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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Friday, May 23, 2008

Swiftboating Samuel Adams

Yesterday I listed a litany of factual errors in William H. Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began. Such misstatements and exaggerations pile up so badly when it comes to Samuel Adams that I suspect they reveal outright bias on the author’s part.

As a start, Hallahan ascribes practically every political development in greater Boston to Adams. If he mentions other Massachusetts organizers at all, they’re either nobly opposed to Adams’s methods or under his thumb. Often they disappear from their own stories. For example, it’s well established that James Otis, Jr., broke with the Crown in 1760 after Gov. Francis Bernard appointed Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice of the province instead of Otis’s father. Yet Hallahan calls that moment the “Start of bitter quarrel between Hutchinson and Sam Adams” [295]. Adams was a local political figure in that year; he wasn’t elected to the Massachusetts legislature until 1765.

As another example, the Suffolk Resolves were drafted by a committee of Whigs from inside and outside Boston in September 1774, with Dr. Joseph Warren usually credited as the principal writer. They followed a series of similar resolutions adopted by county meetings to the west. At the time, Adams was in Philadelphia. But Hallahan says those resolves were “written under Sam Adams’s direction” [300], and he had “prepared for dominating the Continental Congress with this document” [135].

Hallahan rarely passes up opportunities to denigrate Adams, even when there are no facts to back up such a judgment. In a timeline entry for 1768, he writes, “Sam Adams and Sons of Liberty fail to stop troops from landing as threatened, becomes [sic] laughingstock of the colonies” [298]. Adams had never threatened to stop the troops from landing; William Molineux did, and the evidence of even him becoming a “laughingstock” in thin indeed. For 1770: “Adams’s gang enforces nonimportation agreement. Many small businessmen bankrupted.” Molineux and Dr. Thomas Young are documented as leading the nonimportation protests, not Adams. And who were these “many small businessmen” who went bankrupt?

James M. O’Toole’s article “The Historical Interpretations of Samuel Adams,” published in the New England Quarterly in 1976, describes how other authors have fallen into similar errors. Biographies of Adams in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries portrayed him as behind everything good that happened in Boston during the Revolution. After that it wasn’t such a big leap, once Americans recognized that violence, disorder, and intimidation were also part of the resistance movement, to blame those on Adams as well. But he wasn’t in charge of everything, either good or bad. He was a leading voice in a mass movement, but there were other leaders, there were lots of people involved, and in life there are many events no one can control.

Part of the received wisdom about Adams is that he was vital for bringing on the Revolution, but had nothing to contribute after independence. Hallahan is only too happy to subscribe to that idea. It requires ignoring Adams’s admired service in the Congress through 1781 and in Massachusetts government for the rest of his life. Hallahan writes, “He fought bitterly against the new constitution, which he was as an intrusion on the rights of the states.” While Adams had doubts about the U.S. Constitution, he eventually voted to ratify it. The book never acknowledges Adams’s terms as Massachusetts governor.

When The Day the American Revolution Began characterizes Adams’s thinking and importance in history, Hallahan appears to be looking for ways to criticize the man, and his rhetoric gets tied up in knots. The result are head-scratchers like this:

Samuel Adams’s reputation was unequivocal. In his inner circle, among those who worked under his direction—and they included well-educated, intelligent idealistic men such as Dr. Joseph Warren—he was revered. Most people outside his own circle hated him, some with a murderous passion. He was well-known throughout the colonies, admired and emulated by some few but hated by many who regarded him as a waterfront thug, a manipulator, a political jobber, an intimidator, a blackmailer, a mob leader, a destroyer, and a newspaper propagandist of the worst sort. A criminal out of control, a terrorist and an outlaw. [99]
Aside from there being no evidence for Adams as “a waterfront thug,” “a political jobber,” or “a mob leader,” much less “a terrorist and an outlaw,” this rant makes no internal sense. If Adams was “revered” and “admired and emulated” by some people but “hated” by others, then his reputation couldn’t have been “unequivocal,” which means beyond questioning or doubt. Adams’s reputation was obviously mixed.

I find Hallahan’s other commentary on Adams to be so contradictory that it’s hard to see the rational thought behind it. Page 231 describes Adams this way: “A true democrat, he believed all people in society should live on the same level. No privileges. No lording it over others.” Yet two pages earlier, Hallahan writes: “Samuel Adams was not seeking justice. He wanted power—the king’s power.” These statements are contradictory, and they’re both false.

On page 234, Hallahan declares, “Samuel Adams was not an innovator.” Yet just one page earlier he writes, “Samuel Adams had forged a new political weapon,” and on page 240 he goes back to stating, “Adams was the first man in history to learn how to brilliantly use newspapers as instruments of propaganda.” Does Hallahan bear such animus that he can’t grant that Adams was an innovator? And does he fear Adams’s newspaper essays enough to suggest that the British government should have attacked the free press (“Perhaps it is not too strong to say that the gravest mistake made by Crown authorities in the colonies was in not shutting down the newspapers” [77])?

The book’s most ridiculous accusation against Adams appears in the timeline entry for 1769: “Adams breaks into mansion of absent Bernard, finds his private papers, starts newspaper propaganda campaign” [298]. Some of Gov. Bernard’s letters were indeed printed in Boston that year, but they had been leaked by people inside the government in London. Hallahan’s belief that Samuel Adams was a housebreaker is laughable.

I’ve already written about how Hallahan accuses Adams of arranging for some unknown individual to fire a gun as British troops marched onto Lexington Green so as to produce “a few dead farmers” and start the Revolutionary War. That accusation appears over and over in the book with increasingly incendiary rhetoric but not increasing evidence—no evidence at all, in fact.

It’s not a period term, but the best label I can think of for how The Day the American Revolution Began treats Samuel Adams is “swiftboating.”


Anonymous said...

Been meaning to send you this tidbit from the Boston Gazette April 3, 1775:

"In a few days to be Published, (Price Half a Dollar)
A fine Mezzotinto Print of that truly worthy Patriot S.A. the size of the Print 14 inches by 10 and half, Executed adn Published by and for Charles Reek and Samuel Okey, in Newport, Rhode Island, to whom Letters sent will be duly answered; and to be sold by Edes adn Gill, and James Foster Condy, in Boston."

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! Here’s an image of that mezzotint from an auction house. It looks like it was designed off of John S. Copley’s portrait of Adams, commissioned by John Hancock.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog, I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your insights in the Hallahan book. My fascination with the Revolutionary era is quite new so I'm still learning plenty and would easily fall prey to such carelessness.

As it is, I had Hallahan's book on my shelf to read in the near future. The idea of the book, as you mentioned, was very cool and fresh and convinced me to buy a copy I found at a used bookstore not too long ago. Making mistakes in research is one thing. Blatant bias and ignoring facts to "support" your bias is quite another. It's reckless and dangerous to "newer" students like myself.

So, thank you for the heads-up and I'll be avoiding this book now for sure. My consolation is that I got the book at a used book store, so my money spent on it won't be going to support such reckless work.

klkatz said...

would love to read more about Sam Adams from your perspective, considering your background and your specific focus on Boston.

enlighten us...


J. L. Bell said...

Clicking on the “Samuel Adams” links in postings or in the column on the right will bring up dozens of articles on different aspects of the man to skim through.

The one that summarizes my overall impression of Adams most clearly is probably one of the earliest. In essence, I think he has a lot of the qualities that lots of modern American political conservatives admire, which makes conservative authors’ wild criticism of the man so baffling and ironic.

Among those traits are aspects of Samuel Adams the politician that I don’t admire. He was a religious bigot, he tried to impose his values on other people’s private activities (no theater in Boston!), and he was not interested in reforming or ameliorating the traditional structure of society. Even his own admirers in the next generation felt he was a throwback to the Puritans.

While there’s no evidence that Adams led mobs, he minimized or excused their violence in some of his newspaper writings. Contrary to the common image of him as a propagandist, however, it’s rare to find falsehoods in those articles. He simply presented his side of the issues over and over, with every argument he could muster, and he refused any compromise with the friends of the royal government.