As we celebrate the 231st birthday of the United States of America, we honor our country and the ideals of our nation’s founding. Rarely, though, do we give sufficient contemplation to the Founders, who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to declare the united colonies free and independent states, with the separate and equal station of full nationhood among the powers of the earth.
Founder Benjamin Rush recalled Independence Day 1776: “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the House when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress [John Hancock] to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?” He lamented, on the 35th independence celebration, “scarcely a word was said of the solicitude and labors and fears and sorrows and sleeplessness nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and subscribed [signed] the
Declaration of Independence.”
In our age of fillips and flippancies, we may find the Signers’ courage and character impossible to fathom. …Or, perhaps, better to use more classical terms — in all their senses — for our Founders were men of virtue and integrity.
One Signer of the Declaration of Independence particularly inspires us. We hope the spirit that motivated Samuel Adams imbues our work.
Adams provided the most complete expression of the ideas driving the American Revolution. He was also one of the earliest to recognize the ultimate objects of growing British tyranny in the 1760s, and his popularity waxed and waned with the temper of the times. When in 1770 the British repealed most of the burdensome taxes imposed on the colonies, his influence declined. His prescience and precision in language earned him the descriptor “incendiary”; his principles earned him the reputation of “radical.” But he was mistakenly so branded, as shown in this passage from October 1773: “We are far from desiring that the connection between Britain & America should be broken. Esto perpetua, is our ardent wish; but upon the terms only of equal liberty.”
Adams often wrote anonymously, as we do; among his more colorful pseudonyms were “A Chatterer,” “Candidus,” “Vindex,” “Determinatus,” and “Valerius Poplicola.” This, which he penned in April 1773, could as easily describe The Federalist today: “It is no wonder that a measure calculated to promote a correspondence and a free communication among the people, should awaken apprehensions; for they well know that it must detect their falsehood in asserting that the people of this country were satisfied with the measures … and the administration of government.” And Adams could have been paraphrasing our aspiration to humilitas, in “political literature … as selfless as politics itself, designed to promote its cause, not its author.”
Adams believed, as we do, that liberty and virtue are inseparable: “Liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.” And: “As long as the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader….If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.” He was a devout Christian: “First of all, I … rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ for a pardon of all my sins.”
Samuel Adams studied classics and science, eventually earning a master’s degree from Harvard College. From an early career in merchant trades, he later joined his father’s brewery business. He was never financially prosperous; at times, near poverty. But his natural genius was in politics.
Personally modest and unpretentious, he shunned such stylish affectations as powdered wigs. His cousin John Adams described him as “in common appearance, he was a plain, simple, decent citizen, of middling stature, dress, and manners.”
But John also coined the term “working the political machine,” complimenting Samuel as a master of those arts of practical politics: from forming activist groups like the Sons of Liberty and organizing galvanizing events such as the Boston Tea Party, to literary agitation and revolutionary philosophy. His oratorical skills incited passions for liberty, as John recalled: “Upon great occasions, when his deeper feelings were excited…nature seemed to erect him, without the smallest symptom of affectation, into an upright dignity of figure and gesture and gave a harmony to his voice which made a strong impression on spectators and auditors — the more lasting for the purity, correctness, and nervous elegance of his style.”
A delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, Adams also voted to ratify the Constitution. When the colonial governor offered a blanket amnesty to colonials who would lay down their arms, he specifically refused to pardon only Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Mid-career, Adams fell into disfavor over his vehement opposition to a strong national government.
His “The Rights of the Colonists,” also called “The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, Nov. 20, 1772,” contained original outlines of the political philosophy undergirding both the Declaration and the Constitution. Indeed, the lack of self-promotion his virtuous modesty required means that Adams is rarely credited sufficiently for his contributions to our nation’s founding. Referring to this Adams essay, the Massachusetts colony’s Governor Thomas Hutchinson noted, “the Grand Incendiary of the Province prepared a long report for a committee appointed by the town, in which, after many principles inferring independence were laid down, many resolves followed, all of them tending to sedition and mutiny, and some of them expressly denying Parliamentary authority.”
And as John Adams wrote 50 years afterward, erroneously minimizing his cousin’s role: “As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it [the Declaration of Independence] but what had been hackneyed in Congress two years before. The substance of it is contained in the Declaration of Rights, and the Violations of those Rights, in the journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet voted and printed by the town of Boston before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.”
Samuel Adams speaks to the afflictions of our superficial age still — if we would but listen: He questioned the patriotism of anyone “who gives his suffrage for any man to fill a public office, merely because he is rich…. The giving such a preference to riches is both dishonourable and dangerous to a government, [which] argues a base, degenerate, servile temper of mind. I hope our country will never see the time, when either riches or the want of them will be the leading considerations in the choice of public officers. Whenever riches shall be deemed a necessary qualification, ambition as well as avarice will prompt men most earnestly to thirst for them….”
What would be his perspective on economic globalization? “If our trade may be taxed, why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands, and every thing we possess, or use? This we conceive annihilates our charter rights to govern and tax ourselves. …If tastes are laid upon us in any shape, without our having a legal representation, where they are laid, we are reduced from the character of free subjects, to the state of tributary slaves.”
On representative leadership amid cultural conflicts? “We cannot make events. Our business is wisely to improve them. …It requires time to bring honest men to think and determine alike even in important matters. Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason. Events which excite those feelings will produce wonderful effects.”
About the friction between religious liberty and faith-based initiatives? “The civil magistrate has everywhere contaminated religion by making it an engine of policy; and freedom of thought and the right of private judgment, in matters of conscience, driven from every other corner of the earth….” And: “…our enemies have made it an object, to eradicate from the minds of the people in general a sense of true religion and virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their point of enslaving them.”
After the unsatisfactory conclusion to Mr. Clinton’s impeachment, we were sustained by Samuel Adams: “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; and posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”
How, then, can we best honor Samuel Adams and the other oft forgotten Founders this Independence Day? By striving to rebuild the foundation they so carefully laid for our national home. As Adams himself would have chided us, “…no people ever yet groaned under the heavy yoke of slavery, but when they deserv’d it. …The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom, and defended it as they ought. …If therefore a people will not be free; if they have not virtue enough to maintain their liberty against a presumptuous invader, they deserve no pity, and are to be treated with contempt and ignominy.”
He would have warned: “If the liberties of America are ever compleatly ruined, of which in my opinion there is now the utmost danger, it will in all probability be the consequence of a mistaken notion of prudence, which leads men to acquiesce in measures of the most destructive tendency for the sake of present ease. When designs are form’d to rase the very foundation of a free government, those few who are to erect their grandeur and fortunes upon the general ruin, will employ every art to sooth the devoted people into a state of indolence, inattention and security, which is forever the fore-runner of slavery. They are alarmed at nothing so much, as attempts to awaken the people to jealousy and watchfulness; and it has been an old game played over and over again, to hold up the men who would rouse their fellow citizens and countrymen to a sense of their real danger, and spirit them to the most zealous activity in the use of all proper means for the preservation of the public liberty, as ‘pretended patriots,’ ‘intemperate politicians,’ rash, hot-headed men, incendiaries, wretched desperadoes, who, as was said of the best of men, would turn the world upside down, or have done it already.”
He would have reminded: “The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have receiv’d them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: They purchas’d them for us with toil and danger and expence of treasure and blood; and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlight’ned as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle; or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. Of the latter we are in most danger at present: Let us therefore be aware of it. Let us contemplate our forefathers and posterity; and resolve to maintain the rights bequeath’d to us from the former, for the sake of the latter. Instead of sitting down satisfied with the efforts we have already made, which is the wish of our enemies, the necessity of the times, more than ever, calls for our utmost circumspection, deliberation, fortitude and perseverance. Let us remember, that ‘if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom.’ It is a very serious consideration, which should deeply impress our minds, that millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers in the event.”
Samuel Adams knew the stakes are high: “Courage, then, my countrymen, our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.”
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