Why was Samuel Adams important?

Samuel Adams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Samuel Adams was one of the most important figures in the American Revolution. Adams rose to prominence when the Sugar Act was passed. Soon after, he became an important leader of the Patriot Cause and helped lead Bostonians — then colonists from all over America — on the path to independence from Great Britain.

Early Life of the Patriot, Samuel Adams

Adams was born in Boston on September 27, 1722. Adams attended Harvard, where he received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He gained early political experience as a founder of The Public Advertiser, a publication that opposed the British Navy’s policy of impressing sailors. Adams also spoke out against the involvement of Massachusetts in the War of Austrian Succession (1744–1748).

The Rise of Samuel Adams

Adams held various public offices, including — rather ironically — the position of tax collector. However, Adams was so bad at performing his duties that he came to owe the province £8,000 in tax arrears. His friend and protege, John Hancock, paid the fees on his behalf. 

John Hancock, Portrait, Copley
John Hancock. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In 1764, Adams and Hancock were elected to the Massachusetts assembly just as news of the Sugar Act and the subsequent Stamp Act reached the colonies. Adams was a vocal opponent of British policies and wrote pamphlets and essays urging his fellow Bostonians to resist what he believed were illegal actions by Parliament. 

Although it is widely reported by some that he participated in the Stamp Act Congress, that is incorrect. Adams had just been elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly and, by all accounts, was tied up with matters in Boston.

Stamp Act in Boston, Illustration
Angry Bostonians reading the Stamp Act. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Important Political and Social Connections

Adams’ links to both the lower and upper classes only increased his importance to the Patriot Cause. Adams also had connections to the elite in Boston, including his cousin, John Adams, James Otis, and John Hancock — one of the richest men in all of America.

There has been speculation that Adams was the driving force behind both the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. Although there is very little concrete evidence in regard to his involvement, it was well-known at the time that he was involved with the rabble-rousing factions in Boston. He was linked to gang leaders, like Ebenezer Mackintosh, and to the Loyal Nine, who gave rise to the Sons of Liberty

Boston Massacre, Illustration, Chappel
The Boston Massacre. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

His influence in Boston was significant, and without his support, neither event would have taken place. Regardless, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson reported to imperial officials in London that Adams and Hancock were the principal figures in Boston’s revolutionary circle.

Samuel Adams’ Importance to Colonial Organization

Perhaps no other leader in the Patriot Cause did more to organize the colonies than Samuel Adams. 

In 1768, Adams and James Otis wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter, which they sent to the other colonies. The letter urged the other colonies to join Massachusetts in a boycott of British merchants as a way to protest the Townshend Acts.

Adams was also one of the main organizers of the first Committees of Correspondence in 1772, which connected the town meetings of Massachusetts to one another. He was also elected to represent Massachusetts in the First Continental Congress. As a member of Congress, he signed the Articles of Association, which established the Continental Association to enforce a boycott of British goods.

In 1775, Adams and Hancock were in Concord, attending meetings for the Massachusetts Provincial Government. On the night of April 18, the Boston spy network, led by Dr. Joseph Warren, found out British forces were planning to march to Concord, however, the purpose was not entirely clear. One possibility was they were going out to capture Adams and Hancock. Warren sent express riders Paul Revere and William Dawes on the road to warn Adams and Hancock — the historic Midnight Ride.

Joseph Warren, Portrait, Copley
Joseph Warren. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Adams and Hancock, who were in Lexington, evaded capture, and escaped the town just as the opening shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington on April 19. Later, Adams said, “What a glorious day for America.”

Adams played a leading role in the Continental Congress and was a strong advocate for independence, along with other members, like John Adams and Richard Henry Lee. Of course, Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, after it was approved by Congress on July 4, 1776.

Doolittle Engraving, April 19, Battle of Lexington, Plate 1
This 1775 engraving by Amos Doolittle depicts the Battle of Lexington. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Adams After the Revolution

In 1780, Adams returned to Boston where he helped write the Massachusetts Constitution. He traveled around the state, attending town meetings and campaigning for its adoption.

When Shays’ Rebellion took place in 1786 and 1787, Adams opposed it. While it might seem like he would support Americans revolting against high taxes and an oppressive government, he did not see it as the same as the American Revolution. Adams accused the “Shaysites” of rebelling against the people, who had formed a commonwealth between them. Adams even went so far as to call for the execution of Daniel Shays and his followers.

Adams opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787 because he was wary of a strong central government. However, he supported it after supporters agreed to add a Bill of Rights as part of the Massachusetts Compromise.

Adams served as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts under John Hancock from 1789 until Hancock’s death in 1793. Adams succeeded Hancock as Governor and remained in office until 1797 when he retired. 

Samuel Adams — one of the most important leaders of the Patriot Cause — died on October 2, 1803.