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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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Samuel Adams: beyond the caricature, part 3

Here's more about Samuel Adams and how he's been caricatured by some historians (as I've discussed previously here and here). This passage is from John Richard Alden's General Gage in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1948). Page 110, if you want to be nosy about it.

In May, 1764, under the inspiration of Samuel Adams, a Boston town meeting—Boston town meetings meant nothing but trouble from that time until firing began at Lexington—boldly set forth the doctrine "no taxation without representation." "If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representative where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable status of tributary slaves?" Of course, Samuel Adams, having dissipated a rather considerable property inherited from his father, could not suffer very much directly because of taxes levied by Parliament. But the public business had become his private business, and he was contending for a principle. Like most men contending solely for a principle he was distinctly a "trouble-maker."

This Adams character sounds like a terrible man indeed! But when we peel back Alden's rhetoric and look at his evidence and logic, a different picture emerges.

Why were Boston town meetings "nothing but trouble"? Because, apparently, they were forums for objecting to "taxation without representation" and other Crown policies. Alden's criticism of those meetings seems to rest on rejecting the idea that people should have a say in how they're taxed and governed.

Why was Adams "distinctly a 'trouble-maker'"? Because he was "contending for a principle." Indeed, Alden gives us an example of how Adams's principles tripped up Gen. Gage on page 209:
An attempt made by the general shortly after the dismissal of the legislature to bribe Samuel Adams was not merely a failure—it was a farce. Adams received the offer of pelf, made through one Colonel Fenton, with outraged virtue and lofty indignation.
(This statement is based only on a story that Adams's daughter told in 1818, but Alden was happy to accept it for his argument.) So Adams was a "trouble-maker" because he refused bribes and otherwise couldn't be swayed from his guiding principle. A principled proponent of self-government—how troubling!

And let's consider the phrase "dissipated a rather considerable property." Authors usually use the word "dissipated" to imply disapproval. Adams did indeed inherit businesses from his father, didn't run them well, and apparently sold them off when he went into politics. His interests, it appears, lay elsewhere. But Adams was hardly known for living luxuriously or spending rashly. According to one tale from the time, wealthy Whig merchants banded together secretly in 1774 to buy him new clothes so that he'd make a respectable show at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Furthermore, when we look again at Alden's sentence, we realize he's saying that Adams's politics were not driven by his own self-interest. Usually, that's a good thing.

Let's imagine this passage with the same facts but written in pro-Adams rhetoric:
In May, 1764, with Samuel Adams presiding, a Boston town meeting—Boston town meetings consistently opposed new Crown revenue laws up to the first shots at Lexington—boldly set forth the doctrine "no taxation without representation." "If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representative where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable status of tributary slaves?" Adams did not promote this doctrine for personal gain since he had little wealth left from his father's estate and had chosen politics instead of private business. He was contending for a principle. Like most people driven by principle, Adams meant trouble for governors who expected bribes and positions to sway ambitious men to their side.
I'm not saying that paragraph paints a complete image of Samuel Adams. But it doesn't put me on the side of taxation without representation and bribery.


Kevin said...

Just wanted to say that you've got a dynamite blog and I love the focus. I placed a link on my site at www.civilwarmemory.typepad.com

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog about the period that interests me most. I must point out that the last commentor has just the opposite stle as Kevin is a provider of misinformation regarding the Civil War. He really goes to far in his anti-southern bias.

J. L. Bell said...

I disagree with this anonymous criticism of Kevin Levin and his Civil War Memory blog.

I think that blog provides solid information and, even more important, clear-eyed analysis about a period of American history that still raises emotions.

With any charge of bias it's important to consider the perspective and evidence that accompany the complaint. Alas, that is impossible when a complaint is made with no name and no evidence.

Anonymous said...

JL, glad that you asked for specifics if you didn't see the obvious anti-southern bias in Kevin's blog. Basically, Kevin doesn't take a broad enough view of slavery in America or the rest of the world to put assumptions regarding the Civil War into historical perspective.

Kevin consistently denies any northern complicity in the slavery and racism. In addition, his views show no balance between commemorating soldiers who died in the conflict. Kevin does not allow for allow dialogue for those who disagree with his views. Lastly, Kevin would rather perpetuate fictional regional views of racial disharmony for political reasons that would denigrate the physical and cognitive landscape of the South.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't see any evidence to substantiate your anonymous complaints about Civil War Memory.

You claim to offer "specifics" of your unsigned complaint, but your comment is nothing but generalities and subjective judgments.

You state that Kevin M. Levin "does not allow for allow dialogue for those who disagree with his views." His blog contains a comments feature to which he responds, he engages in discussion with other bloggers, and the very nature of a blog on the internet means it contributes to a dialogue.

I believe Civil War Memory does a much better job of inviting dialogue than posting anonymous complaints about it on other websites, as you have done.

J. L. Bell said...

The anonymous person posting above has just acknowledged to me that his name is Jim. That was not a surprise since Jim/Anonymous has posted the same criticism about Civil War Memory on many other blogs over the past several months, in language that ranged from accusatory to personally insulting.

On 20 Aug 2007, Jim posted the following to Civil War Memory itself:

“I've taken every opportunity to warn readers of your anti-southern bias, but now realize that this has been unfair to you. . . . I even went back through your blog and found a number of posts on race in the North.

“Please except [sic] my apologies.”

Within four days after posting that apology, however, Jim had returned to criticizing Civil War Memory and left his first posting at this site. His comments displayed the same language and lack of evidence as before, but this time he posted them under the cover of anonymity.

Jim’s last comment on this page was a claim that, among other things, “0% [of the postings on Civil War Memory] addresses north racism or slavery.” That contradicts his own statement and apology quoted above.

It’s clear that this person’s comments are not based on fact or on rational thinking. No more of them will appear on this blog.