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Historian Brings Forgotten Forefather Back into Spotlight

Date: May 23, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover
Archive: Research News

Who was the father of the American Revolution? He's a man who seldom gets much credit these days -- except as a brewer, which he really wasn't. Move over John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, it's Samuel Adams, the subject of a new biography written by John K. Alexander, professor of history in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

BookAlexander's new book, Samuel Adams: America's Revolutionary Politician, takes a new look at a man who was regarded as a great hero in the early 19th century, yet has been often been overlooked or even discounted in the intervening 150 years.

"Samuel Adams is not nearly as well known today as he should be. He clearly is not seen today as of the same order as the presidents. There is much more attention given to the presidents like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson," says Alexander, an expert on the American Revolutionary era. Even worse, many people don't even realize who Samuel Adams is. While a former student of Alexander's who is now a lawyer in Chicago was reading the new biography on the "El," three people interrupted him to ask if the book was about Samuel Adams beer.

According to Alexander, Samuel Adams, the founding father, deserves much more credit than he gets, because he truly was "the helmsman of the American Revolution," as Jefferson dubbed him. The label is an accurate one, Alexander contends, "if we are talking about the achievement of independence. Samuel Adams, more than anybody, consistently and ardently worked to convince Americans of the need for independence. He strove to keep the revolutionary movement alive when others - including John Adams and John Hancock - abandoned the movement for a period in the early 1770s."

A Bostonian, Samuel Adams was the second cousin of John Adams and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Samuel became an early and major figure who spoke out for American liberty. He drafted vital protests against every major British taxing and enforcement policy from the Sugar Act of 1764 through the Coercive Acts of 1774. In addition, he was recognized by his contemporaries as the first firm advocate of independence from Britain.

Adams also unwaveringly strove to protect people's basic rights and emphasized the importance of virtue, liberty, a sense of duty and education in fashioning a republican society, Alexander writes. "He is the most consistent person I know from the revolutionary era," his biographer says. "He was a man who was committed to trying to defend liberty. He was a remarkably upright man." Although it might seem an impossible combination to the modern Americans, Samuel Adams, Alexander insists, was not only upright, he was arguably America's first modern politician. "He made politics his lifelong occupation; he pioneered ways of drawing the people into the political process; he understood the importance of using the media as well as any modern political spokesperson."

From his youth, Adams was drawn to politics. At first, his parents wanted to set him on the path of ministry. When that didn't meet with Samuel's fancies, they tried business. But his first boss, Thomas Cushing, decided that Adams, a Harvard graduate, was not merchant material. "As Cushing reportedly saw it, young Samuel worked hard and was intelligent, but he lacked business sense, in part because politics dominated his thoughts," writes Alexander.

Instead, public office became Adams' calling. He served as a member and clerk of the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature. He was elected to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1781 and to the committee that formed the country's first government under the Articles of Confederation. He was also a delegate to the Massachusetts convention that ratified the proposed U.S. Constitution in 1788 and later served as governor of Massachusetts.

John K. Alexander

Many historians have portrayed Adams as an extremist and a dictator who manipulated the colonial "mob" and distorted the facts to bring out a revolution, but Alexander argues that although Adams was a skilled propagandist and politician, he did not control the masses. And he showed political flexibility even as he stuck to his main belief that a constitutional government should protect liberties and provide a legal means to redress grievances.

He held those who sought public adoration and popularity in disdain. Although he later allied with him again, for years he greatly disliked John Hancock, who was a man who craved "the sunshine of public adulation" and sought popularity, Alexander writes. "Politically, Hancock resembled a well-oiled weather vane.

He easily shifted positions according to the prevailing winds or public opinion. If he could not feel how those winds blew, he wavered and avoided taking a firm position."

Samuel Adams was appalled when Hancock insisted upon a military escort to accompany his carriage to Boston, after leaving Congress in the summer of 1778 in the midst of manpower problems created by the war. Even when Adams achieved wealth late in life, he didn't own a carriage; he lived modestly and he dressed plainly, holding those infatuated by fancy clothes, lavish parties and expensive lifestyles in disregard.

One of the reasons Samuel Adams fell out of higher regard in the collective historic memory is that he had reservations about the U.S. Constitution. Although he voted for the Constitution and staunchly supported it once it was ratified, he at first believed the Articles of Confederation should be revised into a workable new government. He did not favor a whole new framework that might, he warned, give too much power to the central government. At the Massachusetts ratifying convention of 1788, he sought to have a lengthy amendment added to the Constitution that would protect people from unreasonable searches and protect rights such as freedom of speech, press and bearing arms. Although his amendment was not adopted, he and others critical of the Constitution received assurances that amendments would be added later.

Three years later, when the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in December 1791, "Adams could have gloated," Alexander notes, because it contained most of the guaranties that his lengthy amendment had introduced in 1788.

But even then, Adams was not satisfied. He found the 10th amendment defective because it left too much ambiguity on state authority vs. federal authority. Rather than limiting the powers of the central government to those "expressly" delegated to it, as Samuel Adams favored, the amendment left out the word "expressly" and merely said the powers not delegated to the national government were reserved to the states or the people. This defect "created constitutional ambiguity which Adams loathed and would remain a matter of controversy more than 200 years later," Alexander says.

Samuel Adams: America's Revolutionary Politician (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.) is available in hardcover now and will be released in paperback in spring 2003.

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