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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Monday, May 04, 2009

Samuel Adams and “Brush Fires in People’s Minds”

In February, Brendan Steinhauser, an organizer for the FreedomWorks lobbying organization, posted advice on “How to Start Your Own Tea Party Protest,” and invited people to contact him at FreedomWorks for more advice. For some people, the result would be a spontaneous, grass-roots protest.

Steinhauser closed those postings with a picture of the torch-bearing mob of Springfield, apparently to show respect for populist politics, and what he claimed was a quotation from Samuel Adams:

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.
Steinhauser is far from alone in crediting those words to Samuel Adams. They appear on a variety of political websites, from both the left and the right, and in several titles on Google Books, all but one published in the last ten years. (The outlier is a study of Sudanese politics dated to 1990, of all things.) Among the books that include this Adams quotation is Bob Gingrich’s Founding Fathers Vs. History Revisionists, which makes what follows amusingly ironic.

One place that sentence about “an irate, tireless minority” doesn’t appear is in the published writings of Samuel Adams. In fact, my Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the term “brush fire” is dated 1850, decades after Adams’s death. Its first use of the phrase as a political metaphor is from 1947.

The quotation is not only inaccurate, but it misrepresents Adams’s political situation. He usually led the majority in Boston’s town meeting and in the Massachusetts legislature. He rarely needed to win the majority over to his principles; rather, his challenge was convincing people to follow his plans for action. Therefore, he called over and over for unity, resolve, and mutual sacrifice from the majority, not “an irate, tireless minority keen to set fires.”


Charles Bahne said...

Given the terrible, terrible experience that Boston (and every other urban settlement of the 18th century) had with fires, it is utterly unthinkable that Samuel Adams, or any other political theorist of his day, would even consider using the term "setting fires" as a metaphor for any kind of non-criminal activity. An arsonist would rank next to a murderer in their society's view of the world's miscreants.

Bob said...

Something in my linguistic intuition also hooked onto the word "irate" in this quotation, so I looked it up. According to my microprint OED, the first use of the word "irate" comes from 1838. (The word "ire" is of course much older.) Is it possible there are earlier uses, in America in particular? Certainly. But this is another bit of evidence suggesting a post-Adams origin. (Of course Sam Adams, canny politician that he was, would probably be the first to laugh at us pedants for caring where a politically-effective phrase actually came from.)

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, Charlie, the most famous uses of fire imagery in Revolutionary Boston’s politics are negative: Thomas Hutchinson calling James Otis, Jr., “our great incendiary,” for example, and Crown loyalists saying Otis had threatened to “set the province in flames, though he perished in the fire.”

Thanks, RJO, for the “irate” comment!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I've come late to this discussion. Just happened to find you as I was looking up the brush fire quote. I too am an historical writer specializing in the American Revolution in Boston. Mr. Bahne is in error. A brush fire is one that happens in a dry field, nothing to do with arsen or houses on fire.
Samuel Adams is responsible for the brush fire oft quoted statement. And he spent tireless hours convincing the people of Boston to participate in the tea boycott and other forms of protest. Shop owners who had signed a boycott agreement, were still selling tea under the table. That's not the picture of a very committed majority. It took an unusual zeal for Samuel Adams to put himself in deep water with the royal authorities, to let his business come to ruin, and to spend many hours away from his family, all to convince the people of Boston they should care about the economic tyranny facing them. There was a period when he felt alone in his fight (1770-1172) during which John Hancock and he were not even speaking. That's not the picture of a majority who were gung-ho for Adams' ideas on liberty, especially ones that required acts of civil disobedience. And then there were the loyalists who made his life a living hell, especially Thomas Hutchinson, who became governor during the most critical years. He despised Samuel Adams and made it his mission in life to destroy Adams' Sons of Liberty and the cause of liberty.

I was hoping to find a fellow historian of like mind about Samuel Adams, but sadly, at least on this particular post, found we have opposing views.

All the best to you with your blog and other writings.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for your comment. It’s missing the thing that matters, though: a citation from Samuel Adams’s writings for this particular quotation.

As I pointed out, those words don’t appear in Adams’s published writings. In fact, some of the words aren’t documented until after Adams had been dead for decades. Presently the earliest appearance found by Google Books is the journal of the main Holocaust-denial organization in 2000.

So please share the evidence that leads you to say, “Samuel Adams is responsible for the brush fire oft quoted statement.” Without that, your other thoughts on Adams are subject to doubt.

David M Chaney said...

Interesting find. Thank you. Do you have links to any scholarly analysis of this John Adams letter that gave rise to the mis-quote? I'm looking for the actual letter and haven't located at least a web version yet. May take a trip to the library.

Here is an interesting excerpt related to some equating a "minority" being in support of the American Revolution, itself:

"With the beginning of the American Revolutionary War at the outbreak of Lexington and Concord, two truths about the Revolution already stand out clearly. One is that the Revolution was genuinely and enthusiastically supported by the great majority of the American population. It was a true people's war against British rule... the American rebels could certainly not have concluded the first successful war of national liberation in history, a war against the world's greatest naval and military power, unless they had commanded the support of the American people. As David Ramsay, the first great historian of the American Revolution, put it in 1789, 'The war was the people's war... the exertions of the army would have been insufficient to effect the revolution, unless the great body of the people had been prepared for it, and also kept in constant disposition to oppose Great Britain."(1)

An interesting footnote related to the former:

"Professor Alden has shown tha the myth of present-day historians that only one-third of the American public backed the Revolution, with an equal number opposed, stems from a misreading of a letter by John Adams. (John R. Alden, The American Revolution, 1775-1783 [New York: Harper and Row, 1954]. p. 87). Historians of such disparate views as Robert E. Brown and Herbert Aptheker now support the view that the Revolution was a majority movement. Thus, see Brown, Middle Class Democracy, passim, and Aptheker, The American Revolution, 1763-1783 (New York: International Publishers, 1960), pp. 52ff.

(1) "Conceived in Liberty, Part VII--Prelude to Revolution, 1770-1775", "The Revolutionary Movement: Ideology and Motivation", Murray N. Rothbard, (Arlington House Publishers, 1979), p. 1114).

J. L. Bell said...

I believe you're thinking of a passage from a John Adams letter often quoted to suggest a third of the American population was neutral about the Revolution and a third supported the Crown. I quoted that letter here and analyzed Adams’s remarks further the next couple of days.

Adams wrote that letter late in life, so it hasn’t yet been published in the current edition of his Papers. But it was in the first edition of those Papers, edited by his grandson.

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Unknown said...

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