If you had to pick one founding father who was the most dissident, rabble-rousing patriot, it would have to be Samuel Adams. And, without him, U.S. citizens would probably still be paying taxes to pay down England’s war debts.
In 1722, Samuel Adams became the tenth child born to his devout Puritan parents in Boston. But, he was only the second of his brothers and sisters to live past the age of three. His dad was a church deacon, and when Adams was only 14, he entered Harvard College to begin studying theology.
At Harvard, Adams became interested in politics and the writings of John Locke, an English philosopher. According to Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, “no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.�
Adams was so enthralled, that, over 30 years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he wrote his master’s thesis on “whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.”
Hard-boiled Times in the Colonies
After college, Adams had to get a job. So, he returned to Boston where his father got him employed in the accounting office of a mercantile business. But, it wasn’t too long until the young patriot was fired for displaying a flagrant lack of interest in business matters.
Next, his father gave Adams �1,000 to start his own business. Adams loaned half to a friend (who never paid it back…) and blew the rest, so then his father put him to work in the family’s malt business.
Finally, Samuel sensed his calling and ran for public office. In 1746, he got elected as clerk for two future members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
A couple of years later, Adams and some friends launched The Public Advertiser, a weekly publication filled with political editorials and commentary.
In his personal writings for the publication, Adams began to reject England’s restriction of the rights of American colonists. He said that citizens shouldn’t get too caught up in their respect and praise for political leaders. He also said that people should believe the constitution, not the leaders who dictate it.
Just when things seemed to be looking up, in March 1748, Samuel’s father died. Samuel inherited the family brewery and a third of his father’s estate (it was divided between his sister and younger brother). But, money not being Adams’ strong point, by 1760, he was broke. By 1761, he was �8,000 in debt.
To make ends meet, he worked as a tax collector. But more importantly, over the next decade, he became an increasingly outspoken and dominant leader in town meetings.
Adams tirelessly penned protests against the British Stamp Act, which taxed the colonists to pay off debt incurred by England’s military machine. He championed the “inherent and unalienable rights” of the people, and wrote even more protests against English taxes added to imports. Then, when British troops were stationed in Boston, Adams became more dissident than ever.
The Boston Tea Party
Because tea smugglers—such as Samuel Adams’ very rich friend John Hancock—snuck tea into America without paying the British tax, tea sales plummeted for tax-paying tea importers. By 1773, the British East India Company was running a large debt and was stuck with huge warehouses filled with tea they couldn’t sell. So England passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to avoid the colonial tax altogether. It also undercut the smugglers’ tea prices, which took a bite out of the earnings of many colonists.
Samuel Adams organized a protest group called the Sons of Liberty. He organized increasingly larger protest gatherings until, on the night of December 16, 1773, over 8,000 people gathered at Boston’s Old South Church.
On a signal given by Adams, about 200 men left the meeting and headed for Griffin’s Wharf to attend what became known as the Boston Tea Party.
Disguised as Mohawk Indians, the dissidents boarded three East India Company ships that carried �10,000 worth of tea. It was more work than party considering the protestors hauled 45 tons of cargo from hold to deck, and dumped every last pound overboard by morning. The tea washed up on Boston’s shores for weeks.
Some condemned the Tea Party, including Ben Franklin, and it only made Britain tighten its controlling grip on the American colonies.
The Declaration of Independence
Although the Boston Tea Party was condemned by some colonists, it inspired plenty of others.
Soon, Adams’ dream of independence began to rub off on his second cousin, John Adams, and his wealthy friend, John Hancock. At the suggestion of Adams, representatives from all 13 colonies met to unify efforts against England. And, on July 4, 1776, Samuel Adams, his cousin—and future President—John Adams, and John Hancock, all three signed the Declaration of Independence.
Samuel Adam’s Later Years
Adams attended the Continental Congress until 1781. Then he served in the Massachusetts State Senate, as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and from 1794-97 as the state’s governor.
In 1803, at the age of eighty-one, Samuel Adams died in Boston.
While other founding fathers often get the glory, it was Samuel Adams who first laid the groundwork for independence. It was Samuel Adams whose dissident pen inspired tax slaves to wake up and be free. It was Samuel Adams whose pioneering use of the media and strategic persuasion inspired thirteen colonies to unite against empire.
And for that, he’s one of my favorite 10 Dissidents Who Changed the World.
“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.” ~John Adams.
“If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” ~Samuel Adams.
Go to the next article in this series:
Andrei Sakharov – Dissident Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.
Go to the previous article in this series:
10 Dissidents Who Changed the World (Intro)
Go to the series index:
10 Dissidents Who Changed the World.