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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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wire-Worker Adams at Boston’s Last Town Meetings

The wire-worker Samuel Adams was a prominent character in nineteenth-century Boston, as Kathryn Griffith described in her recent profile for the Bostonian Society.

He started the century as town crier before going into the business of manufacturing screens and other wire objects. Later he became an indefatigable voice on the political left.

In 1884 James Mascarene Hubbard delivered a paper to the Bostonian Society about Boston’s transition from town to city in the early 1820s. His description of a town meeting in Faneuil Hall over the turn of the year 1822 offers glimpses of this Samuel Adams, as filtered through the Daily Advertiser:
[On whether to relabel Boston as a city.] Finally a hearing was obtained for Mr. Samuel Adams, wire-worker, that is, a maker of rat-traps, and late town-crier, who made a characteristic speech amid malicious “cries of Louder” although the orator appeared to labor excessively at his lungs. His opening words were, “Fellow citizens, you must consider me as on the brink of an eternal world,“ [Adams was then in his early sixties, but he would live three more decades] and the burden of his speech was, “Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.” Later on in the debate, which from this time took a more serious turn, he “rose and moved that the word ‘Boston’ be added to the word ‘city,’” to the great merriment of the assembly. . . .

[On what to call the new city’s top official.] Mr. Adams made a fresh appearance in the character of a New England Dogberry. “He was opposed to the term Mayor. A mare is a horse, and he had as lief be called a horse or an ass as a mare. He preferred the name President. There was dignity in the sound. He should count it an honor to be called President, but had he the wisdom of Solomon and the riches of the East, he would not accept the office to be called a Mare.” . . .

[On whether to hold elections in the neighborhoods or at Faneuil Hall.] As the irrepressible Adams puts it: “Many persons can’t attend here. For instance a journeyman who is in your employ. They feel so delicate in your employ, they are afraid of offending you. They are the sinners [sinews] of the State.” . . .

On the clause authorizing the City Council to sell or lease the property of the city,…Mr. Adams [was heard] to say, among other things, that “a new set of men might get together under the capacity of selling city property.” . . .

Our final quotation shall be from a speech by Mr. Adams, whose office as Town-crier seems to have given him a power and persistence of lungs which no cries of “Question” could overcome. “I would examine the act,” he exclaimed; “Like David of old, I would not give sleep to my eyes nor slumber to my eyelids until I had pondered it well. I have done it, have lain awake all night ruminating on these here things.”
Hubbard suggested that Adams belonged in a group he called ”mushroom town-meeting orators, and weak heads.” He showed more respect for upper-class figures, including such men as Benjamin Russell, William Tudor, James T. Austin, future mayor Josiah Quincy, and S. A. Wells, descendant and biographer of the other Samuel Adams.

Boston’s business elite had been pushing to incorporate the town as a city like New York since the early 1700s. The populace had long pushed back, preferring the town-meeting form of government, which didn’t turn over power to just a few elected men.

Wire-worker Adams appears to have been suspicious about concentrating power, to judge by his support for neighborhood elections and poorly expressed worry about a conspiracy to sell public property. But he also seems to have been fairly resigned to the change. Boston had grown to more than 40,000 people, nearly three times its size when he was a boy, and a city charter may have seemed necessary.

Ironically, by 1835 the term “wire-worker“ became a synonym for “wire-puller”—someone who manipulated politics or government from behind the scenes. Samuel Adams was a real wire-worker, and he never seems to have held significant power, despite all his efforts.

TOMORROW: What did this Samuel Adams do in the Revolution?

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