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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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Samuel Adams and Slavery: The Private Man

Though Samuel Adams was cautious about pushing for the abolition of slavery as a politician, as I discussed yesterday, he seems to have been firm in his private behavior. At least, that’s how his descendant and biographer William V. Wells described him.

When Samuel remarried, his second wife Elizabeth was given an enslaved woman named Surry. He reportedly insisted that “A slave can not live in my house; if she comes she must be free.” It’s unclear whether the family formally freed Surry at that time; they were apparently still writing out emancipation papers many years later.

However, Adams’s letters showed that he cared about Surry as a member of his household. When he was in Philadelphia in 1775 and worried about his family getting out of British-occupied Boston, he remembered her in his letters to his wife:

  • 17 June: “I wish to hear that my Son and honest Surry were releasd from their Confinement in that Town.”
  • 28 June: “Let me know where good old Surry is.”
  • 30 July: “Tell Job and Surry that I do not forget them.”
Some authors say Samuel Adams was one of the few American founders who never owned a slave, but he and his wife did hold title to Surry for at least a while. In contrast, John and Abigail Adams and Alexander Hamilton never owned anyone else. The elderly Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush were active Abolitionists. But even if Samuel Adams didn’t push hard for the end of slavery in public, he seems to have practiced his values at home.

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