Monday, June 8, 2009

A Problem With Sam Adams Historiography?

A Fundamental Error
in the "Key Founders" Argument

Here at American Creation 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?

*** It's worth mentioning -- and it will be the topic of a couple future posts to come -- that Samuel Adams was as devout a Christian as you can get. Perhaps not all of the "Key Founders" are "Theistic Rationalists" after all? ***


Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, my---such synchronicity. I was working on Samuel Adams just this morning per the still-ongoing discussion on the Frazer/K of I post about 10 posts below this one.

In fact, Brad, I wrote something almost identical to your last paragraph, but Blogger's acting up today and it got flushed!

Sam gave a still-famous [and again, often overlooked] speech on August 1, 1776 about the D of I. What's interesting is that he, like many of the less-orthodox Founders, also tended to use terms like "Providence" and "King of the Universe" instead of say, "Jesus Christ."

I think we read in a little too much when the other Founders do likewise---obviously it was the custom of the time.

What I found most interesting is that the idea that liberty is part of the natural law and comes from God, which is how even devout Christians like Sam Adams got around the theological problem of Romans 13, which was more literally read to command obedience to earthly authorities and of course would forbid revolution.

"We have this day restored the Sovereign, to whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven, and with a propitious eye beholds his subjects assuming that freedom of thought, and dignity of self-direction which He bestowed on them. From the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come."

The rest of the speech is pretty devout, too.

Elektratig said...

Most revolutions eat their young. The American Revolution didn't do so, but it eclipsed its young. For those who are interested, the book to consult on the first generation is Pauline Maier's The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I would concede that Sam Adams was indeed a devout orthodox Christian. However, he was still a revolutionary and, as Dr. Frazer would point out, it's debatable whether revolution is compatible with orthodox Christianity, AND, consequently, this might just be one of many examples of an orthodox Christian being influenced by enlightenment, theistic rationalist rhetoric (ala Locke) that is not traditionally Christian in its character, but rather that comes from "somewhere else."

Just a thought.

J. L. Bell said...

Samuel Adams was definitely one of the key leaders of the American Revolution, definitely misread and mischaracterized in the 20th century, and definitely a devout Christian—and nearly a theocrat.

jimmiraybob said...

Oddly enough, I find myself wondering what Eddie Izzard's take would be.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Via Google Books [and it looks like the whole thing's there] from 1936: Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda.

Can't vouch for the book, but it does seem that Sam got verrrry upset at a Sans Souci night club, with card-playing and dancing with [gasp!] "women over sixteen." Dunno if it had beer or if the former brewer would be upset at that.

1936. Dat's wack. Enjoy.

I think Eddie I would have loved the place, although the contemporary accounts indicated it was kind boring. Probably made everyone want to go home and pray, because there wasn't even any TV yet, let alone internet porn.


Dunno if you caught the comment before it got flushed, JRB, but here's the entire transcript for Dressed to Kill.

I'm gonna use this Eddie riff the next time we get one of those really lame bridge-too-far posts comes in, like how single-payer health care is just like "Give me Liberty or Give Me [Health!]":

"The Protestant faith was different. That started probably around a similar time, but that was about Martin Luther, this German guy who pinned a note on a church door saying, " 'ang on a minute!" But in German, so, "Ein Minuten, bitte. Ich habe einen kleinen Problemo avec diese Religione."

He was from everywhere. So yeah, and so the Protestant faith was sort of tacked on by Queen Elizabeth I a bit later. "Oh, principles! Thank God! We've got some principles." Nowadays, Church of England is much more, "Hello, how are you?" Much more a hobby-type... "Hello!" A lot of people in Church of England have no muscles in their arms. "Hello, yes... ( chuckles ) Yes, that's what I thought. ( chuckles ) Do come in, you're the only one today! Now the sermon today is taken from a magazine that I found in a hedge. Now lipstick colors this season are in the frosted pink area and nail colors to match... And this reminds me rather of our Lord Jesus! Because surely, when Jesus went into Nazareth on a donkey, he must have got tarted up a bit.

We will now sing Hymn 405, "Oh God, What on Earth Is My Hairdo All About?" ( drearily )"Oh God, what on earth is my hai-airdo..."

Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Hart said...

@ Elektratig:

I am actually in the process of reading Maier's book. So far, so good.

@ Jon Rowe:

I agree that Adams' obvious Christian piety gets in the way of many biblical teachings regarding revolution against government (I know you, Mr. Frazer, and TVD are still debating this one hard) but I wonder if Adams would also see it that way. Isn't this all in the eyes of the beholder to a certain extent?

Your point regarding the influence of Locke is an important one. His bio of Adams, Mark Puls points out that Adams was heavily inundated with Enlightenment ideology while attending Harvard. Locke's writings on civil rights issues, particularly in his Second Treatise on Government, left quite an impression.

@ J.L. Bell:

I could not agree more. Samuel Adams is without a doubt a key founder. And yes, no doubt he was a very religious man. I hope to write more on that topic in the near future.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, and elektratig, welcome to the fold. Dr. Maier sounds interesting; I did some googling on her.

A review, with some dissent on her American Scripture, here:

Brian Tubbs said...

Sam Adams is definitely a key Founder, though I would say his influence waned once the Revolutionary War was won.

Ira Stoll said...

I focus on the religious aspects of Samuel Adams and his contribution to the founding of America in my biography, Samuel Adams: A Life, which came out in November of 2008. A review in Christianity Today called it "brilliant."