Book review of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff



Samuel Adams defies biographers. Now the name and face of a beer, Adams once was Boston’s leading revolutionary, rallying that seaport to resist Parliament’s taxes and reject British rule. Many scholars have tried to know and explain Adams, but in vain, for he kept his many secrets, burning most of his letters lest they implicate friends in treason. Unlike his cousin John Adams, Samuel cared more about swaying men behind the scenes than about taking credit for posterity. Slipping in and out of backrooms, he seemed to manage every protest, riot, election and newspaper diatribe. His many friends recalled Adams as a selfless hero utterly devoted to liberty. His many enemies defined him as a reckless and deceitful incendiary. Adams left us too sparse a paper trail to find a deeper character between the polarized accounts.

Stacy Schiff is the latest biographer to probe the vacuum that Adams so thoroughly cultivated. Above all, in “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams,” Schiff seeks to solve a mystery: How did an underachiever belatedly emerge as “a political genius … intensely disciplined, an indomitable master of public opinion”? Then, after making a revolution, why did he struggle to govern in the new republic?

Born into a prosperous family in 1722, Adams could afford to attend and graduate from Harvard, but he squandered his inheritance before becoming Boston’s most inept tax collector. Elite education developed his mastery of words while downward mobility cultivated his empathy for working people — and his rage against men of fortunes, privileges and luck. He especially hated a fellow Bostonian, Thomas Hutchinson, who grew ever richer and more powerful by acquiring multiple offices, including chief justice of the superior court and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts — until Adams ruined his popularity with insidious rumors. Both sides crafted conspiracy theories. While Adams claimed that British leaders plotted to ruin colonial prosperity and freedom, Loyalists depicted Boston’s radicals as conspiring to dupe common people into wreaking anarchy.

Lacking new documents from Adams, Schiff settles for recounting the famous events of colonial resistance in Boston: the Stamp Act Riots of 1765, the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop by customs officers, the Boston Massacre of 1770, the Tea Party of 1773 and resistance to the redcoat occupation in 1774-1775. In every episode, she finds Adams lurking behind the scenes, coordinating diverse radicals: “He seemed to exert an uncanny influence on men’s minds. He knew when to alarm, when to soothe, flatter, intimidate.” In newspaper essays and legislative resolves, Adams kept the political pot boiling: “Words came easily to Adams, who could churn a small grievance into an unpardonable insult before others had arrived at the end of a sentence.” The absence of evidence becomes Schiff’s proof that Adams was at work: “The very lack of fingerprints points to his unruffled, rigorous brand of stage management.”

Schiff never quite knows whether to admire or distrust the elusive yet ubiquitous Adams. She praises his financial integrity, which kept him poor; his principled aversion to slavery; and his attention to common people. But Schiff feels uneasy with his suspicious monomania that rejected any “peace and quiet” in governance. Believing that his ends justified dishonest means, Adams falsified documents and crafted and distributed atrocity stories to rile up colonists against British officials and troops. “He stopped at nothing, including the truth,” Schiff concludes.

A master agitator, Adams overthrew a colonial government but struggled to administer a new republic. Coasting on his prewar renown, he won elections to Congress and as governor of Massachusetts, but he did little but make new enemies and dismay old friends: “The resolve ossified to rigidity.” John Adams eventually dismissed his elderly cousin as “a grief and distress to his family, a weeping, helpless object of compassion for years.” Concentrating on just a dozen years, 1763 to 1775, Schiff devotes less than a 10th of her book to the last third of Adams’s life. That disproportion slights the postwar failure of his push to make a Christian Sparta among citizens more devoted to making money and buying consumer goods. It is an oddly truncated biography that says nothing about Adams’s abortive crusade, during the 1780s, to discredit a Boston social club called Sans Souci, where the city’s new elite pursued pleasure rather than virtue.

A gifted popular writer, Schiff deftly describes the surfaces of people and places, setting a shiny stage for Adams. But she balks at probing the sources of his relentless challenge to power as a threat to liberty. She notes only that Adams relied on a deep, moralistic faith derived from his Puritan forebears — and that he reacted against his father’s financial woes reaped from a controversial land bank of the early 1740s. She neglects to mention, much less examine, that father’s commitment to the “popular party” led by the Elisha Cookes, father and son. That “popular party” dominated the Massachusetts Legislature by persuading voters that royal governors and their officials were corrupt and bent on curtailing liberty to increase their own power. At the end of the 17th and start of the 18th century, the Cookes pioneered the electoral rhetoric of fending off a supposed conspiracy against colonial rights by a court party around the royal governor. Adams appears less singular if restored to a deep, populist tradition of defending the colony’s charter of government against meddling by allegedly corrupt insiders. Reliant on old ideas, Adams crafted broader networks of political communication as his revolutionary innovation.

Schiff also declines to assess Adams’s legacy for us today. More than anyone, he worked a conspiracy theory into our national origins. Ever since, discontented people have claimed a mandate to champion an imperiled liberty against some powerful, secretive cabal. In Adams’s time, such fears helped create a republic. Now that dread threatens to subvert our republic in favor of populist authoritarianism. So, should we celebrate or mourn what Adams bequeathed to us? Schiff does not say.

Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia, has won two Pulitzer Prizes and the Bancroft Prize. His latest book is “American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.”

Little, Brown. 422 pp. $35

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