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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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation”

(I keep finding mid-nineteenth-century stuff about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, putting off my promised discussion of his youth in the Revolutionary period. But I’ll get to that topic eventually.)

In changing their form of government from a town to a city in 1822, Bostonians deprived political orators without office like Samuel Adams of a forum. (In fact, that might have been one goal of the change.) But he could still speak at other gatherings, or outdoors.

For decades Bostonians remembered Adams and some other town-meeting regulars. In fact, in 1842 he became internationally known with this stanza from the parodic “Rime of the Ancient Pedler” published in The Great Western Magazine in London:
And then burste out a thundering shout;
I thought the earth was quaking.
Such a clatter sounds in Funnell-Halle
When rat-trap Adams tries to bawle,
And the cits for funne immensely squalle,
Their sides with laughter shaking.
Ten years later, James Spear Loring published The Hundred Boston Orators, which profiled most of the town’s statesmen from the Revolutionary and Federalist periods. The Boston Transcript published a response by “A Friend of Neglected Genius,” claiming to make the case for two more well-known orators. That essay was reprinted in the 23 Oct 1852 Cambridge Chronicle, which has been digitized.

The “Friend” wrote:
A perfect book is an impossibility. It is not surprising, therefore, that the able and industrious Editor of “The Hundred Boston Orators” has overlooked two of our public speakers who have high claims on the admiration of posterity. He has exhumed from the grave of the past many orators whose efforts were forgotten in a month after delivery; but he has neglected to mention two gentlemen who during the last half century have often delighted the “solid men of Boston” with their exquisite fancy, and instructed them with their profound wisdom. As I write the names of William Emmons and Samuel Adams, (not the “Sam Adams” of revolutionary fame,) what a throng of recollections rise to my memory! I seem once more to hear the walls of Faneuil Hall echo with the stirring eloquence of the one, and to catch upon the breeze that floats across our beautiful Common the silver tones of the other. . . .

When the roguish boys in the streets impolitely shouted “There goes old Rat-trap Adams,” they unconsciously did reverence to that extraordinary force of logic which in his public efforts attracted and surrounded as with a net-work of iron, whosoever came within the sound of his voice. Like a rat within a trap, the auditor could find no escape. It was easy to enter within the magic circle of his oratorical power, but impossible to escape from its thraldom. . . .

the calm steady flow of Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation [suggested that he had]…fasted for a day and a night that his mind might be clear and calm. . . . the ponderous logic of Adams, like the two-handed sword of the Lion hearted Richard, crushed whatever came in its path. . . .

My memory runs back to the days of my boyhood when I sometimes had the privilege of enjoying the private discourse of Mr. Adams. In the moments which were not devoted to public affairs he indulged the mechanical turn of his mind so far as to amuse himself by manufacturing divers articles of wire-work. He had a peculiar fancy for making rat-traps of that material. One of these dangled as a sign in front of the shop in which, for the accommodation of his fellow-citizens, he caused the products of his skill to be vended. This shop was kept in the first story of his mansion, in Federal street, near Milk street; a building which has long since been razed to the ground. For the benefit of the youth who were partial to piscatory pursuits, Mr. Adams constantly kept an assortment of canepoles in his yard; and I well remember often visiting his establishment after school hours and negotiating for the purchase of a fishing-rod.

Upon such occasions the venerable man (for Mr. Adams has seen the snows of ninety winters) was wont to address us urchins on the political topics of the day. My comrades, as well as myself, were more fond of achieving some practical joke at the good man’s expense than at profiting by his lessons of wisdom; and I have never forgiven myself for the levity which prompted me one warm summer afternoon to place a piece of cobbler’s wax upon the chair, just as he was taking his favorite seat. The consequences, when he endeavored to rise with his subject, were exceedingly embarrassing to Mr. Adams; and his feelings were still further wounded by the personally facetious comments of my thoughtless companions.
Cobbler’s wax was notoriously sticky in that circumstance.

It’s striking that the “Friend” shared those reminiscences when Adams was still alive. He didn’t die until three years later. On 30 Mar 1855 William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator ran a small piece headed “Death of a Veteran.” It said of Adams:
He was a participant in the Boston scenes of the Revolution. He has always been a radical in his political ideas, and an atheist in his religion. Latterly he has been associated with Mrs. Abby Folsom, and his venerable form has been conspicuous in spiritual and other conventions. He was a skilful and industrious mechanic, says the Post.
Most Abolitionists didn’t see associating with Abby Folsom (c. 1792-1867, shown above in a political cartoon) as a plus. She had become notorious in the 1840s for interrupting gatherings, including church services, anti-slavery meetings, and public debates about the new Mormon church, with long, semi-coherent speeches followed by complaints that her freedom of speech was being abridged. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Josiah Quincy, and others thought she was damaging to the cause, as well as personally annoying. Even after trying to see past the entitlement of Victorian gentlemen, I can’t help but suspect that Folsom was a bit mad. According to Kathryn Griffith, Adams wanted Folsom to have his “Liberty Tree Flag.”

As for the “spiritual” conventions where Adams had lately been “conspicuous,” Spiritualism had spread from upstate New York alongside reform movements and other religious ideas. Adams’s interest suggests that he wasn’t really “atheist” but just not interested in any existing church.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams on Samuel Adams.


Nat Sheidley said...

Hi John,
Thanks for sharing your findings about Rat-Trap Adams. Our research this past summer led us at the Bostonian Society to many of the same conclusions: Adams was quite a character around town during his later years, known for his radical politics and his declamatory style when speaking about a wide range of subjects.
Not sure whether you've stumbled across it yet, but our favorite tidbit was that Adams appeared several years after his death to complain that he'd never received the pension to which he was entitled for his service in the War of 1812. The medium to which he appeared was kind enough to place a report in the leading spiritualist periodical, stating that Adams had visited and expressed concern about his family's well-being. He wouldn't be able to rest, apparently, until they received the support to which they were due. And in case anyone wondered what an avowed atheist was doing lingering about after his death, Adams explained that the only thing he'd been wrong about in his ninety-plus years was the existence of a hereafter.

-Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History, The Bostonian Society

J. L. Bell said...

That’s wonderful! I hadn‘t found that tidbit, but it fits right into what I’ve been tracking today, Adams’s repeated petitions for compensation from the Massachusetts legislature in the 1850s for services rendered back in the previous century. The man persevered!