October 2, 1803

Samuel Adams Dies

On this day in 1803, the fiery patriot Samuel Adams died at the age of 81. A complete failure as a businessman, he was a brilliant political organizer, a talented writer, and a passionate public speaker. He founded the Sons of Liberty and was almost certainly the main instigator of the Boston Tea Party. He helped organize a movement to boycott British goods and devised the notion of uniting towns through Committees of Correspondence. He called for representatives of all Britain's American colonies to gather together. When they did, he was chosen a delegate to the first Continental Congress. He was able to go to Philadelphia only because his friends provided him with a new suit, wig, shoes, silk hose, and money to cover his expenses.

His detractors called him a rabble rouser, an instigator, and a dangerous troublemaker.

When Samuel Adams died in 1803, he was mourned as one of America's greatest patriots. He had served in the U.S. Senate and as governor of the Commonwealth. But in his heyday as one of the most radical members of the revolutionary generation, Samuel Adams had a more mixed reputation. His detractors called him a rabble rouser, an instigator, and a dangerous troublemaker. To those who shared his dedication to the cause of independence, he was a gifted political organizer and a passionate and articulate spokesman.

Born into a prosperous Boston family, he soon squandered most of the advantages of his position. His father sent him to Harvard and then supported him while he studied law; young Adams decided not to be a lawyer. His father helped to set him up in business; the large sum his father had provided was soon gone. Adams was 26 when his father died; over the next ten years, he lost most of his inheritance, including a house in Boston and his family's brewery, and ran up debts he could not pay. At mid-life, Samuel Adams was barely able to support his wife and two children. He depended on his wife's domestic economies and the gifts of neighbors. By 1764 when the British Parliament began to crack down on the colonies, he gave up any attempts at business and devoted himself to politics.

His cousin, John Adams, called him "a universal good character . . . unless it should be admitted that he is too attentive to the public, and not enough to himself and his family."

Samuel Adams may have been a complete failure as a businessman, but he had a talent for political organizing. He was sociable, articulate, and politically astute. He wrote brilliant letters and newspaper pieces criticizing the conservative elite. He was a passionate public speaker and knew how to rouse the emotions of the common people. His cousin, John Adams, called him "a universal good character . . . unless it should be admitted that he is too attentive to the public, and not enough to himself and his family."

After 1764, when the quarrel between the colonists and Parliament grew increasingly bitter, Samuel Adams had little time for anything other than politics. He was an early convert to the cause of independence, and set about inflaming public sentiment against the British crown. He played a leading role in opposition to the Townshend Acts and in the movement to boycott British goods, and stirred up popular hatred of the Redcoats quartered in Boston — a hatred that eventually lead to the Boston Massacre.

Whenever the momentum towards revolution seemed to slow, Samuel Adams found a way to stir up controversy and incite mobs to action. In 1774, he began publishing anti-British articles in the Boston papers. His writing fanned public fears that the king and Parliament were conspiring to deprive the colonists of their liberty. Having devised the notion of uniting towns through committees of correspondence, he drafted declarations of rights and grievances for them to adopt.

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace."

After the war, Samuel Adams used his revolutionary credentials to secure positions in the new government. He served a term as senator in the 1780s and as governor in the 1790s, but he was no longer the commanding figure he had once been. He led a quiet life until his death at age 81. His powers of persuasion are remembered in the words he addressed to those of his countrymen who sided with the king:

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."

If You Go

A state of Sam Adams is located in the plaza in front of Faneuil Hall. Many walking tours given by rangers from the Boston National Historical Park begin at this spot. 

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Samuel Adams: Son of Liberty, Father of Revolution, by Benjamin H. Irvin (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. I

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