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Firebrand Of The Revolution
For ten tumultuous years Sam Adams burned with a single desire: American independence from Great Britain.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
Yet Sam worked with his old doggedness through the dark years of war. Jefferson considered him “more than any other member, the fountain of our more important measures.” At the low ebb of American fortunes in October, 1777, he was one of only twenty members who stuck with Congress. “Though the smallest,” Sam remarked, “it was the truest Congress we ever had.” He was on the committee that framed the Articles of Confederation in 1777. Four years later, when Congress celebrated their ratification with a keg of wine and some biscuits, Sam alone remained of the original drafters. In April, 1781, he went home and never crossed the borders of Massachusetts again.
He returned, like Ulysses, to find his hall full of strangers—the young, the new postwar merchants: unfamiliar faces, other times. John Hancock, who had been elected first governor of independent Massachusetts, led Boston a merry romp of feasts and revels; it was far from the “Christian Sparta” of which Sam still dreamed. The old radical was elected to the state Senate and became its president, but he was no longer invincible. In 1783 and again in 1787 he lost the race for the rather empty and unsalaried office of lieutenant governor; in 1788 a youngster defeated him for the first Congress under the federal Constitution. But in 1789, when he teamed with Hancock to become lieutenant governor, some enthusiasts wrote his name on their ballots in gold. At Hancock’s death in 1793 he succeeded to the governor’s chair, and was re-elected by solid majorities for three more one-year terms.
Changing times even forced the revolutionary into the camp of reaction. As president of the Senate, which under the state constitution required its members to have an estate of four hundred pounds, he headed a body designed to check the democratic excesses of the House. Some Bostonians thought the town’s growth warranted a change to representative government; Sam reported for his committee that the town-meeting system had no defects in it. Debtors in the western counties who in 1786, under a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays, resorted to mob violence discovered in the former rebel an implacable foe. He branded them “banditti” and urged the execution of their leaders. Popular opinion was more merciful; Hancock commuted the death penalty. As governor, Sam vetoed a bill to permit stage performances, and Bostonians howled that he was robbing them of their natural rights. Toward the dispossessed Tories, others softened, but Sam’s hatred burned with its old fierceness. He would not have a British subject left on American soil nor, indeed, admitted by naturalization.
But Sam had not really changed at all, and that was his misfortune. He earned the lasting enmity of Federalists by his opposition to the new federal Constitution proposed in 1787. Shocked to discover that it would set up “a National Government instead of a Federal Union of Sovereign States,” he declared himself “open & decided” against it. But he also insisted that the state convention called in 1788 to ratify the federal Constitution give the document the careful paragraph-by-paragraph discussion that it deserved. Antifederalists who wanted a quick vote while their hostile majority was intact pleaded financial inability to stay for a long session. Sam dryly remarked that if they were so pressed he would dig up funds for their living expenses.
Very likely some of the fight went out of him with the death of his doctor-son while the convention was going on. According to one story, the Federalists finally swung him around by a shrewd move. They staged a meeting of Sam’s beloved mechanics at the Green Dragon Inn, where resolutions were passed urging ratification. Daniel Webster wrote a dramatized account of how Paul Revere brought Sam the news:
" ‘How many mechanics,’ said Mr. Adams, ‘were at the Green Dragon when the resolutions were passed?’
“ ‘More, sir,’ was the reply, ‘than the Green Dragon could hold.’
“ ‘And where were the rest, Mr. Revere?’
“ ‘In the streets, sir.’
“ ‘And how many were in the streets?’
“ ‘More, sir, than there are stars in the sky.’ ”
Sam, Webster tells us, thought that over a while. To him, the voice of the common man was as close to the voice of God as one could get. “Well,” he mused, “if they must have it, they must have it.”
He retired from public life in 1797, and lived six years more in a yellow frame house on Winter Street. Its parlor was hung with engravings of the great champions of liberty. He liked to sit on the doorstep or wander in the little garden, talking about old times. Death came on October 2, 1803, when he was 81 years of age.