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, January 26, 2015

Two Different Samuel Adamses

This is Samuel Adams. In 1773 he was fifty-one years old. His father had been a selectman, merchant, and church deacon. He had gone to Harvard College and earned a master’s degree. As a young man he had helped to found a short-lived newspaper, which honed his writing skills, and discovered that he had no interest or luck in business. He turned to the public sector.

As a collector of taxes for the town and province from 1756 to 1765, then one of Boston’s representatives in the Massachusetts General Court from 1765 on, Adams became the town’s leading political organizer. With the salary that came from being chosen Clerk of the House of Representatives and frugal living, Adams was one of the first Americans to support his family in genteel style as a full-time elected official.

Politically Adams was implacably opposed to new royal measures and the men appointed to carry them out, but more hotheaded colleagues like James Otis and Josiah Quincy trusted his judgment to keep them out of trouble.

Adams was a devout Congregationalist, known for his love of psalm-singing (and for recruiting young men to his political cause at psalm-singing practices). In 1749 he had married Elizabeth Checkley, daughter of his minister. She died in 1757, and in 1764 he had married again to Elizabeth Wells, who helped to raise the surviving children. By 1773 his son Samuel, Jr., had also graduated from Harvard College and was training to be a physician.

Samuel Adams had a striking physical trait, described this way in a biography written by a descendant:
Mr. Adams, from about middle life, was more or less affected with a constitutional tremulousness of voice and hand, peculiar to his family, which sometimes continued for several weeks together, and then disappeared for as long a time.
The Rev. William Gordon wrote of Adams confronting Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson after the Boston Massacre “with his hands trembling under a nervous complaint.” John Adams referred to his cousin’s “quivering, paralytic hands.” In recent years this condition was diagnosed as essential tremor.

This is a fictional character named Samuel Adams, who appears in the Sons of Liberty television entertainment. He shares a few traits with the historical figure. Both are white men living in Boston, both have worked as tax collectors, and both in their ways oppose the royal government.

As for that hand tremor, I definitely hope this character doesn’t have one if he’s carrying around two pistols like that.


T. Frantz said...

This is why I've been skeptical of this Sons of Liberty series. I'm all for modern interpretations of the founding period, but I can't stand when creators of these shows take far too many liberties to make things more exciting and appealing to broader audiences. Even Turn on AMC, which is likely far more historically accurate than SoL will be, cuts corners and fabricates stories to increase the 'drama'.

I'll always compare any Revolutionary era show/miniseries/movie to HBO's John Adams, which I just watched again for the umpteenth time this weekend. I'm sure there are liberties taken throughout that miniseries as well, but at least its mostly historically accurate both visually and with the overall storyline and dialog.

The producers of John Adams didn't need to artificially insert fiction to create drama, they were able to take the real events and reproduce them in an incredibly believable fashion.

Maybe I'm a realist when it comes to this subject, but I don't want the casual TV audience to be tricked into thinking our founding fathers were a bunch of pistol-wielding "badasses" and made to seem more like comic book figures than incredibly intelligent, forward-thinking individuals who all put their lives on the line for their beliefs.

(Side note: I wasn't able to view the first episode yet, however, from the previews I've watched, doesn't Dean Norris' Ben Franklin just seem like Hank from Breaking Bad wearing Colonial garb?)

Committee of Correspondence said...

This Committee on the 20th posted a small chronological picture and handwriting comparison of Samuel Adams from 1765 to 1792. Thank you for today’s post!

EJWitek said...

What has always struck me about this Copley portrait is that it hints of a middle-aged man with a once powerful physique under that coat. Adams has been described as a man of "average height" yet there is that incident in 1758 when it is alleged that he used physical intimidation to stop the Sherriff from auctioning off his father's estate.
I certainly agree that one wouldn't want to be around Samuel Adams when his trembling hands held a brace of pistols, but I don't think of him as a man who, on an occasion when he forgot his religious scruples, would be a liability in an altercation.

KTG said...

Thank you for keeping it real, and good point about the pistols!

Dr Dave said...

It needs to be emphasized that Adams was more a Puritan than even this recognizes. Converted in the great Awakening of 1741, he vowed to make New England a "Christian Sparta" and worked hard for his New England Israel to leave the Egyptian Egypt. The rebellion needs to be seen in the context of a cultural/religious antagonism that goes back to the original Puritan migration and before that to Luther. Adams' primary motivation was not economic as the series implies. The context is the Reformation war between Protestant Reformers and Ango-Catholics. Even the more secular Cousin John wrote, "If any gentleman supposes this controversy to be nothing to the present purpose, he is grossly mistaken... It excited a general and just apprehension that bishops, and diocese, and churches, and priests and tithes were to be imposed on us by Parliament.... if Parliament could tax us they could establish the Church of England, with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other churches as conventicles and schism shops."

Xathos said...

I think Samuel Adams' family should sue for defamation of character. Sons of Liberty is an utter abomination. I had to quit watching before I had a stroke. If anyone watches this trash and thinks it is history, they should sue for brain damage.

J. L. Bell said...

Come on, Jimmy, don't hold back! Tell us how you truly feel!

J. L. Bell said...

For Dr. Dave, I agree that the Congregationalist fear of an Anglican bishop and of Catholicism was a big factor in the Revolutionary movement of 1760s and early 1770s New England.

However, that religious fervor proved to be a problem for Samuel Adams and his colleagues at the First Continental Congress in 1774. Delegates from colonies outside New England, many of them Anglicans, were wary of the zeal of the Puritans' descendants. Adams had to take some visible steps to assure his new colleagues that he was open to Anglicans, and eventually to Catholics.

Boston's shift in a decade from a town with an annual anti-Catholic riot to one with a Catholic church is one of the remarkable stories of the Revolution.

J. L. Bell said...

For T. Frantz, I've written about many ways the John Adams miniseries tweaked the historical record for the sake of drama, or budget, or putting its hero on the scene of events. Nevertheless, it's definitely the most historically grounded of the three series we're discussing.

Daud Alzayer said...

Some highlights of episode 1:
-Multiple instances of "We're not British, we hate the king"
- Samuel Adams with Parkour skills that put Assassin's creed to shame!
- Sexual tension between Samuel Adams and Abigail Adams (the only woman who speaks)
- (unnamed) Crispus Attucks is the first black person on screen (you don't actually see him on screen till the bullet hits his head 1 minute before the credits roll.
-Sam Adams shows up for the Boston Massacre and personally bludgeons one of the soldiers!

Marc Shelikoff said...

The weapon manipulations and fluid movements of this version of Samuel Adams may be a sincere attempt by the filmmakers at a cinematic representation of the fictional character of Connor from the video game Assassins Creed 3.

Charles Bahne said...

Is there a link for the "small chronological picture and handwriting comparison of Samuel Adams from 1765 to 1792" mentioned above by the "Committee of Correspondence"? It sounds like an interesting post and I'd like to see it!

John Q. said...

I watched Episode 1 out of curiosity and almost stopped when I saw hunky Sam Adams lol. However, I was modestly intrigued by the portrayal of John Hancock. The end of Ep. 1 left me speechless, however, when Sam Adams bludgeons a British soldier (who has inexplicably been left behind by his fellow soldiers). Episode 2 was more of the same, but even more outrageous as we see Paul Revere morph into Chuck Norris when he is captured by the British patrol. Revere kills one outright and manages to dispatch at least 3 more before leaping into the saddle and escaping. Nothing like the reality where he tells them everything he knows, presumably to frighten them but treading perilously close to cowardice. Lastly, Lexington, where literally everything is fictitious and just downright hilarious. I won't bother with even a moment of Ep. 3.

Unknown said...

The History Channel has re-written (badly) American history with its production of Sons of Liberty. The highly inaccurate story-line and outrageous characterizations of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Adams, Thomas Gage, George Washington, and Joseph Warren make this piece of fiction truly unbearable to watch.
With so many exciting and accurate books on the subject of the beginnings of the American Revolution, why did your producers allow your writers to construct such absolute hog-wash.
I hope the HC never shows this trash again.

Dr Dave said...

The third episode was the worst for historical accuracy. What happened to the rude bridge that arched the flood? Even from a TV angle, the optics of the bridge fight would have been better than a fight around a farmhouse. They didnt even get the date of the declaration right, placing the vote on July 4 instead of the second. But the worst from my perspective was the declaration that Sam Adams was the one man with no agenda, rather than the latter day Cromwell panting to die once again for the "good old cause."

justjane said...

@Committee of Correspondence, I would like to see this comparison, if at all possible? Also, to all commenters, Thank you.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the comparison that "Committee of Correspondence" mentioned is to be seen on the Committee's Facebook page.

Charles Bahne said...

Is there a link to it for those of us who don't use Facebook?

J. L. Bell said...

I do use Facebook, but its workings remain a great mystery to me, and I couldn't glean a specific link from my program. Anyone know the trick?