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, September 13, 2006

Samuel Adams: voice of moderation

Yesterday's post about James Otis, Jr., put me in mind of his relationship with Samuel Adams, his successor as the principal voice of the Boston Whigs and the prime "incendiary" to friends of the royal government.

Among my peeved complaints about the way many historians have treated Adams is they paint him as the most extreme radical in Boston, a congenital troublemaker. In fact, Adams was often a moderating force; he kept his eye on the big goal in the distance, and kept his tongue while less temperate men like Otis and William Molineux said things they later regretted.

Otis and Adams served several terms alongside each other in the Massachusetts General Court, or provincial assembly. In 1860, Andrew H. Ward wrote that Otis once

declared from his seat, that he would not allow any member of the House to call him to order, save——SAMUEL ADAMS.

Such was the compliment paid by the more eloquent to the more sagacious Patriot. Thereafter Mr. Adams took a seat behind Mr. Otis, which he continued to occupy; and whenever he thought him getting upon too high a key, privately and gently pulled his coat tail, by way of a friendly caution, which, like an electric rod, quietly disarmed the rising tempest of its fearful power.
Andrew stated, "The above anecdote was related to me some fifty years since by Joshua Henshaw, Esq., who was Registrar of Deeds for the country of Suffolk previous to the Revolution.” It appeared in volume 14 of the New England Historical & Genealogical Register.

Otis also trusted Adams as an editor. (And having been one myself, I take that as the highest praise.) About the General Court's Circular Letter of 1768 and other public correspondence, Otis reportedly told a friend, “I have written them all, and handed them over to Sam, to quieuvicue them.”

Another Patriot lawyer who trusted Adams the same way was Josiah Quincy, Jr.; on some manuscripts of his newspaper essays is this line to the printers: “Let Samuel Adams Esq. correct the press.”

Obviously, Otis and Quincy didn't fear that Adams would insert language that would get them in trouble. You wouldn't know that from the way some modern writers go on.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating blogs on Samuel Adams and his reputation as a scoundrel.

I have read S. Adams' writings by Henry Alonzo Cushing, as well as a large sample of writings from about 70 other founders. I think it is quite interesting that the last generation of historians have focused heavily on publishing thought from Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and Washington, and ignored just about everyone else -- and have ignored just about everyone else, including Sam Adams, John Dickinson, Richard Henry Lee, Roger Sherman, George Mason, James Wilson, Charles Carroll, and numerous others whose writings were available a century ago, but are becoming increasingly harder to find. Why would someone publish Fisher Ames' works over those of S. Adams or R. H. Lee?

In "Spur of Fame," John Adams and Benjamin Rush have an insightful discussion of this very issue; Washington, Hamilton and Ames were canonized while S. Adams, Hancock and Otis were entirely ignored.

In reality it goes much further than that. The first generation of founders -- S. Adams, Dickinson and R. H. Lee -- are labeled as "radicals" because they were anti-establishment protestors. Hamilton, Madison and even Jefferson -- despite the occasional watering-the-tree-of-liberty-with-the-blood-of-tyrants-rhetoric -- were establishment figures, who promoted the Constitution and establishment of a strong national government. Even where the rhetoric favors libertarianism, the reality is that Jefferson ignored those principles to buy Louisiana or promote science and education.

Hence, the rhetoric of the Revolution has been distilled to "no taxation without representation" because it fits in nicely with the "taxed enough already" conservative viewpoint of the gentile historians of the 19th century or the political commentators of 20th/21st. The notion that the Revolution was *really* motivated by the repression of protest, in particularly the elimination of jury trials and other legal rights, so often discussed by S. Adams, is ignored because it doesn't fit in with a view of "victims rights" as opposed to "criminal rights".

Ergo, the old protestors, become the sacrificial radicals that no one wants to really talk about, except to the extent that it supports the establishment interpretation of the Revolution, Constitution, and Federal periods, that is, no taxation, limited government, and so forth.

BTW, for those that are interested, plain text versions of vol. 2, 3, and 4 of Samuel Adams writings are available here:


J. L. Bell said...

Google Book also offers the chance to search or download PDFs of the four volumes of the Writings of Samuel Adams. Since they were published in 1908, these books are in the public domain.

Pauline Maier's The Old Revolutionaries is an interesting set of profiles of the older generation of politicians, many of whom didn't end up in the federal government after 1789 because they were either dead, too old, or distrustful of the new structure.

There's also been more respect from scholars in recent years for anti-Federalists, whose ranks included Adams, Mason, and Lee.

But the bulk of the popular attention still goes, as you say, to the men who were involved in two or more of these three efforts: the Revolution, the creation of the federal government, and the running of the federal government in its first decades.

To work on one enterprise but on neither of the others seems to leave a "founder" in the second rank, however important he was to that one enterprise.

As for "Why would someone publish Fisher Ames' works over those of S. Adams or R. H. Lee?" I think it's important to note that the editor of the two-volumes Works of Fisher Ames had the last name of Ames.