Review of Ira Stoll,
Samuel Adams: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2008. Pp.
338. ISBN 978-0-7432-9912-1.
Stoll portrays Samuel Adams, the great agitator of the revolutionary
era, as something akin to "The Flying Dutchman." According to nautical
lore, a sailing ship, "The Flying Dutchman," crisscrosses the oceans
in an apparent effort by captain and crew to rejoin long-dead families
and friends. The ship appears periodically to sailors, often in times
of crisis, but then vanishes. The wanderers can never get home.
Stoll's Adams is just such a figure: an eighteenth-century Bostonian
who longed for the seventeenth century. As the Reverend William
Bentley wrote on Adams' death, "Our New England Fathers was his theme,
& he had their deportment, habits & customs. Often as I conversed with
him, I saw always this part of his character.... He was a Puritan in
his manners always" (258).
Implacable in defense of American liberties, Sam Adams saw himself as
doing God's work; he hoped that the revolutionary struggle would
return Boston and New England to their Puritan glory. Boston welcomed
his efforts, but stubbornly refused to revert to the age of John
Winthrop. The other America, the America of Franklin and Jefferson,
also made use of him, but was more guarded in its affections and even
less interested in returning to the past. It imagined a future that
reflected a very different historical experience, a future where
mobility, diversity, capitalism, and secular virtue would be the
norms. Not for them the closed corporate communities of the
Massachusetts past; not for them the jeremiads and the days of
fasting. Later writers have reacted to Adams and his vision in the
same way. And while Stoll hopes that Samuel Adams will speak to us,
his book highlights why he remains a somewhat spectral figure among
the Founders. It will not bring him home to full membership in that
takes us through the many roles Adams played in the Revolution
(journalist, activist, delegate to Congress, and finally state
politician); he does not, however, attempt anything like a full life
and times. Instead, he focuses on the spiritual assumptions and
aspirations that motivated Adams' life and political career. "Faith
helped him cope with the separation and isolation" that were the
consequences of his career. Faith also shaped his ideology. Some of
the Founders saw America's founding through the lens of the
Enlightenment; Adams viewed it from a religious perspective. "The
religious references kept coming, in nearly every document touched by
Adams' quill" (86, 103). God was an advocate for the "common rights of
mankind" (46) demanding freedom for his people. Thus, to Adams "the
cause of liberty was inextricably joined with the question of
salvation" (96). For him "the moral argument ... [was] the central
point, more important than either the economic or the legal aspects of
the struggle" (38). His views always connected him with the early
history of New England, with Winthrop and the "virtues of our
Ancestors" (61, 123). This prompted the fierce righteousness of his
agitation and his conviction that "the end was in God's hands";
national unity was the result of "the agency of the supreme Being" and
Yorktown was a "divine blessing" (150, 221).
shared an exclusive, even provincial, worldview with his judgmental
Puritan ancestors. As Benjamin Labaree notes in his history of
colonial Massachusetts, the "Puritans did not undergo the hazards of
an ocean crossing to share their new Zion with those they considered
heretics." As one Puritan clergyman put it: non-Puritans "shall have
free liberty to keep away from us, and such as will come to be gone as
fast as they can, the sooner the better."
This creed was in Adams' bones. "Despite efforts to be tolerant, Adams
had 'contempt' for the Catholic church and was deeply suspicious of
the Church of England, Quakers, and non-believers" (134, 264, 92,
63-64). On his way to Congress, he was "shocked" by the lack of
churches and schools in New York City (131). Like the preachers of
old, he hurled jeremiads at sinners. The Revolution brought changes he
could not abide. He railed against the "torrent of vice," the "levity,
vanity, luxury and dissipation" that seemed to swamp Boston and
America (184, 202). He insisted that governments foster piety, virtue,
and education, and that they enforce "laws against blasphemy and
cursing" (226-27). He demanded that theaters be closed. His ancestors
loomed behind him. "Our Bradfords, Winslows, and Winthrops would have
revolted at ... such scenes of dissipation and folly." And then a
gloomy reflection: "I once thought that ... [Boston] would be the
Christian Sparta. But alas" (219). Predictably, Adams felt ambivalence
toward colleagues like the wealthy merchant John Hancock and toward
the nation's crucial ally France. And it comes as no surprise that
"Adams' political opponents wearied of all the praying" (248) or that
his national political career did not flower.
concentrating on Adams' spiritual aspirations, Stoll puts aside many
other dimensions of his life and career; his protagonist becomes a man
without a context. Just how did Sam Adams "fit" into his era? Stoll
tells us little about the workings of Congress in wartime or the
political culture of Massachusetts in the early years of the First
Party system, when Adams was Governor, or, more strikingly, about
revolutionary Boston, Adams' home and political base. The economic and
demographic situation is also largely ignored. Was Boston stagnant or
flourishing? Were rich and poor antagonistic, as elsewhere in the
colonies? How important was church-going? What about the structure of
revolutionary politics in Boston? Stoll's narrative leaves the
impression that Sam Adams led that movement. However, ages ago, my
mentor, Charles W. Akers, repeatedly told me that the revolution in
Boston was more than Sam Adams and wrote in his biography of a key
Boston minister of the revolutionary era that
The revolution ... [in] Boston was not a radical plot hatched and
nursed to maturity by a master revolutionary. Rather it emerged as the
unexpected and at first unwelcome climax of a course of action
initiated by the socio-economic elite in response to British measures
and supported by a large cross section of all citizens. In many
respects, John Hancock had a more decisive leadership role than Samuel
Adams, but group rather than individual action characterized the
resistance of Boston's Whigs .... Boston's wealth was pitted against
was the agent--not the instigator. Akers answers one of the intriguing
questions that Stoll overlooks: how did the impoverished and ascetic
Samuel Adams support his family during his years in politics? Stoll
adduces periodic "gifts" from Bostonians (110, 245), but Akers is more
explicit: "Adams clearly could not have survived ... without the
steady support of his elitist patrons" (118).
book is much longer than it needs to be. The primary sources for Adams
are limited; he appears to have destroyed many of his own letters.
Thus, some things just cannot be known: how, for example, did Adams feel about women
voting (210)? In a number of cases, circumstantial evidence must
suffice: Stoll suggests that Adams was the "older and graver" person
who took over from John Adams the task of spelling out church/state
relations in the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 (208). Given the
paucity of sources and Stoll's limited interest in context, a much
shorter work would have sufficed. Instead, we get the lyrics of a
patriotic song we can "imagine" Adams sang (70-71, 143-45), lengthy
excerpts from an election sermon given by Charles Turner in 1773
(106-8), an extended discussion of the Virginia Baptist Isaac Backus
(141-42), a summary of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780
(211-14), and page after page of excerpts from proclamations Adams
issued as Governor. I, for one, would rather know more about his
"mundane" duties as governor (1793-97), than about the texts of
proclamations that were probably ignored by most citizens.
is irony in this tale. Sam Adams' project of restoring Puritanism was
doomed to failure. The great patriot lived in the wrong century and
one can never go back in time--except in the movies. His efforts
contributed significantly to the success of our revolution. In
Jefferson's eyes he was a "zealous ... laborer" for the liberty and
happiness of posterity;
for his cousin John, he was the author of "a Mass of Principle, &
Reasonings suitable ... for all good men."
However, the American Revolution was only partly his revolution.
Instead of Winthrop's vision of a religious "city upon a hill,"
Americans produced a world-shaking revolution that coupled freedom to
diversity with capitalism. Sam Adams would certainly have disliked the
outcome--especially as seen in our own age. Perhaps some readers will
share Stoll's hope that Americans of faith will admire Adams' fierce,
single-minded religious devotion or embrace his vision of a return to
a simpler, purer past. On the other hand, many will sense the futility
of searching for perfection in any previous age, particularly the
pre-modern age, and see in Samuel Adams a righteous man regrettably
prone to isolate, marginalize, and exclude. In any case, Stoll's book
is a very unreliable guide to one of the great events in modern
history, one lacking a sufficiently nuanced view of historical events.
Better to read Akers for revolutionary Boston, Bailyn
for revolutionary ideology, and Middlekauff
for a grand narrative of the future-shaping events that unfolded in
America after 1763. In these accounts, Adams, like The Flying
Dutchman, appears for a time, then vanishes from the larger story.
Greenhills School and Oakland
 Benjamin Labaree, Colonial Massachusetts: A
History (Millwood NY: KTO Pr, 1979) 74.
 Charles W. Akers, The Divine Politician:
Samuel Cooper and the American Revolution in Boston (Boston:
Northeastern U Pr, 1982) 357.
 Letter to Samuel Adams Wells (12 May 1819), in
Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (NY:
Library of America, 1984) 1422.
 Letter to Abigail Adams (28 Mar 1783), in L.H.
Butterfield et al., edd., The Book of Abigail and John:
Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784 (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard U Pr, 1975) 344.
 Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of
the American Revolution, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U
 Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the
American Revolution (NY: Knopf, 1992).
 Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The
American Revolution, 1763-1789, rev. ed. (NY: Oxford U Pr,