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Describing the context in which Samuel Adams lived is not an easy thing to do, mainly because he had such a huge and profound effect on the era and location that he lived in. He lived through, and had a large impression on all the events that led up to the separation from Britain, along with surviving the war or independence, and ultimately served as the governor of a very important state in the young nation in which he lived. As his second cousin John Adams once said "Without him, in my opinion, American Independence could not have been declared in 1776"
One of the key trading ports back then was Boston, and that is where Sam Adams grew up. Founded barely a century before my the puritans, under the watchful eye on John Winthrop, the area still resonated with many of its puritan roots. However, the city was also growing fast, full of merchants, artisans and traders, and much of the early life of Massachusetts was faced with constant attacks from the French and Indians, which resulted in the French and Indian War from 1754-1763.
Then from 1765 and the Stamp Act until the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Sam Adams became at the forefront of political moves against Great Britain whenever the colonies were feeling threatened. The rebellion that Sam Adams and other Bostonians imposed upon Great Britain was a turning point in American History, and if not for this founding father, God knows where our country, culture, or government would be to this day.
The next decade marked a series of battles and confrontations against England and the colonies, led by Sam Adams and the Son of Liberty. At first, the writs of assistance, which basically meant that custom agents could be given bigger and better searching powers, then turned into the Sugar Act, which raised taxes for all the colonies. As Fowler states "Driven by a sense of covenant, he believed that the people of his community were bound to one another through a common history and reverence for virtue and simplicity. It was, he believed, his duty, and that of the men and women who shared his vision, to preserve this society. When the forces of king and Parliament threatened to destroy the world, Samuel Adams rebelled" (Fowler xi).
I think another crucial reason why Adams acted the way he did, was because he was going through many tough personal family problems.
The death of Deacon Samuel Adams, and the death of three of his children, two sons and one daughter, with his wife Elizabeth I'm sure made him a bit more edgy and violent. "For Samuel Adams, private grief had shattered any comfort in tranquility" (Fowler pg. 36)
Adams was against the Stamp Act from the beginning, unlike many of his comrades. His puritan belief had a lot to do with his rebellion against this because puritans believe that God has supreme authority over human affairs, particularly in the church, and especially as expressed in the bible.
Because Adams was a puritan, I'm sure he felt that he must pursue moral purity to the smallest detail, and Acts like the Stamp Act, and the Boston Massacre, which were looked at as tyrannical towards the colonies, he looked at as quite unmoral. Adams puritan beliefs also included the ideas that education and enlightenment towards the masses were very necessary, and Acts like the Stamp Act that undermine what the society your in is trying to accomplish is why Samuel Adams needed to take action.
The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Act of 1767 angered colonists regarding British decisions on taxing the colonies with no representation in the Westminster Parliament, and as the famous quote goes "no taxation without representation" this provoked people like John Hancock, John Adams, and Samuel Adams to rebel.
Hancock organized a boycott of tea from China sold by the British East India Company, whose sales in the colonies then fell from 320,000lb to 520lb. Because the company that sold the Tea was in debt above their eyeballs, and because people like Hancock were smuggling the tea without paying taxes, the British government passed the Tea Act which allowed the East India Company to sell tea to the colonies directly, thereby allowing them to sell for lower prices than those offered by the colonial merchants and smugglers.
"The situation in which Boston found itself was immensely distressing to Adams (Sam). Under heavy pressure from the Sons and the public in general, the consignees finally agreed to resign but only if the tea was landed and put under the care of the governor" (Fowler pg. 123)
So when boats like the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver arrived to Boston harbor to ship the Tea, problems arose. Bostonians met and unanimously agreed that the Tea be sent back to England, and Samuel Adams took charge. "Adams saw it that Boston would not stand alone. He called on the Committee of Correspondence from Charlestown, Cambridge, Brookline, Roxbury, and Dorchester for advice and they asked that they "be in readiness to exert themselves in the most resolute manner to assist this town in their efforts for saving this oppressed country" (Fowler pg. 124).
After more efforts to get the tea sent back to England without paying them, the requests were denied, then denied again. Then at a meeting with the townspeople Adams stated "this meeting can do nothing further to save the country". With this said, some "mohawk" indians appeared in the gathering and asked how well the tea mixed with the salt water. The townspeople marched down and boarded the vessels, dumping more then 10,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. If not for Adams's fierce remarks at the meetings, these events may have never taken place.
About a year later Adams retired from the legislature and was sent to Philadelphia as a representative from the Massachusetts colony, but as Fowler points out, he may have not been as influential as he used to be " Samuel Adams lived two political worlds - Philadelphia and Boston. By late 1778 his influence in both was in decline" (Fowler pg. 154).
It seemed that things in Philly were just not the same as they were when he was a young influential congressman in Boston. He was surrounded by people that were not as devoted to power and virtue, but more for money for themselves. He talks about these men as "a Combination of political & Commercial Men, who may be aiming to get the trade, the wealth, the Power and the Government of America into their hands".
Samuel Adams was raised with a high respect for town meetings, which he believed was a model for government, while his new coworkers disagreed. Adams felt that the concentration of power had fallen into the wrong hands and that would "inevitably lead to encroachment on the right of states" (Fowler pg. 155).
Sam's influence and position in Boston were not really any better. It seemed that he and John Hancock were not getting along very well. "Hancock could be flexible and forgiving, Adams was rarely either" (Fowler pg. 155). Although Adams was reelected for congress in Philadelphia, it seemed he was sick of all this and just wanted to be with his family, so he went back to Boston.
Back in Boston, Adams served light duty as the secretary of Provincial Congress, and on the Board of War, these offices did not make him either comfortable or happy. In the spring of 1778 a proposed state constitution was sent to the people from the General Court. The town initially rejected the constitution due to some deficiencies, but on the second attempt the legislature decided to elect 12 delegates for Boston to represent them at the convention. Samuel Adams was chosen as one of these delegates, and much of the writing in the actual constitution reflects John and Samuel Adams puritan views. The first draft of the document lacked a bill of rights, so in the newer version there was thirty articles listing the rights of the people. Samuel Adams wrote Article III which stated "as the happiness of the people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essential depend upon piety, religion, and morality". Article IV and V also cemented Adams "deep seated beliefs about the nature of government" (Fowler pg. 158) Other important things that the constitution went over were freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the right to keep and bear arms, and it was clear that Samuel Adams played a crucial role in much of this. As Fowler states "Samuel Adams was less interested in the form of the government. He left that to his lawyerly cousin John. He was more interested that the form be one in which public virtue ruled" (Fowler pg. 158).
Shays Rebellion was basically an uprising in farmers and merchants who thought they were being punished by crushing debts and taxes. It was lead by Daniel Shays, and the rebels were known as "Shaysites". Failure to repay such debts often resulted in imprisonment in debtor's prison which was seen by many people as an unjust punishment that favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Earlier in his career as a congressman, you would have thought that Samuel Adams would have found pity on these farmers and merchants, but he became a much more conservative individual in later years, maybe just because he was getting old and cranky, but he condemned the farmers to rebelled against the system. As he stated "Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death" (www.calliope.org)
This is somewhat ironic because of how different his views were as he became an older man, and because he would not have taken this stance against the rebelling farmers earlier in his career. This to me is Samuel Adams in a nutshell though. He is one of our most bipolar founding fathers, but he helped shape many laws that we hold true to this day. Sam Adams spent the rest of his life as a voice for reform, and he died in Boston in 1803. Samuel's strong belief in independence and his ability to persuade support for the cause of freedom earned him the name "the Father of the American Revolution."
Fowler, William M. "Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan" liberty of American Biography, Edited by Oscar Handlin.
Samuel Adams quote on Shays Rebellion from website:
Article entitled "Shays Rebellion and the Constitution" copyright 2000 CFR.