November 03, 2022

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Samuel Adams steps from the shadows in ‘The Revolutionary’

Author Stacy Schiff.
Author Stacy Schiff.

His name is arguably most famous now as a brand of beer — although he never went by Sam in life — but in his heyday Samuel Adams was so lauded that one fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence said, “All good Americans should erect a statue to him in their hearts.” In the tumultuous, heady years leading up to 1776, there was no more influential voice for the rights of Colonial Americans; his pamphlets on liberty animated a generation of Massachusetts residents enough that they took up arms against the crown they had just decades earlier lived under peacefully.


In “The Revolutionary,” Stacy Schiff reintroduces Samuel Adams to readers who might be forgiven if they can’t quite place him in the pantheon of founding Americans. Unlike his cousin John, Samuel Adams was never president, although he did serve as governor of Massachusetts toward the end of his life, a shadow of the firebrand he had once been: “he doddered a little and knew as much,” Schiff writes. But his brand of political genius, his biographer suggests, wasn’t really suited for the halls of power. “He operated by stealth, melting into committees and crowd actions, pseudonyms and smoky back rooms,” she writes. “Adams preferred to set the stage for others to occupy. He was rarely present even in his own version of events.”

Born in 1722 into a prosperous and well-established family, Adams was educated in the classics at Boston Latin and later at Harvard, reading the poets and philosophers whose work would influence the prose style many would grow to recognize even in his anonymous revolutionary screeds. Students at Harvard were then organized by their class rank — based not on their own grades, but on their father’s occupation or fortune. Adams’s father was a justice of the peace, affording his son a relatively high rank. It would not last.


Although the newly graduated Adams considered a career in the church, “the traditional career for the gifted, book-loving New England son,” instead he drifted for a bit, trying his hand at business before returning to Harvard for a graduate degree, where he pondered the rights of men to resist being ruled by a king. It would be years before he applied his beliefs in that matter to anything beyond the academic. Schiff writes that “he was a perfect failure until middle age,” performing poorly in his professional life, making bad financial decisions, and generally “loitering his way toward his future.”

Adams’s time came in 1764, when Britain passed the Sugar Act, a taxation scheme that seemed to light a fuse among American colonists. James Otis, Adams’s closest collaborator, wrote that year that the new law “has set people a thinking, in six months, more than they had done in their whole lives before.” What they were thinking, and meeting, and talking about was the subject Samuel Adams had made his study ever since he first read Cicero and Locke: liberty.

Schiff masterfully chronicles the myriad twists and turns of Adams’s life in the decades that followed, as protests against the British grew and the streets of Boston became choked with soldiers, spies, and whispers of war. In the hands of a less skillful writer, this history could overwhelm — the insults, tiffs, and rifts among the revolutionaries alone make for a thick tangle at times — but Schiff, who has previously written about intrigue in Salem (“The Witches”) understands how to translate even the most knotty history into quick-paced narrative.


Even though Adams left home frequently, traveling to Philadelphia and New York to meet with other independence-minded colonists, this is very much a book of Boston. “It was not difficult for Boston, throughout Adams’s youth the largest town in the colonies, to flirt with a superiority complex,” Schiff writes (you can decide on your own whether this is still true). Readers can easily trace the steps of Adams and his contemporaries (including his adversaries) as they traversed the bustling city. The details, geographic and otherwise, make vivid these lives: we read of Adams’s beloved first wife, dead at 32 after her sixth delivery (two of the children survived). Unlike many of his friends similarly widowed, Adams would wait seven years to remarry.

After the Declaration of Independence and the years of war, Adams was an old man. A faithful believer notably lacking in vanity, he didn’t care about his reputation (“more than any other founder he believed he answered to a single judge alone,” Schiff writes), and that is good because his declined as he himself did. “He had outlived himself,” Schiff adds, and his final years were quiet if not solitary. When he died in 1803, he was eulogized and then “promptly forgotten.”

And still, there is something about Samuel Adams that seems especially compelling today. “He set more store in ideas than institutions,” his biographer writes, “he encouraged an allegiance to principles over individuals.” Boston readers can visit his grave at the Granary Burying Ground. We forget him and his ideas, it seems to me, at our peril.



By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown, 432 pages, $35

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at