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'Samuel Adams' Gets to the Heart of Our Founding Fathers' Beliefs

History Professor John K. Alexander's new book shines fresh light on the beliefs of America's founding fathers through the insights and revelations of Samuel Adams.

Date: 7/19/2011
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-0142
Photos By: Ryan Varney
You recently published a new book, "Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary." What inspired you to write about him?

Decades of studying and teaching about the era of the America Revolution convinced me that Samuel Adams was a titan of America’s greatest generation—the generation that achieved independence and crafted written constitutions that made the ideal of republican government a living reality in the new nation. In the 19th century, Adams was typically praised as one of the greatest heroes of the Revolution. But throughout the 20th century he was often denigrated as a mob-leading demagogue. I wanted to correct that misrepresentation of Adams and I want to correct it in part because the misrepresentation slanders the ordinary people who helped produce independence. In addition, Adams biographers have typically glided over or distorted his important role in creating governments and reshaping the society of the new nation. In sum, I believed Samuel Adams merited a modern biography that would be both judicious and a true full-life biography.
Professor of History John K. Alexander publishes a new book on Samuel Adams.
Professor of History John K. Alexander publishes a new book on Samuel Adams.

What are some reasons people should read this book?  

If one has a special interest in the America Revolution, the book is a natural. Samuel’s cousin and fellow revolutionary John Adams proclaimed that “without the true character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.” James Sullivan, an old friend of Samuel, expressed a similar thought when he wrote a lengthy obituary upon Adams’s death in 1803. Saying he had produced “but a gazette sketch” of Samuel Adams, Sullivan asserted that “to give his history at length, would be to give an history of the American revolution.” The fact is: despite their boldness, there is much truth in the judgments John Adams and James Sullivan offered. 

Even if one is not deeply interested in the era of the America Revolution, it is worth remembering that Americans, especially politicians, routinely invoke those called “founding fathers” to give legitimacy to their own positions. But all too often the claims advanced by whose who invoke the founders are riddled with error if not intentional misrepresentation. To protect oneself against this form of distortion, one needs to read history built on what I call the historian’s cardinal rule: a historian must go where the evidence leads even if the historian does not like what the research uncovers. "Samuel Adams" was crafted on that basis and is especially relevant for issues that resonate today. For example, Samuel played a central role in events such as the Boston Tea Party, the creation of U.S. Constitution and the fight to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. So he participated in the heated battles of the 1780s and 1790s over how to protect the people’s rights while also ensuring that governments would have the powers necessary to function effectively. And Samuel took clear and consistent stances on issues such as taxes and debt and on the proper role of public education. In all these areas, and more, "Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary" elucidates what those called “founding fathers” believed and tried to achieve. 

Has writing this book changed your perspective on Samuel Adams? 

Writing the book changed my perspective on Samuel Adams in one important way. I already knew that he believed government must be rooted in the rule of law and that he acted from a principled desire to defend the people’s basic rights. I also knew that Samuel did not crave money, did not thrust for popularity and despised pomp. But reading all of his writings and assessing his actions gave me a new and deeper appreciation of how Adams’ words and deeds provide a veritable guide to responsible citizenship and public service in a republic. If America’s voters and elected officials strove to meet the standards Samuel Adams enunciated and acted upon, America would benefit mightily.

The History Book Club named your book an editor’s pick for July 2011. What does it mean to you to have the support of such an influential club? 

It means a great deal to have the book featured by the History Book Club (HBC). Indeed, I was tempted to open a bottle of champagne when the news arrived. For me, the vital fact is that a great many people who might otherwise not encounter the book will know about it because of the HBC’s action.
Do you have any future projects in the works? 

I am serving as editor for the Liberty Fund reprinting of William Gordon’s "History of the Rise, Progress, & Establishment of the Independence of the United States" originally published in four volumes in 1788. And I recently agreed to do an essay on Samuel Adams that would appear in a book tentatively titled "Revolutionary Families: Portraits of the Founding Fathers as Husbands and Parents."

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