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Samuel Adams: Re-Evaluating a Journalistic Calvinist by Marvin Olasky

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Samuel Adams: Re-Evaluating a Journalistic Calvinist by Marvin Olasky

Ever since the publication half a century ago of John C. Miller’s Samuel Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda, Samuel Adams has typically been portrayed by historians as a vengeful leader wracked with envy and desiring to build a political movement by whatever deceitful means might be necessary.[1] The most popular journalism history text, The Press and America by Emery and Emery, provides the conventional view: Adams “never forgot that his father had been ruined by [restrictive credit] laws and that he had thereby been cheated of his patrimony …. Somehow, Adams had to whittle the aristocrat down to size.”[2] Emery and Emery have Adams, out of pique, supposedly writing “smear attacks” that attempted to “arouse the masses — the real shock troops — by instilling hatred of enemies.”

A reading of Adams’ collected letters shows that, if The Press and America appraisal is correct, Adams lied not only to his enemies but to his friends as well. Unlike Michael Deaver and other recent public relations puppeteers, Adams told his friends that attempts to use cynical means to produce supposedly worthy ends were not only wrong but counter-productive: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.” [3] If Adams was a man bent on destruction, it is curious that he was so critical of the politically-arousing Stamp Act attack on the home of royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, which he called an action of “a truly mobbish Nature.”[4]

Furthermore, if Samuel Adams was a loose cannon, it is also peculiar that he spent more space in many of his columns defining the limits of protest than egging on his followers. Adams’ strong sense of lawfulness is indicated by his thinking concerning two protests, those following the Stamp Act demonstrations of August, 1765, and that which culminated in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Adams backed the former action because legislative methods and petitions already had failed; the House of Commons would not listen so the demonstration “was the only Method whereby they could make known their Objections to Measures.”[5] Adams also planned the Tea Party, but made it clear that nothing except tea was to be destroyed; when the patriots dressed as “Indians” accidentally broke a padlock, they later replaced it. [6]

A close look at Adams throws doubt on the conventional historians’ cartoon version of him. This article attempts to provide a different, and more accurate, view of Adams the man, journalist, theoretician, and center of influence.

Adams the Man
If transported to our present age of television journalism, Adams would have been a washout: he had a sunken chest, a sallow complexion and “wishy-washy gray eyes.”[7] Adams’ lips twitched and trembled, for he suffered from palsy. His clothes were drab and sometimes sloppy. Besides, Adams was a financial misfit who lived in an old, shabby house, and wrote much but earned little. John Adams put the best complexion on the surface prospects of his cousin when he wrote that “in common appearance he was a plain, simple, decent citizen, of middling stature, dress, and manners.” [8]

Looking beyond appearances, however, Adams possessed advantages. His good classical education made ancient times as real to him as his own; references to the political ups and downs of ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome came easily to his pen. He had the ability to write under almost any conditions. Adams typically composed his columns after evening prayers; his wife Elizabeth would go to bed but would sometimes awaken in the middle of the night and hear only the sound of her husband’s quill pen scratching on and on. But when Adams had to, he could write forceful prose amidst a town meeting.

With all his talent, Adams was modest. He did not write about himself, and had no problem with being in the background. Many journalists today make themselves the stars of their stories, but Adams believed that “political literature was to be as selfless as politics itself, designed to promote its cause, not its author.”[9] Adams’ self-effacement has made life harder for some historians: John Adams wrote that his cousin’s personality would “never be accurately known to posterity, as it was never sufficiently known to its own age.” (A minister wrote on October 3, 1803, the day after Adams’ death, that there had been “an impenetrable secrecy” about him.[10] ) But Adams’ willingness to have others take the credit worked wonders during his time. He chaired town meetings and led the applause for those who needed bucking up; for example, he pulled John Hancock onto the patriot side and promoted Hancock’s career.

What Adams, had he written about himself, probably would have stressed, was his orthodox Christian belief in the God of the Bible. The Great Awakening had made a permanent theological impression on him. That impression is evident in Adams’ writings and actions, in his prayers each morning and in his family Bible reading each evening. He frequently emphasized the importance of “Endeavors to Promote the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ,” and in good or bad times wrote of the need “to submit to the Dispensations of Heaven, Whose Ways are ever gracious, ever just.”[11 ] During the struggle of the 1760s and 1770s, Adams regularly set aside days of fasting and prayer to “seek the Lord.” When Adams, in 1777, wrote to a friend about the high points of one celebration, he stressed the sermon delivered that day; the friend wrote back, “An epicure would have said something about the clams, but you turn me to the prophet Isaiah.”[12]

Adams the Journalist
Adams was a traditional New Englander in his theology and style of living: John Adams called Samuel the Calvin of his day, and “a Calvinist” to the core.[13] (William Tudor in 1823 called Adams “a strict Calvinist…no individual of his day had so much feelings of the ancient puritans.” For Tudor, that meant Adams had “too much sternness and pious bigotry.”[14] ) Yet, Adams as journalist did not merely rely on established procedures; he altered the practice and significance of American journalism in four ways.

First, observing that “mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason,” Adams emphasized appeals to the whole person, not just to a disembodied intellect.[15] Emotions were to be taken seriously, for the “fears and jealousies of the people are not always groundless: And when they become general, it is not to be presum’d that they are; for the people in general seldom complain, without some good reason.”‘ [16] Adams assumed democratically that an issue of importance to the populace is not silly. He argued that ordinary citizens could “distinguish between ‘realities and sounds;’ and by a proper use of that reason which Heaven has given them,’ they can judge, as well as their betters, when there is danger of slavery.[” 17]

Second, Adams emphasized investigative reporting more vigorously than any American journalist before him had: He did so because “Publick Liberty will not long survive the Loss of publick Virtue.”[18] Adams argued that it was vital to track activities of those

who are watching every Opportunity to turn the good or ill Fortune of their Country, and they care not which to their own private Advantage…. Such Men there always have been and always will be, till human Nature itself shall be substantially meliorated.[19]

He went on to praise exposure of leaders who “having gained the Confidence of their Country, are sacrilegiously employing their Talents to the Ruin of its Affairs, for their own private Emolument.”[20] At the same time, however, Adams emphasized restraint in such exposure, as he emphasized restraint in all actions: Only those “capable of doing great Mischief” should be held up “to the publick Eye.”[21]

Third, he combined sensational exposure with an emphasis on political restraint. So far was Adams from “revolution” in the way the term was used in the French Revolution and afterwards that he described, in the Boston Gazette in 1768, how

the security of right and property, is the great end of government. Surely, then, such measures as tend to render right and property precarious, tend to destroy both property and government; for these must stand and fall together.[22]

He opposed dictatorship, whether popular or monarchical:

The Utopian schemes of levelling, and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable, as those which vest all property in the Crown, are arbitrary, despotic, and in our government unconstitutional. Now what property can the colonists be conceived to have, if their money may be granted away by others, without their consent?[23]

Some of the patriots did not share Adams’ emphasis on restraint, and it is not hard to compile a list of patriots’ “mobbish” acts. Yet the principles of the revolutionaries, and most of their practice, emphasized defense of property and freedom of accurate political expression.

Fourth, Adams always tried to make connections between attacks on political rights and attempts to restrict religious rights. In a Boston Gazette column that he signed, “A Puritan,” Adams described how he was pleased with attention paid to politics but:

surpriz’d to find, that so little attention is given to the danger we are in, of the utter loss of those religious Rights, the enjoyment of which our good forefathers had more especially in their intention, when they explored and settled this new world.[24]

He saw acquiescence in political slavery as preparation for submission to religious slavery:

I could not help fancying that the Stamp-Act itself was contrived with a design only to inure the people to the habit of contemplating themselves as the slaves of men; and the transition from thence to a subjection to Satan, is mighty easy.[25]

Adams the Theoretician
It is astounding that some historians have seen Adams solely as a political plotter; for Adams, the religious base came first. One of his arguments against imposed taxes was that the money could go for establishment of a state “Episcopate in America…the revenue raised in America, for ought we can tell, may be constitutionally applied towards the support of prelacy…” [26] Adams favored investigative reporting and appropriate emotional appeal because he wanted readers to know about and care about attempts to take away their freedom, political and religious. He opposed destructive revolutionary acts because he saw them as eventually reducing freedom, political and religious — with the results of the English civil war as a case in point. From all these strands Adams was able to weave an understanding of when journalists, and citizens generally, should be willing to fight.

The understanding came out of the Puritan idea of covenant and its political-economic corollary, contract. In 1765, Adams had written of himself and his neighbors,

We are the Descendants of Ancestors remarkable for their Zeal for true Religion & Liberty: When they found it was no longer possible for them to bear any Part in the Support of this glorious Cause in their Native Country England, they transplanted themselves at their own very great Expence, into the Wilds of America…[27]

Their ancestors took those risks in order to establish “the Worship of God, according to their best Judgment, upon the Plan of the New Testament; to maintain it among themselves, and transmit it to their Posterity.” [28] Crucially, they did so on the basis of a signed contract: “A Charter was granted them by King Charles the first,” Adams noted, and “a successor charter” was granted (through the lobbying of Increase Mather) in 1691. [29]

Adams, in column after column, explained the basis of the contract: The colonists “promised the King to enlarge his Dominion, on their own Charge, provided that They & their Posterity might enjoy such and such Privileges.”[30] Adams wrote that the colonists “have performed their Part, & for the King to deprive their Posterity of the Privileges, therein granted, would carry the Face of Injustice in it.” Colloquially, a deal’s a deal, and London’s attempt to tax the colonists was one indication that the deal was being broken, since the charter gave the colonists “an exclusive Right to make Laws for our own internal Government & Taxation.” [31]

In emphasizing the breaking of the contract, Adams was not developing new political theology. John Calvin had written that “Every commonwealth rests upon laws and agreements,” and had then noted “the mutual obligation of head and members.” John Cotton, following that line of argument, had concluded that “the rights of him who dissolves the contract are forfeited.” Puritans long had insisted that just as God establishes a covenant with man, so kings have a contract with their subject (and although God would never break His agreement, kings might). But Adams took that idea and developed from it a theory of when writers should criticize and when they should refrain from criticism. Once a government had been established along Biblical principles, criticism of its departure from those principles was proper — but criticism designed to topple the government in order to establish it upon new principles was improper.

To put this another way, what could be called a conservative revolution, one designed to restore previously-contracted rights, was proper, but a social revolution designed to establish new conditions was not. This made sense not only as a pragmatic way to avoid bloodshed and chaos, but because of Adams’ belief (expressed as early as 1748) that societies in any case represent the strengths and weaknesses of their members. The real need in a contract-based society, he argued, was for individual change (which can lead to social change) and not for social revolution.

Adams’ Influence
Although it is difficult to trace direct patterns of influence, it is worth noting that other New England writers soon followed Adams’ lead (or arrived at similar conclusions through other means) in arguing that London had broken its contract with the colonists. John Lathrop declared in 1774 that a person who “makes an alteration in the established constitution, whether he be subject or a ruler, is guilty of treason.” He asserted that colonists “may and ought, to resist, and even make war against those rulers who leap the bounds prescribed them by the constitution, and attempt to oppress and enslave the subjects….”[33] Lathrop, like Adams, concluded that King and Parliament, by attempting to lord it over colonial assemblies, were overthrowing England’s constitution.[34]

Patriots outside of New England also expressed many of the ideas that Adams had brought forth so vigorously. The South-Carolina Gazette expressed concern that British officials were claiming “the power of breaking all our charter.”[35 ] A columnist in the Pennsylvania Evening Post declared that “resisting the just and lawful power of government” was rebellion but resisting “unjust and usurped power was not.” [36] The Virginia Gazette saw British authorities moving to apply “the Rod of Despotism” to “every Colony that moves in Defence of Liberty.” [37] In Connecticut, the Norwich Packet argued that liberty was like an inheritance, “a sacred deposit which it would be treason against Heaven to betray.”[38]

The patriotic journalists also were with Adams in pointing to specific violations of the contract, rather than raging against the British system generally. For example, Massachusetts citizens were supposed to be able to control their own government, with the royal governor having a relatively minor role and not a large bureaucracy, but Josiah Quincy, Jr., in the Boston Gazette, showed how “pensioners, stipendiaries, and salary-men” were “hourly multiplying on us.”[39] In New Hampshire, the Executive Council was supposed to provide the governor with a broad array of colonists’ views, but the colony’s correspondent complained in the Boston Evening-Post that relatives of Governor John Wentworth filled all but one Council seat of it.[40]

Increasingly, the patriot journalists saw such exposure of corruption as part of their calling; soon, as Adams has written in the Boston Gazette, the British learned that “there is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a FREE PRESS.”[41] Isaiah Thomas, editor of The Massachusetts Spy, adopted Adams’ theme in noting that, without a free press, there would be “padlocks on our lips, fetters on our legs, and only our hands left at liberty to slave for our worse than Egyptian task masters…” [42] But again, the emphasis (as in Adams’ writing) was on officeholders’ betrayal of existing laws, not on revolutionary imposition of new ones: The mission of the Boston Gazette, its editors declared, was to “strip the serpents of their stings, and consign to disgrace, all those guileful betrayers of their country.”[43]

The patriotic restraint demanded by Adams generally continued right up to the beginning of warfare. Even in 1774, under extreme pressure, Adams’ response to the Intolerable Acts, contained in a resolution passed by Suffolk County, continued to emphasize contract, not revolution. The resolution recommended economic sanctions against the British and proposed the formation of an armed patriot militia, but it also attacked any attempt

by unthinking persons to commit outrage upon private property; we would heartily recommend to all persons of this community not to engage in riots, routs, or licentious attacks upon the properties of any person whatsoever, as being subversive of all order and government.[44]

Newspapers portrayed the war, once begun, as a defense of order and legitimate government: “We have taken up arms, it is true,” the Virginia Gazette noted, “but this we have undoubted right to do, in defence of the British constitution.”[45]

Samuel Adams had his counterparts in other colonies: Cornelius Harnett was called “the Samuel Adams of North Carolina” and Charles Thomson was called “the Samuel Adams of Philadelphia.”[46] But Adams himself was the best at taking Bible-based theories and heightening them journalistically. His printed response to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence shows Adams at his finest. He wrote that “the hand of Heaven appears to have led us on to be, perhaps, humble instruments and means in the great providential dispensation which is completing.”[47] He stated plainly his sense of the Declaration of Independence:

We have explored the temple of royalty, and found that the idol we have bowed down to has eyes which see not, ears that hear not our prayers, and a heart like the nether millstone. We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient.[48]

He explained that previous generations

lopped off, indeed, some of the branches of Popery, but they left the root and stock when they left us under the domination of human systems and decisions, usurping the infallibility which can be attributed to revelation alone. They dethroned one usurper, only to raise up another; they refused allegiance to the Pope, only to place the civil magistrate in the throne of Christ, vested with authority to enact laws and inflict penalties in his kingdom. [49]

Adams followed those statements with his key rhetorical question: “Were the talents and virtues which Heaven has bestowed on men given merely to make them more obedient drudges, to be sacrificed to the follies and ambition of a few…? He responded,

The hand of Heaven appears to have led us on to be, perhaps, humble instruments and means in the great providential dispensation which is completing. We have fled from the political Sodom; let us not look back, lest we perish and become a monument of infamy and derision to the world![50]

Such editorial fervency moved a generation. It may move us today also, if we have ears to hear.


[1] John C. Miller, Samuel Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda, (Boston: LIttle, Borwn, 1936).

[2] Michael and Edwin Emery, The Press and American, 6th edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1988), p. 58.

[3] Included in William Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, (New York, 1865-16=868), three vols., I, pp. 22-23.

[4] Ibid, I, p. 60.

[5] Ibid, I. p.10.

[6] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence, (New York, 1957), p. 22, tells this story.

[7] Donald Barr Cidsey, The World of Samuel Adams, (Nashville, 1974), p. 9.

[8] Quoted in Stewart Beach, Samuel Adams: The Fateful Years, 1764-1776, (New York: 1965), p. 13.

[9] Quoted in Pauline Maier, The Old Revolutionaries, (New York, 1980), p. 37.

[10] Ibid, p. 4

[11] Harry Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams, 4 vols. (New York, 1904), vol. I, p. 33, and voll. III, p. 220.

[12] Maier, P. 47.

[13] Ibid, p. 7.

[14] William Tudor, The Life of James Otis, (Boston, 1923), pp. 274-75.

[15] Writings, III, p. 284. Adams’ willingness to emphasize emotional, human interest stories has bothered some historians.

[16] Boston Gazette, January 21, 1771.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Writings,, IV, p. 108.

[19] Boston Gazette, January 21, 1771.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Writings, IV, pp. 106-107. Adams realized extremely well the dangers of investigative journalism to the journalist; he noted that the writer who exposes does so “at the Risque of his own Reputation; for it is a thousand to one but those whose Craft he pust at Hazard, will give him the odious Epithets of suspicious dissatisfiable peevish quarrelsome &”c.”

[22] Boston Gazette, April 4, 1768.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Adams, Writings, I., p. 27.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, I. pp. 27-28.

[32] See John W. Whitehead, An American Dream, (Westchester, Il.:, 1987) p. 62.

[33] John Lathrop, quoted in Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, (New York, 1928), p. 181.

[34] Ibid.

[35] South-Carolina Gazette, June 20, 1774.

[36] Pennsylvania Evening Post, June 27, 1775.

[37] Virginia Gazette, June 20, 1774.

[38] Norwich Packett, November 6, 1775.

[39] Boston Gazette, October 3, 1768.

[40] Boston Evening-Post, June 16, 1770.

[41] Boston Gazette, March 7, 1768.

[42] Massachusetts Spy, October 8, 1772.

[43] Boston Gazette, March 7, 1768, column signed “The True Patriot”.

[44] Quoted in Benjamin Hart, Faith and Freedom, (Dallas, 1988), p. 262.

[45] Virginia Gazette, December 8, 1775.

[46] Maier, p. 3. Many historians have attacked Adams’s beliefs and his methodology. John Eliot in 1807 called him “austere…rigid…opinionated”. [A Biographical Dictionary (Salem, 1807), p. 7] James Hosmer in 1885 did not like the “sharp practice” that Adams as journalist sometimes used (Hosmer, Samuel Adams (Boston, 1885), pp. 68, 229, 3680. See Maier, pp. 11-16, for a discussion of twentieth century historiographical trends.

[47] Quoted in Bejamin F. Morris, Christian Life and Character of the Civil Insitutions of the United States, (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1864), p. 115. Some historians have mistakenly asusmed that references by Adams and his contemporaries to “Providence” menat a movement away from belief in a theistic God, when exactly the opposite is true: reference to God’s Providence distingished theists from deists who posited a clockwork universe in which God had created all but then gone on vacation.

[48] Samuel Adams, An Oration: Delivered at the State-House in Philadelphia, to very Numerous Audience, as Thursday the 1st of August, 1776. (Philadelphia, 1776).

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

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