by Robert Morrison
March 5, 2012
A mob of colonists surrounded a small detachment of British soldiers in Boston on this day in 1770. Regular troops had been sent to the restive colonial city in 1768 to give force to Parliaments extraction of taxes from the people of Massachusetts. The young American men in the crowd taunted the jittery redcoats, calling them lobsterbacks, and provoking them. Soon, snowballs were lobbed. Some of these may have contained stones. Even without stones, however, hard-packed ice can be lethal.
In minutes, the embattled soldiers fired into the crowd. Several of the participants in the riot were killed on the spot. One of these was Crispus Attucks, a free Negro, who has long been recognized as one of the first martyrs to the cause of Liberty. Others, wounded, lingered for weeks. A line had been crossed: American blood had been shed on an American street.
Samuel Adams was quick to take advantage of this bloody outrage. He called for trials for the British soldiers. He agitated for citizen resistance to the taxes on tea and other goods. Adams regarded the actions of the British ministrythe parliamentary leadership that supported King George IIIs increasing demands upon American colonistsas unconstitutional.
Unconstitutional? Before the Constitution? Yes. Harvard graduate Sam Adams knew his English history and he was keenly aware of his rights. Englishmen claimed that their unwritten constitution had come down to them from the time of Magna Carta (1215) and that specific rights were recognized during Englands Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Modern scholars often look to that Glorious Revolution as the precursor of our own American Revolution. Author Michael Barone has written perhaps the best popular study of that event with a keen eye to its import for Americans.
Family Research Council last week heard a fine lecture by author Ira Stoll on the role and influence of Samuel Adams, revolutionary. Stolls book, Samuel Adams: A Life, is careful to show how his faith was central in the life of a man who could justly be called Father of the American Revolution.
Sam Adams knew the part that memorial services played in the communal life of the Massachusetts colony, so he used the anniversary of the Boston Massacre to keep the spirit of liberty alive. Five years after the shootings, in 1775, Sam Adams presided over a gathering in Old South Meetinghouse. Dr. Joseph Warren gave the address as British officers entered. From the chair, Sam Adams invited them to take convenient seats. He wanted to give them no pretext for saying they had been ill treated by the colonists. When Dr. Warren finished his address, the British began to hiss.
Within months of that event, Dr. Warren would be killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and some of those British officers would desecrate the body by taking his head and presenting it to Gen. Gage as a war trophy. Such savagery kept many Americans from even considering reconciliation with the British Crown. And Sam Adams would be the first to remind them why they needed to be an independent republic.
Sam Adams brought his country cousin, John, into the Patriot cause, as well as the rich, young dandy, John Hancock. John Adams leaves a funny memoir of teaching his elder cousin to ride a horse. Townsman Sam, in his fifties, had never before mounted a horse. Soon, John noticed that Sam could not sit upright at dinner after a long days ride.
On Sunday Evening at Mrs. Dexters, where we drank Coffee & Spent an agreeable Evening, I persuaded him to purchase two yards of flannel which we carried to our Landlady, who with the assistance of a Taylor Woman in the house, made up Pair of Drawers, which the next morning were put on, and not only defended the Secretary from further Injury, but entirely healed the little Breach which had been beguna.
Nothing, at this point, could heal the Great Breach that was opening up between Great Britain and her American colonies.
Sam Adams worked with John in the Continental Congress. Delegates from the Middle and Southern states were amazed and pleased when Sam, famous as an old Puritan, moved to invite a local Anglican priest to open sessions of Congress in prayer. I am no bigot, Sam assured his fellow congressmen, saying he would willingly pray with any man who defended his countrys liberties. This move made a huge impression on the others. Because of his strong faith, and his conviction that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God, Samuel Adams could join with others in signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Thomas Jefferson was a close friend and ally to that brace of Adamses in Congress. Years after the Revolution, President Jefferson wrote to the older Adams, saying that his Inaugural Address of 1801 had been written with Samuel Adams in mind. It is the only presidential inaugural so dedicated to a single Patriot. Mr. Jefferson in 1824 told Daniel Webster: For depth of purpose, zeal & sagacity, no man in Congress exceeded, if any equalled Samuel Adams; & none did more than he, to originate & sustain revolutionary measures…
Much of Sam Adamss career is little known because he worked constantly and tirelessly, behind the scenes. Unlike Cousin John, whose correspondence with Abigail runs to five miles on microfiche, he left few written records of his vital work. Why? The stone carvers of the Cathedral at Chartres who left their work unsigned might give us a clue. They believed that God knew their works. Like them, for Sam Adams that was enough.
a John Adams to James Warren, Philadelphia, September 17, 1775, quoted in The Founders on the Founders, edited by John P. Kaminski, University of Virginia Press, 2008, p. 63