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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 172

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This is the grave of Samuel Adams.

Born in 1722 in Boston, Adams started Harvard in 1736. Disappointing his parents, he took a greater interest in politics than the ministry. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1740 and a master’s in 1743. Unable to focus on business because of his political interests, he failed a couple of times until his father gave him a job in the family malthouse. Because of this, he gained a historical reputation as a brewer and thus the beer brand named for him, but this isn’t actually true, as he only produced malt.

As early as 1748, Adams felt disgust toward British rule, making him one of the first colonists to actively agitate against the mother country. The issue was impressment, a good one, since the British Navy’s method of acquiring sailors was pretty brutal. His work on this and other issues combined John Locke with his strongly held Puritan values. Generally, he believed in a strict definition of constitutional rights that must be defended to the death, combined with the emphasis on personal behavior, community, and church that defined Puritan New England. Adams was elected Boston’s tax collector in 1756, but he often refused to collect the taxes. This made him politically popular and poor, since his salary depended on the taxes. He was also legally responsible for that money. In 1768, there was a lawsuit against him and he paid some of it back but he was so popular as a leader against the British by this time that it did not affect him politically.

And of course it was the leadup to the American Revolution where Adams was at his most influential. He rose to prominence in the response to the Sugar Act in 1764, an entirely reasonable tax by the British given how much money their American colonists were costing them through their genocidal wars against native peoples. But asking Americans to pay for services? Ha ha ha ha ha. Anyway, Adams heavily promoted the taxation without representation line here, which was reasonable enough except that the British legitimately felt that every member of Parliament inherently represented all citizens. Obviously what was happening here is in part varying definitions of political representation that could not be reconciled.

During the Stamp Act riots, British officials laid the violence in Boston directly at Adams’ feet. This was probably unfair, as Adams did not usually approve of mob violence, not on principle, but because it was counterproductive. And these mobs certainly were not under his control, as even many scholars claimed over the years. That said, Adams most certainly did approve of the resistance to what he saw as an unconstitutional tax. In the aftermath, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts House and served as its clerk, giving him license to promote his own political positions. He continued to lead the Boston opposition, especially to the military occupation after the resistance to the Townshend Acts and the Boston Massacre, where he wrote outraged essays after the soldiers were (rightfully) acquitted of the killing of five members of the mob. It’s unclear whether Adams was a member of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 but it is known that he ran the meeting just beforehand that spawned it. He then wrote many essays defending it.

When the First Continental Congress met late in 1774, Adams was a natural choice to send as a Massachusetts representative and he used his political skills to encourage unity among the colonies. In the aftermath of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord that began the Revolutionary War, it was widely believed that Thomas Gage targeted Adams and Paul Revere for arrest. That made them heroes to the resistance. Sent to the Second Continental Congress in the aftermath, Thomas Jefferson later credited Adams with the political maneuverings necessary to move the Congress toward the Declaration of Independence. After 1776, Adams’ period of major historical leadership slowly wound down, but he remained an important player in politics. He remained in the Congress, pressed for harsh punishments against Tories, and lobbied for the ratification of the Articles of Confederation. He also helped write the Massachusetts state constitution in 1780.

Suffering some health problems and nearing sixty, Adams retired from the Continental Congress in 1781. Yet he remained active in state politics, serving as the leader of one faction against his now enemy, the more conservative and aristocratic John Hancock. He returned to the state senate and led a plan to provide free public education to all Boston’s children, including girls. But Adams himself was growing more conservative as he aged and in many ways he was not so different than a lot of the Founders who found the democratic forces unleashing by the American Revolution uncomfortable. He strongly supported the raising of troops to crush Shays’ Rebellion in 1785. He was initially opposed to the Constitution but became an influential supporter when the Bill of Rights was promised. He was elected governor in 1793 for the first of four consecutive one year terms. He supported Washington and Hamilton in preparing for the military suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion but began aligning himself with Jefferson in opposition to the nascent Federalist Party. He retired in 1797 and died in 1803, at the age of 81.

Samuel Adams is buried in Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts.

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