Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Most Americans today know the name Samuel Adams as a popular brand of beer. But according to Ira Stoll, former managing editor of the lamentably defunct New York Sun, Adams the statesman, writer, and political philosopher (and yes, one-time brewer) should be remembered instead for his vital role in brewing the American Revolution.

In his recently published Samuel Adams: A Life, Stoll calls Adams the “forgotten revolutionary” and “the last Puritan”—a man for whom religion was the motivating force behind his zeal for separating from England. Samuel Adams (1722–1803) believed that “the Americans were the biblical Israelites of Exodus,” Stoll writes, “and that God was intervening directly on their side.” The book is replete with examples of the religious rhetoric that marked Adams’s long public career, demonstrating his presumptions about godly favor. For instance, Adams wrote from Philadelphia in April 1776 that the heart of George III “is more obdurate, and his Disposition toward the people of America is more unrelenting and malignant than was that of Pharaoh toward the Israelites in Egypt.”

Such imagery fueled the Revolution and helped to establish the notion of American exceptionalism—that the United States is different from the rest of the world—an idea that remains crucial to our understanding of ourselves as a people. (Perhaps its most recent expression can be found in Ronald Reagan’s representation of America as a “shining city upon a hill.”)

Puritanism held that God created man to be free, and Adams understood that property rights were essential for true freedom, which caused him to inveigh against certain taxes imposed by the British without the consent of the colonists. Stoll notes, “It was reacting to the Sugar Act and the customs crackdown that Samuel Adams first burst onto the public scene.” Appointed by the Boston Town Meeting to respond to the act, Adams composed a strongly worded “instruction” explaining to the authorities in London the colonists’ objections: “What still heightens our apprehensions is that these unexpected proceedings may be preparatory to new taxation upon us: For if our trade may be taxed why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands and everything we possess and make use of?”

While Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and John Adams (Samuel’s cousin) were all more or less men of faith, they tended to view religion in a utilitarian light—as something useful for establishing the new nation. They recognized its value in building the civic virtue necessary for self-government. For Samuel Adams, however, religion was the essential motive for the entire revolutionary enterprise. His conception of freedom stemmed from a radical belief in the equality of all men before God. This made any form of hierarchy repugnant to him, whether in the state or in the Church itself.

He therefore opposed the establishment of an Anglican episcopate in America, fearing it would infringe on “that liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.” Of course, Adams was a man of his time in a Protestant tradition, and there were limits to his understanding of Christian liberty. Stoll notes that, in a report to the Boston Town Meeting’s Committee of Correspondence, “Rights of the Colonists,” Adams recommended “that religious toleration be extended to all except Roman Catholics since he believed that their allegiance was to the pope rather than the local government.” (This commonly assumed, misguided view persisted well into the twentieth century and was dulled only by John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, when he pledged to fulfill his presidential duties without consulting the Vatican.)

Adams’s beliefs regarding freedom and equality—and the governmental checks and balances necessary for their protections—are evident in the Massachusetts Constitution, which he largely crafted. Stoll notes the irony that this same document now has become a tool for the legalization of widely accepted practices that Adams would have found wholly incompatible with his worldview when drafting it—such as same-sex marriage. What was then the prominent ethic of radical Puritanism has effectively turned inside out into the unfettered tolerance regnant in America today.

In a 1779 letter to James Warren he warned that “inundation of levity, vanity, luxury, dissipation, and indeed vice of every kind must be stemmed . . . [because] once they [the people] lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.” His words seem almost prophetic in our current stressed economic circumstances. The impact of “levity” may not be readily apparent, but with quasi-nationalization proposed to counter our woes, many of our liberties are surely in danger. And it’s indisputable that “vanity,” “luxury,” and “dissipation” have all played their parts in bringing us to this woeful pass. Perhaps our political leaders might consider that, rather than bailouts, what is needed today is the restoration of virtue.

For Adams, education was key to creating a virtuous citizenry—which, along with his egalitarian ethos, made him an early proponent of public schooling for women as well as men. He maintained that education shows people “the moral and religious duties they owe to God, their country, and to all mankind.” To achieve such insights, Adams called for schools to teach “sobriety of manners, that temperance, frugality, fortitude, and other manly virtues which were once our glory and our strength.” It is a prescription we would do well to act upon now, if we are to “preserve the advantages of liberty.” If we want to reform education, our initiatives should include restoring the once-common school practice of teaching virtues.

It is obvious that this book has an agenda, and Stoll couldn’t have chosen a better subject than Samuel Adams as a device for advancing it. The story of Adams’s life speaks to the core principles of America’s founding, recalling for us the importance of education and civic virtue for the continuance of our democratic experiment. We need Adams’s vision now more than ever.

Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law.


Samuel Adams: A Life by Ira Stoll

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles