Samuel Adams

Thomas Jefferson characterized Samuel Adams as truly the Man of the Revolution

Samuel Adams is a controversial figure in American history. Disagreement about his significance and reputation began before his death and continues to the present.

Adams’s contemporaries, both friends and foes, regarded him as one of the foremost leaders of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, for example, characterized Adams as “truly the Man of the Revolution.” Leaders in other colonies were compared to him: Cornelius Harnett was called the “Samuel Adams of North Carolina”, Charles Thomson the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia”, and Christopher Gadsden the “Sam Adams of the South”. When John Adams traveled to France during the Revolution, he had to explain that he was not Samuel, “the famous Adams”.

Although supporters of the Revolution praised Adams, Loyalists viewed him as a sinister figure. Peter Oliver, the exiled chief justice of Massachusetts, characterized Adams as devious Machiavellian with a “cloven Foot”. Thomas Hutchinson, Adams’s political foe, took his revenge in his History of Massachusetts Bay, in which he denounced Adams as a dishonest character assassin, emphasizing Adams’s failures as a businessman and tax collector. This hostile “Tory interpretation” of Adams was revived in the 20th century by historian Clifford K. Shipton in the Sibley’s Harvard Graduates reference series. Shipton wrote positive portraits of Hutchinson and Oliver and scathing sketches of Adams and Hancock; his entry on Adams was characterized by historian Pauline Maier as “forty-five pages of contempt”.

Whig historians challenged the “Tory interpretation” of Adams. William Gordon and Mercy Otis Warren, two historians who knew Adams, wrote of him as man selflessly dedicated to the American Revolution. But in the early 19th century, Adams was often viewed as an old-fashioned Puritan, and was consequently neglected by historians. Interest in Adams was revived in the mid-19th century. Historian George Bancroft portrayed Adams favorably in his monumental History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent (1852). The first full biography of Adams appeared in 1865, a three-volume work written by William Wells, Adams’s great-grandson. Although the Wells biography is still valuable for its wealth of information, Whig portrayals of Adams were uncritically pro-American and had elements of hagiography, a view that influenced some later biographies written for general audiences.

In the late 19th century, many American historians, uncomfortable with contemporary revolutions, found it problematic to write approvingly about Adams. Relations between the United States and Great Britain had improved, and Adams’s role in dividing Americans from Britons was increasingly viewed with regret. In 1885, James Hosmer wrote a biography that praised Adams, but also found some of his actions, such as the 1773 publication of Hutchinson’s private letters, to be troubling. Subsequent biographers became increasingly hostile towards Adams and the common people he represented. In 1923, Ralph V. Harlow used a “Freudian” approach to characterize Adams as a “neurotic crank” driven by an “inferiority complex”. Harlow argued that because the masses were easily misled, Adams “manufactured public opinion” to produce the Revolution, a view that became the thesis of John C. Miller’s 1936 biography, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Consistently calling his subject “Sam”, despite the fact that Adams was almost always known as “Samuel” in his lifetime, Miller portrayed Adams more as an incendiary revolutionary than an adroit political operative, attributing all acts of Boston’s “body of the people” to this one man.

Miller’s influential book became, in the words of historian Charles Akers, the “scholarly enshrinement” of “the myth of Sam Adams as the Boston dictator who almost single-handedly led his colony into rebellion”. According to Akers, Miller and others historians used “Sam did it” to explain crowd actions and other developments without citing any evidence that Adams directed those events. In 1974, Akers called on historians to critically reexamine the sources rather than simply repeating the myth. By then, scholars were increasingly rejecting the notion that Adams and others used “propaganda” to incite “ignorant mobs”, and were instead portraying a revolutionary Massachusetts too complex to have been controlled by one man Historian Pauline Maier argued that Adams, far from being a radical mob leader, took a moderate position based on the English revolutionary tradition that imposed strict constraints on resistance to authority. That belief justified force only against threats to the constitutional rights so grave that the “body of the people” recognized the danger, and only after all peaceful means of redress had failed. Within that revolutionary tradition, resistance was essentially conservative. In 2004, Ray Raphael’s Founding Myths continued Maier’s line by deconstructing several of the “Sam” Adams myths that are still repeated in many textbooks and popular histories.

Samuel Adams’s name has been appropriated by commercial and non-profit ventures since his death. Drawing upon the tradition that Adams had been a brewer, the Boston Beer Company created Samuel Adams Boston Lager in 1985, which has become a popular, award-winning brand. Adams’s name is also used by a pair of non-profit organizations, the Sam Adams Alliance and the Sam Adams Foundation. These groups take their names from Adams in homage of his ability to organize citizens at the local level in order to achieve a national goal.