In February, Brendan Steinhauser, an organizer for the FreedomWorks lobbying organization, posted advice on “How to Start Your Own Tea Party Protest,” and invited people to contact him at FreedomWorks for more advice. For some people, the result would be a spontaneous, grass-roots protest.
Steinhauser closed those postings with a picture of the torch-bearing mob of Springfield, apparently to show respect for populist politics, and what he claimed was a quotation from Samuel Adams:
It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.Steinhauser is far from alone in crediting those words to Samuel Adams. They appear on a variety of political websites, from both the left and the right, and in several titles on Google Books, all but one published in the last ten years. (The outlier is a study of Sudanese politics dated to 1990, of all things.) Among the books that include this Adams quotation is Bob Gingrich’s Founding Fathers Vs. History Revisionists, which makes what follows amusingly ironic.
One place that sentence about “an irate, tireless minority” doesn’t appear is in the published writings of Samuel Adams. In fact, my Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the term “brush fire” is dated 1850, decades after Adams’s death. Its first use of the phrase as a political metaphor is from 1947.
The quotation is not only inaccurate, but it misrepresents Adams’s political situation. He usually led the majority in Boston’s town meeting and in the Massachusetts legislature. He rarely needed to win the majority over to his principles; rather, his challenge was convincing people to follow his plans for action. Therefore, he called over and over for unity, resolve, and mutual sacrifice from the majority, not “an irate, tireless minority keen to set fires.”