Firebrand Of The Revolution

Members of the British Parliament who voted approval of the Stamp Act late one night in 1765 and went yawning off to bed had never heard, it would seem, of Boston’s “Man of the Town Meeting,” Samuel Adams. It was a fatal lapse. From that moment until the Declaration of Independence, Sam Adams pounced on Britain every time she moved to impose her will on the colonies. He made politics his only profession and rebellion his only business. He drove two royal governors out of Massachusetts and goaded the British government into open war. New England Tories branded him the “grand Incendiary,” the “all-in-all” of colonial turmoil, and neatly capsuled Boston resistance as “Adams’ conspiracy.” In the opinion of his astute cousin John Adams, Sam was “born and tempered a wedge of steel to split the knot of lignum vitae that tied America to England.”

“Born and tempered,” as Cousin John put it, was more than rhetorical flourish. Sam’s father—also named Samuel—made an avocation of politics, and was suspected of republican leanings. The boy got a taste for public affairs almost with his milk; while he was but a toddler his father was deep in the Caucus Club, the same radical brotherhood that Sam was to use with such adroitness. Sam senior clashed with the royal governors, and in 1741 saw his Land Bank venture—an effort to aid debtors by putting negotiable paper money into circulation—outlawed by Parliament. Father and son shared the bitter conviction that Britain’s colonial policy was both arbitrary and unjust.

From his parents Sam also inherited a strenuous Calvinism that was to make his vision of the conflict with Britain resemble a huge and murky illustration for Paradise Lost. The American patriots, Sam was sure, were children of light who fought England’s sons of Belial in a struggle decisive for the future of mankind. Everyone knew where God stood on that. Sam saw England through a glass, darkly: her government venal, her manners effeminate and corrupt, her religion popish. In saving the colonies from her tyranny Sam hoped to save their manly virtues as well, and make of Boston a “Christian Sparta”—chaste, austere, godly. By 1765 three dominant strains were firmly fixed in his character: puritanism, political acumen, and hatred of British rule. He laced them together tight as a bull whip and, as Parliament was to discover, twice as deadly.

Any calm appraisal of his life up to that point, however, would surely have rated him among those least likely to succeed. After Harvard (M.A., 1743) he had dabbled at the study of law and later spent a few fruitless months as apprentice in a counting-house. His father loaned him a thousand pounds to make a try at business—any business. The money ran through his fingers like water. Appointed Boston’s tax collector in 1756, he combined softheartedness and negligence so ably that he ended at least four thousand pounds in arrears and faced court action. The prosperous little malt works that his father had left the family fell to ruins. The sheriff threatened to sell his house for debts. When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, Sam was forty-two; he looked prematurely old, his hands trembled, his head shook with a palsied tremor.

But while his private affairs were in a perpetual state of collapse, Sam was making himself the gray eminence of Boston politics. The base of his power was the Caucus Club, a judicious mixture of shipyard laborers (“mechanics”) and uptown intellectuals. They met in a garret to drink punch, turn the air blue with pipe smoke, and plot the next political move. Their decisions were passed quietly along to other radical cells—the Merchants’ Club (which met in the more genteel Boston Coffee House), the contentious Monday Night Club, the Masons, the Sons of Liberty. With tactics mapped out and support solidified, the action was rammed—or finessed, if need be—through town meeting. Nothing was left to chance; Sam and his tight coterie of patriots simply outworked, outmaneuvered, and, on occasion, outlasted the opposition.

At first rumor of the Stamp Act, Sam cried that “a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty.” But Parliament considered its act perfectly just. England’s recent conquest of Canada, which had removed an armed threat to the colonies from the French, had also run up a burdensome debt. Obviously the colonies, who had benefited most from the costly Canadian expedition, should not mind paying part of the bill. Passed in the spring of 1765, the Stamp Act required that after November 1 of that year validating stamps be bought from government offices and affixed to all legal documents, customs papers, newssheets, and pamphlets. To enforce the act Parliament decreed that offenders be tried in admiralty courts, where there were no juries, and pay their fines in silver coin, which was hard to get.

Sam rolled out his artillery months before the act went into effect. The instructions from the Boston town meeting to its representatives in the Massachusetts House constituted one of the first formal protests made in the colonies against the act, and one of the first appeals for united resistance. Sam declared that since the act imposed taxation by a body in which the taxed were not represented it flouted the Massachusetts charter, violated the established rights of British subjects, and was therefore null and void.