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Signers of the Declaration
Biographical Sketches

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams

"Firebrand of the Revolution," Samuel Adams probably more than almost any other individual instigated and organized colonial resistance to the Crown. A talented polemicist and agitator-propagandist who relied more on his facile pen than the podium in behind-the-scenes manipulation of men and events, he religiously believed in the righteousness of his political causes, to which he persistently tried to convert others. He failed in business, neglected his family, gained a reputation as an eccentric, and demonstrated as much indifference to his own welfare as he did solicitousness for that of the public. His second cousin John Adams, more of a statesman, eclipsed him in the Continental Congress, though Samuel signed both the Declaration and the Articles of Confederation. In his later years, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts bestowed on him many high offices, capped by the governorship.

Adams was one of 12 offspring of a prosperous and politically active brewer and landowner. He was born at Boston in 1722 and enjoyed an excellent education at the Boston Latin School and Harvard College. Upon his graduation in 1740, he first demonstrated his lifelong aversion to normal employment. He studied law for awhile and then skipped from job to job, working for a time in his father's brewery as well as in a counting house and dissipating a paternal loan in an unsuccessful business venture.

When his father died in 1748 and his mother soon afterwards, Adams inherited a sizable estate, including the family home and brewery. By 1764, when the colonial quarrel with Britain began, he had long since lost the latter. And, during the previous 8 years as city tax collector, he had fallen in arrears about £8,000 in his collections. At the age of 42, unable to support a new wife and two children from his first marriage and residing in his rundown birthplace, he was destitute and besieged by creditors. He subsisted mainly on gifts and donations from loyal friends and neighbors.

Adams was a failure by most standards, but he had long before found the only meaningful "occupation" he ever pursued. For almost two decades he had been active in local political clubs, where he earned a reputation as a writer and emerged as leader of the "popular" party that opposed the powerful conservative aristocracy controlling the Massachusetts government. As clerk in the colonial legislature (1765-74), he drafted most of the body's official papers and quickly seized the tools of power. He pounced on the taxation issue raised by the Sugar and Stamp Acts (1764-65), and within a year he and his party fanned popular hatred of the conservatives and gained control of the legislature. He also spurred organization of the militant Boston Sons of Liberty, a secret society. As time went on, the stridency of his anti-British harangues escalated and sometimes became shrill enough to distress John Hancock and John Adams.

The Townshend Acts (1767), imposing a series of taxes on imports, provided Adams with a new cause for dissent. He urged merchants not to purchase goods from Britain, fomented opposition toward customs officials, inflamed the resentment toward British troops stationed in the colony that led to the Boston Massacre (1770), and humiliated the Royal Governor so much that he was recalled. Adams also authored a circular letter protesting British taxation and advocating united opposition. When, in 1768, the Massachusetts legislature sent it to the 12 other colonial assemblies, the Royal Governor dissolved the legislature, soon a common British practice in America. All these activities, coupled with authorship of scores of newspaper articles and extensive correspondence with prominent persons in the Colonies and England, brought Adams fame.

The conservative reaction on the part of merchants, the legislature, and the populace that surfaced after the repeal of practically all the Townshend Acts in 1770 failed to stifle Adams, though his popularity and influence declined. Relentlessly, in perhaps his chief contribution to the Revolution, he kept the controversy alive by filling the columns of the Boston newspapers with reports of British transgressions and warnings of more to come. Furthermore, in 1772 he began constructing the framework of a Revolutionary organization in Massachusetts. Drawing on a similar scheme he had proposed for all the Colonies 2 years earlier but which had come to naught, he convinced Boston and other towns to create committees of correspondence. The next year, he was appointed to the Massachusetts committee, formed in response to a call from the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Passage of the Tea Act (1773) provided the spark Adams was seeking to rekindle the flame of rebellion. He helped to incite and probably participated in the "Boston Tea Party," which engendered a series of rebellious incidents throughout the Colonies and pushed them closer to war. Parliament retaliated the next spring by passing a series of acts designed to punish Massachusetts.

Adams, recognizing that the other Colonies would only adopt non-intercourse measures in concert, urged an intercolonial congress to discuss mutual grievances and plan a united course of action. Sub sequently, in June, the Massachusetts house of representatives, meeting behind locked doors to prevent interference by the Royal Governor, resolved to invite the other 12 Colonies to send representatives to Philadelphia in September and also appointed five Delegates, including Adams. That same day, the Royal Governor disbanded the legislature for the last time. Before heading for Philadelphia, out fitted in new clothes supplied by friends, Adams helped organize the convention that adopted the Suffolk Resolves, which in effect declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.

Adams served in the Continental Congress until 1781, longer than most other Delegates, but his role was less conspicuous than his preceding career augured. In the early sessions, most of the time he shrewdly stayed in the background with his fellow Massachusetts Delegates, whose radicalism offended most of their colleagues. And, throughout the Congress, he walked in the shadow of John Adams, who dominated the proceedings.

But nothing in the latter's career could match the drama of an episode involving Samuel in the interim between the First and Second Continental Congresses. Back at Lexington, Mass., one night in April 1775, he and Hancock had barely escaped the British force seeking to capture the colonial supply depot at Concord. The outbreak of armed conflict the next dawn—a "glorious morning" for Adams— marked the beginning of the War for Independence.

While still in Congress, in 1779-80 Adams participated in the Massachusetts constitutional convention. He returned to Boston for good the next year and entered the State senate (1781-88), over which he presided. He refused to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787 because of his objection to a stronger National Government, and the following year unenthusiastically took part in the Massachusetts ratifying convention. A lifetime of public service culminated in his election as Lieutenant Governor (1789-93), interim Governor in the latter year upon Hancock's death, and Governor (1794-97). Still living in "honest poverty," he died at Boston in 1803 at the age of 81 and was buried in the Old Granary Burying Ground.

Drawing: Oil, 1782, by Nahum B. Onthank, after John S. Copley, Indpendence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004