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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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Who Was Behind Samuel Adams’s 1776 “Oration”?

Another reason to doubt that Samuel Adams actually wrote and delivered the oration credited to him by a London pamphlet of 1776 is that he wasn’t known as an orator.

For example, when the town of Boston commissioned annual orations from 1771 into the 1800s on the Fifth of March or the Fourth of July, Adams never took on the task of speaking. He attended, and even took the lead in thanking the orators, but he didn’t seek that spotlight.

One factor was that Adams suffered from what modern physicians have diagnosed as an essential tremor. This affected his speaking voice in unpredictable ways. His biographer William V. Wells wrote:
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. . .

To the end of his days he continued to wear garments in the style of the Revolution, which, added to his gravity of aspect and dignity of address, gave an impressiveness to his remarks, not lessened by a very clear and decisive manner of speaking, while the tremulousness of voice accorded with his veteran appearance.
Adams certainly did speak in town meetings and legislatures, but if Philadelphians wanted someone to orate about American liberty on 1 Aug 1776 (and there’s no evidence they really did) there were many other men in the Continental Congress better known for public speaking.

Rather than planned public orations, Adams expressed himself in writing through newspaper essays, government statements, and letters. Such publications made his name well known in Britain by 1776. Thus, British readers wouldn’t have been surprised to see an oration credited to Adams—but his friends in Boston were immediately skeptical.

Some scholars have hypothesized that the 1776 “Oration” was created by pro-Crown propagandists in London in an attempt to alarm their British citizens into believing that the Americans were aiming for independence.

If so, those authors missed a number of chances to highlight the danger or hypocrisy of the American cause. There’s no mention of slavery, for example. The pamphlet didn’t bring up attacks on Crown officials, loyal British subjects, or the provinces of Canada, even in the guise of justifying them.

And of course by the time an oration delivered on 1 Aug 1776 could reach London, the imperial capital already had news of the Congress declaring independence on 4 July. So telling the British public that the Americans wanted independence was old news.

Another possibility, which I’m leaning toward after reading the piece, is that it was actually written by a British supporter of America and of political reform—perhaps even republicanism—in Britain. By publishing those arguments in the voice of Adams, the author protected himself (or herself) from charges of sedition.

That’s why the pamphlet engages with European authors like Richard Price (shown above) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than with American issues. That’s why it has more to say about Parliament’s corruption than about the new American governments.

If Samuel Adams ever saw this pamphlet, he probably wasn’t upset by the words it put into his mouth. But he might have been puzzled by the choice of himself as a mouthpiece.

COMING UP: A Bostonian chuckles at this oration and other “fake news.”

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