“The natural rights of the Colonists are these: First a Right to Life; Secondly to Liberty;
Thirdly to Property; together with the Right to support and defend them in the best manner
they can…. The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of Man
to alienate this gift, and voluntarily become a slave.”
Samuel Adams
The Rights of the Colonists, 1772

“The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom, and defended it as they ought.”1The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 2, page 251.
The Boston Gazette

When the smoke cleared, 11-year old Christopher Snider lay dead, victim of a shot fired into a crowd at random by a British loyalist. Two weeks later, five other citizens would be slain by British soldiers in what became known as the “Boston Massacre.” In the weeks and months to follow, one man would play a central role in the struggle for American liberty, which began in Boston. That man was Samuel Adams.

Adams’ first thoughts were not of the uprising of his townsmen and the start of a great war. His was the “desire for true religion and liberty.”2The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 1, page 30. Though remembered as the “Great Incendiary” of the Revolution, he viewed all of the colonies as proper and loyal subjects of England. He had no doubt that if the infractions of their English rights were clearly spelled out and brought to the attention of the Crown, reconciliation was possible. But his devotion to his community proved stronger than his misplaced devotion to the distant Crown. As the months turned into years, he knew the Crown was no longer listening to, or caring for, its so-called “children.”

The Old South Church (Meetinghouse) where Samuel Adams was a member

The seeds of this conflict were sown in the Puritan soil of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded by those who left England to escape religious persecution. When John Winthrop landed in Boston with his fleet in 1630, he proclaimed, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”3William M. Fowler, Jr. Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan (Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 1997), page 5. Winthrop and his followers wanted to be an example to the world of a national covenant properly fulfilled among men in obedience to their sovereign. By the time of the American Revolution, Winthrop’s views were no longer fashionable, even among many who otherwise were his spiritual descendants. As Transcendentalism had begun to replace covenant theology at Harvard, Locke’s theory of a social compact was doing the same at Yale. Many leaders of the Revolution welcomed these changes, but they had far less appeal to Samuel Adams than to his cousin, John.

A devout Christian and fervent Calvinist, Adams’ view of society and government was profoundly influenced by the idea of the covenant. While the doctrine of “divine right of kings” held less sway in England than in France, Adams’ civil covenant was nonetheless viewed with alarm. In 1771, Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Boston, wrote to London:

“I doubt whether there is a greater Incendiary in the King’s dominions or a man of greater malignity of heart, or who less scruples any measure ever so criminal to accomplish his purposes; and I think I do him no injustice when I suppose he wishes the destruction of every Friend to Government in America.”4Fowler, page 115.

What Hutchinson saw as destruction was Adams’ unrelenting criticism of any who did not devote themselves wholly to the cause of Freedom, as he did. Hutchinson’s views of the rights of man were dependent on what the King of England deemed them to be. Adams and his colleagues saw their relationship to each other and to the Crown in a covenantal manner. The king had broken his end of their agreement. In this case, as stated in the charter, their “exclusive Right to make Laws for [their] own internal Government and Taxation”5The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 1, page 28. had been violated, which led them to the concern that other rights, such as their religious freedom, were also in danger. As they believed, “All men have a Right to remain in a State of Nature as long as they please: and in case of intolerable Oppression, Civil or Religious, to leave the Society they belong to, and enter into another.”6The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 2, page 351.

The king’s violation of this covenant — his charter with the Massachusetts Bay Colony — was embodied in the “Stamp Act” of 1765. This new tax was instituted by the British government to help defray the burden of debt England had incurred fighting France, yet again. In Boston, the protest of the people forced the newly appointed stamp distributor to resign before the act even officially took effect.7Fowler, page 60-65. New York, Philadelphia, and Boston merchants all signed agreements to boycott British goods until the act was repealed. In 1766 the Stamp Act was officially repealed, although it was closely followed by the “Townsend Act” in 1767, which once again marked specific items with duties and instituted a board of commissioners to enforce the act in America.8Fowler, page 70, 74-75. Adams insisted on a boycott of these goods and founded the Nonimportation Association, designed to bind the colonies together in an agreement to not import any British goods.

The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor, 1773 Lithograph by Sarony & Major, 1846

Adams took any desertion of the cause of nonimportation seriously and when the merchants threatened to undermine his efforts, he turned to the local Boston Gazette, to which he frequently contributed:

“We hear [the merchants] very gravely asking, ‘Have we not a right to carry on our own trade and sell our own goods if we please? Who shall hinder us?’ This is now the language of those who had before seen the ax laid at the very root of all our Rights with apparent complacency…. Have you not a right if you please, to set fire to your own houses, because they are your own, tho in probability it will destroy a whole neighborhood, perhaps a whole city! Where did you learn that in a state or society you had a right to do as you please? Be pleased to be informed that you are bound to conduct yourselves as a Society with which you are joined [covenanted] are pleased to have you conduct, or if you please, you may leave it. It is true the will and pleasure of the society is generally declared in its laws: But there may be exceptions, and the present case is without doubt one.”9Fowler, page 98.

The struggle for liberty was one of huge importance to Adams and his fellow Sons of Liberty. Without liberty the foundation for society is taken away. If in this struggle for liberty some have to give up what they deem “rights,” it is for the greater cause. In this case, the merchants were asked to give up their right to import British goods, but many refused, even with Adams’ constant hounding. The colonists, however, were not deaf to Adams’ call. In protest, they hung an anti-British effigy in front of shopkeeper Theophilus Lillie’s store. On February 22, 1770, when Loyalist Ebenezer Richardson attempted to remove it, an angry crowd chased him to his home where, according to reports, he fired randomly from his upper window, felling young Christopher Snider and making him the first victim of the struggle.10Richardson would be tried and convicted of Snider’s murder, only to be pardoned by the king after serving two years of his sentence.

Boston’s persistent rejection of Britain’s acts of taxation had resulted in the deployment of British troops into the Boston area in 1768. The continued presence of troops had served only to reinforce the city’s defiant stand. The dislike between the soldiers and the townspeople was palpable. Just two weeks after Snider’s death, five colonists were gunned down in what became known as “the Boston Massacre,” an event that Adams would use to rally the other colonies to the cause of liberty.11David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1994), page 22-25.

To further the ends of uniting the colonies, Adams had set up the Committee of Correspondence, choosing an innocuous title to avoid being labeled a seditious group. Instead of taking heed to the pleas of the colonists, Parliament escalated its policy of taxation without representation, imposing the “Tea Act” of 1773. Through the Committees of Correspondence, Adams enlisted the aid of other towns. The result of this was the “Boston Tea Party.” After a town meeting on December 14, a group of men, Adams reportedly among them, boarded the ships in the Boston harbor and dumped 10,000 pounds of tea into its waters. Parliament responded with the “Coercive Acts” in 1774, one of which closed the Boston Harbor to commerce and another which removed the government of Massachusetts from Boston to Salem.12Fowler, page 124-125.

Even with his many disappointments and clashes with the merchants over their lack of support for the rebellion against British taxation, Adams lost neither faith nor hope in his town and its people. Adams writes:

“The destruction of the tea is the pretense for the unprecedented Severity shown to the Town of Boston but the real Cause is the opposition to Tyranny for which the people of that Town have always made themselves remarkable and for which I think this Country is much obliged to them. They are suffering the Vengeance of Administration in the Common Cause of America.”13The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 3, page 79.

He continued his call for nonimportation, which he finally saw realized at the First Continental Congress in 1774. At this meeting in Philadelphia, representatives of the colonies decided to stand with Massachusetts, giving Parliament until May of 1775 to address their concerns. Britain responded by sending more troops. Paul Revere rode to warn the countryside of Lexington and Concord. Samuel Adams, joined by John Hancock, John Adams, and Thomas Cushing, rode to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress and notified their fellow colonists of the new events. This resulted in Congress’s move to raise an army and appoint George Washington its commander in chief. The war had begun.14Fowler, 134-139.

Portly and unfashionable, Samuel Adams did not look the part of a man of action, yet few played a more decisive role in winning American independence. Adams was a graduate of Harvard, a brew master, a loving husband and father, a clerk, a journalist, a congressman, and a governor. Tireless in his efforts as a writer and statesman, he was content to rally the public to the cause, promoting others’ importance over his own. He neither sought nor took credit, often letting others speak the words he had written; thus, this firebrand of liberty has often been underappreciated in history.

Though revered in Boston, Adams became something of anachronism later in life. His hope was that the new nation would be a covenant community bound together by a love of virtue. Yet, that vision was increasingly at odds with the pursuit of money that he believed characterized the rising commercial class. He was, as one observer has phrased it, “the last of the Puritans.”15Ralph Volney Harlow. Samuel Adams: Promoter of the American Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923), page 3.

Adam’s funeral was attended by young and old, rich and poor. A lengthy procession of family, friends, members of his beloved town of Boston, state and federal officials, and the President and professors of Harvard made its way to the Old Granary. All gathered to honor the man who had done so much to secure the liberty of his country.16Fowler, pages 1-2. Adams once wrote:

“He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man…. the sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy this gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people.”

Samuel Adams was indeed such a friend.


1 The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 2, page 251.
2 The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 1, page 30.
3 William M. Fowler, Jr. Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan (Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 1997), page 5.
4 Fowler, page 115.
5 The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 1, page 28.
6 The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 2, page 351.
7 Fowler, page 60-65.
8 Fowler, page 70, 74-75.
9 Fowler, page 98.
10 Richardson would be tried and convicted of Snider’s murder, only to be pardoned by the king after serving two years of his sentence.
11 David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1994), page 22-25.
12 Fowler, page 124-125.
13 The Writings of Samuel Adams, Volume 3, page 79.
14 Fowler, 134-139.
15 Ralph Volney Harlow. Samuel Adams: Promoter of the American Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923), page 3.
16 Fowler, pages 1-2.