for his friends was in many ways a compliment.


A Staunch Whig said...

Another take on being poor but dressing above ones means can be found in the book "Radicalism of the American Revolution" by Woods. Here the case is made that after the Revolution, a leveling effect had resulted from taking the equality of all men to its furthest possible interpretations, raising servents to not respect their masters, poor to fight for upward mobility instead of accepting their lot, etc. We transitioned to a consumer society, as printed money became common (replacing the more common bartering), and even the poor were striving to buy the finer things in life for the first time. Yet, rich without having earned or worked hard to get there was still associated with aristocracy and the old Mother Country, so it became fashionable really to be both poor or at least "unrich", yet dress as if anyone was no a gentleman.

A Staunch Whig said...

typo on line above: "dress as if anyone was a gentlemen"