Monday, December 14, 2009

A Samuel Adams Problem?

A Fundamental Error
in the "Key Founders" Argument

For those who debate religion and the founding, one of the central topics of conversation centers around the role that the "key founders" had in establishing the American republic. Usually this conversation focuses on five or six "big guns" of the founding era -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, John Adams, and sometimes Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine -- whose contributions to the American Revolution, Constitution, etc. are considered to be of greater value or influence than others. And while it is true that the contributions of some founders were greater than others -- who would be silly enough suggest that someone like John Rutledge was as important to the American Revolution as George Washington -- I often find myself being somewhat uncomfortable with the term "key founders." After all, what constitutes someone becoming a "key" founder? What criteria do we use when selecting individuals for this ultra-exclusive classification? For example, could a woman ever be considered a "key" founder? Did not Abigail Adams play a pivotal role in supporting John through the ups and downs of his political career? And what of the many influential and prominent founders who supported revolution but rejected the Constitution? Has their legacy been tainted in some way for being on the "wrong side" of history?

Of course the answer to these questions are complex to say the least. After all, one could easily argue -- without being sexist mind you -- that women had virtually no role in the founding of America. There were no women present at the Continental Congress/Constitutional Convention, nor were women allowed to vote/run for office in the early years of the infant American nation. In addition, one could also logically conclude that those who supported revolution but rejected the Constitution -- Patrick Henry comes to mind -- are of somewhat lesser importance due to the simple fact that their beliefs were overshadowed by those of the "key" founders. Of course this should not suggest that the contributions of women or those who opposed the Constitution are irrelevant, but it does illustrate the fact that some "key" individuals did play a greater role than others.

With that said, I believe that many historians/students of early America/amateur historians/whatever else you wanna call them, are oftentimes quite discriminatory in their selection of "key" founders. It is almost always the case that these "key" founders are men of elite status who embraced the Revolution, accepted the Constitution, and, for the purposes of our blog, were at least ambiguous in their devotion to the Christian religion. For example, Gordon Wood, who the majority of readers on this blog consider to be the finest historian of early America, only mentions seven founders -- Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Paine, and Burr -- in his book Revolutionary Characters. And while I am sure that Wood himself recognizes the fact that these seven men were far from alone in their endeavors to create a new nation, the fact remains that many important founders are often omitted from the historical dialogue.

Such is the case with Samuel Adams. Despite the fact that he is regularly referred to as the "Father" of the American Revolution -- historian Joseph Ellis calls him the "Lenin of the American Revolution" -- Samuel Adams is almost always omitted from the "Key Founder" classification. In our modern era, Sam Adams has probably become more of a beer symbol than a revolutionary icon. Even this blog is guilty of omitting Sam Adams from our discussions on early America. In our one year run, which has amassed over 600 posts, Sam Adams has only been mentioned IN ONE POST -- and even that post was quite brief of the topic. So how is it that a man who is often considered the father of the American Revolution, adversary of the Stamp Act, organizer of the Sons of Liberty, and all-around champion of the common man be so blatantly ignored?

In his excellent bio of Samuel Adams, author Mark Puls presents a compelling case that the modern historiography of Sam Adams has given most Americans a very skewed and incomplete understanding of the man who Thomas Jefferson referred to as, "truly the man of the Revolution." and "the patriarch of liberty." He writes:
Despite his many achievements and their lasting impact, his legacy goes largely unheralded in recent years, even during a wave of interest about the Founding generation. While Adams was hailed as the "Father of the American Revolution" in his own time, his role in the birth of a nation has been overshadowed by founders who went on to become U.S. Presidents or by men who rose to prominence during the inaugural federal government. Biographers and historians have assigned more significant places to men who had little influence before the Revolution in shaping the birth of the nation or forging its foundational ideals.


Since Adams' death in 1803, the assessments of his contributions to American history have undergone several revisions, based in part on the views of the Revolution itself. Nineteenth-century historians such as George Bancroft, in his 1882 exhaustive, six-volume "History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent" saw Adams as the major figure in American movement leading up to the war: "No one had equal influence over the popular mind." James K. Hosmer's 1888 biography, "Samuel Adams" ranked his subject second only to George Washington in importance to the founding of the United States.


Until the 1920s, historians treated Adams in the same generally positive light accorded the other Founding Fathers. A revision of his record began with Ralph V. Harlow's 1923 "Samuel Adams -- Promoter of the American Revolution", which portrayed Adams as a propagandist and zealot, a view furthered by John C. Miller's 1936 "Samuel Adams: A Pioneer in Propaganda".

In recent years, Samuel Adams has been treated by historians as a propagandist who stoked the passions of the poor and built resentment against the British to further his own career. Scholars such as Russell Kirk dismissed Adams as a "well-born demagogue" in his 1974 "The Roots of American Order."
Here Puls makes his disgust with the current Sam Adams historiography clear. The idea that the "father" of the American Revolution was a rabble-rousing, doomsday propagandist who preyed upon the ignorance and vulnerability of the poor tends to permeate the current historical interpretation of Sam Adams. Even the recent HBO miniseries, John Adams attempts to portray Samuel Adams as being little more than an ultra-passionate, angry, and vindictive leader of the masses:

Puls continues:

But the historical record and an examination of Adams' writings tell a very different story. Adams and the other colonists involved in the civil rights struggle were not an unthinking mob, but a highly reflective people who stated their case with reasoned arguments in pamphlets, letters, petitions, and newspaper articles. In his writings, Adams placed his faith in a logical persuasion, devoid of feckless emotional appeals, in the same manner of modern newspaper columnists. His readers were highly literate, and well versed in the allusions to ancient Latin and Greek writers and examples from antiquity from which he drew analogies. His crusade eventually drew in intellectuals such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as affluent men such as George Washington and John Hancock. Mob violence was common in England during the eighteenth century, but these protests never achieved any specific political goals. It's highly unlikely that the successful colonial resistance in the prewar years as well as the Revolution itself and the creation of an independent nation would have occurred without the involvement of the educated and affluent.
If the founders themselves were allowed to select the "key" contributors to the American cause, Samuel Adams may very well be among them. As historian Joseph Ellis states:"In the midst of the current surge of interest in the founders, the most conspicuous absence is that of Samuel Adams, an absence that most of his peers would have found inexplicable."

Or as his second cousin, John Adams stated, "Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written. For fifty years his pen, his tongue, his activity, were constantly exerted for his country without fee or reward."

Perhaps we could make one more slot for dear Sam in our "Key Founders" category?


J. L. Bell said...

I quite agree that we should consider Samuel Adams as “key Founder,” particularly important in the start of the Revolution.

Why has he been neglected? As I’ve written a Boston 1775, historians in the early 20th century squeezed Samuel Adams into the mold of a tavern-haunting, class-based rabble-rouser working out personal resentments. He wasn’t.

But Samuel Adams was in many ways even more difficult for us to contemplate. Many of his values were pre-Enlightenment, rooted in New England Calvinism. He recruited young men for his political cause not in public houses but at psalm-singing schools. His newspaper arguments were based on traditional community understandings as much as natural-rights philosophy, which makes them feel more distant and less universal.

In addition, compared to other key Founders, Adams was deeply rooted in one town. Though he was a power in the Continental Congress, he never held federal office or went overseas to represent the U.S. of A., and thus never became a truly national figure.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post as usual. I just popped over to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Sam Adams is ALWAYS left out. Another person of significance that seldom gets his due as a Founding Father is Henry Knox. A very good case could be made that he be counted among the most vital in the struggle for independence.

prashant said...

His newspaper arguments were based on traditional community understandings as much as natural-rights philosophy, which makes them feel more distant and less universal.

Work from home India

Founding Fathers said...

I agree completely. Samuel Adams should be considered a "key founding father". He contributed a great deal to the making of this great country. Thanks for your insight and perspective.

Westen Jackson said...

I agree with Avraham that Samuel Adams was always left out because he really didn't get to do anything before he became a congressman for Massachusetts.

Westen Jackson said...

I am doing a report about him if you have any information that tell me so that way i can get a good grade on this report.