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.

Follow by Email


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Samuel Adams: the blog response

I've complained about how many authors have painted a distorted picture of Samuel Adams, squeezing a Puritan gentleman politician of the late 1700s into the mold of a radical street organizer of the late 1800s. At least Buckeye Hamburger at the Daily Kos noticed.

On the other hand, the flame-broiled one repeats the "Adams was the most radical" picture, with approval instead of regret:

Among the Founding Fathers, none of whom was a slouch when it came to patriotic passion, Adams was undoubtedly the most radical, uncompromising and inflammatory.
I'd score that as one out of three. Adams was indeed loath to compromise on his principles and his conviction that the London ministry and its appointees were up to no good.

But Adams's political program wasn't as radical as that of Dr. Thomas Young, who was a deist and perhaps even a democrat. Active in Boston from 1768 to 1774, Young actually thought it would be a good idea to build spectator galleries in legislatures so that people could watch their laws being made and voice their own ideas. Imagine! Adams's program was basically conservative: returning to when Massachusetts men largely governed themselves with a lot of guidance from their Congregationalist traditions.

Nor was Adams the most inflammatory in his rhetoric of the Massachusetts Whigs. James Otis, Jr., allowed Adams—and only Adams—to hold him back in the legislature and edit his newspaper essays because he knew he could get carried way. (And eventually he was—straitjacketed in a coach, reportedly.)

Also more inflammatory than Adams was Dr. Joseph Warren, whose modern biographer John Cary has written:
In comparison with other contemporaries such as Samuel Adams,…Warren’s style is more personal, bombastic, and emotional. He uses the personal pronoun "I" more frequently and an inordinate number of imperative sentences charging the people to action. . . . A striking contrast to Warren’s style is that of Samuel Adams, whose writings are easily identifiable by his extraordinary number of long sentences and extensive use of the semicolon.
Long sentences and semicolons are hardly the hallmark of incendiary prose.

Dr. Warren was one of the Boston Whigs who came closest to being charged with a crime for his political writings. (Adams was never in that danger.) In the 29 Feb 1768 Boston Gazette he published a letter that ended:
We never can treat good and patriotic rulers with too great reverence. But it is certain that men totally abandoned to wickedness can never merit our regard, be their stations ever so high.

"If such men are by God appointed, The Devil may be the Lord's anointed."

Gov. Francis Bernard and Chief Justice/Lt.-Gov. Thomas Hutchinson tried to get a grand jury to indict Warren for libel, but the locals refused.

After he became governor himself, Hutchinson tried the same tactic against Joseph Greenleaf, a country magistrate who had moved to Boston and become a partner of printer Isaiah Thomas. Again, the grand jury resisted, and Hutchinson dropped the case.

Those examples provide a parallel to today's events worthy of the Daily Kos. The White House and Republicans in Congress, smarting from criticism, have accused newspaper publishers of "treason." In pre-Revolutionary Boston royal appointees opposed political opinions, but today's authorities object to accurate accounts of our government's controversial activities overseas. Those officials claim that they're upset to see information about tracking international finances made public—which seems odd since they've boasted about such efforts for years. And, of course, have disclosed even more tightly classified information.

Could it be that there's an election coming up in the U.S. of A.? And whom do we have to thank for those elections? Men like Adams, Young, Otis, Warren, and Greenleaf.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response and for the fascinating history, and I happily stand corrected. I had thought that maybe I should have said "one of the most" instead of "undoubtedly the most" in that passage, and now I see that it would have been better.

I'm curious about what you think of the rest of the blog about Adams. The lesson for the present, I think, is that those who speak out with the moral conviction and passion that is appropriate to the severity of the times are likely to be scorned as excessive and irrelevant, but they shouldn't let that discourage them. We see that today in the attempt to marginalize bloggers as hysterical and profane. And, unfortunately, it drives the fear of many contemporary political leaders who are too timid to act as forthrightly as Sam Adams did.

Anonymous said...

Regarding "contemporary political leaders too timid to act as forthrightly as Samuel Adams did". I attended an emergency "Towne Meeting" in Waltham MA this spring whose topic was torture of foreign nationals and other crimes by the current US Administration. This meeting was hosted by the ACLU with U.S Congressman Marty Meehan as the keynote speaker. Meehan took a lot of heat from outraged townsmen over politicians (including himself) for not speaking up and acting forcefully enough. Meehan responded that he did speak out forcefully after 911 and was so harassed by the local and national press that it endangered his political career! He commented that they (politicians) really had to be careful about what they say. So even for a true born Son of Liberty like Meehan getting reelected is more important.

J. L. Bell said...

As I recall, in fall 2001 Meehan took the bold step of saying that the White House line about why George W. Bush had to be flown to Louisiana was hard to believe.

Friendly journalists like the NY Times's William Safire relayed claims that there were reasons to believe that the kamikaze hijackers had targeted Air Force One. Meehan and a couple of other public figures pointed out that compared to flying into a big building like the Capitol or Pentagon, attacking a jumbo jet was much harder--nigh impossible.

Meehan's office and the others' were deluged with angry phone calls. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were making the decision to go after Iraq.