Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Samuel Adams: Thinking about the American Revolution

"Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say 'what should be the reward of such sacrifices?' Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship and plough, and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom, go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen!”
— Samuel Adams

To some, Samuel Adams was an American patriot who helped steer the colonies towards independence from Britain; to others, he was a propagandist who hoped to promote mob violence. Consequently, he was the most controversial figure among the founding fathers. He was, none the less, a statesman and a political philosopher. Ironically, he had never traveled outside of Massachusetts until he attended the 1st Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774. He did serve as a leader in the American rebellion against the British Parliament and was a firm advocate of the rights of colonial America as well as a staunch supporter of a republican form of governance.

“The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending against all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks.”

— Samuel Adams

He was a Bostonian and an active participant in that city’s Town Hall meetings, a distinctively form of governance still practiced today in some of the New England states today. This gave him a voice in civic affairs and placed him in a very critical location at a pivotal time in our country’s history. Boston seemed to be the ‘lightning rod’ for much of the early colonial activism against the British abuses during the 1760s and early 1770s. It was the demarcation point between the British merchant and military fleets and the initial hotbed of American independence, including the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It was here that four regiments of British red coats landed and occupied the city. While other colonies gave strong voice to resistance against the British, it was in Boston where the initial confrontations, including the so-called ‘Boston Massacre’ took place. The Bostonians were not going to tolerate the British military occupation quietly. And who was behind much of this? The patriot Samuel Adams filled that role.

"And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms; or to raise standing armies, unless necessary for the defense of the United States, or of some one or more of them; or to prevent the people from petitioning, in a peaceable and orderly manner, the federal legislature, for a redress of grievances; or to subject the people to unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, papers or possessions."

— Samuel Adams

So, how did Samuel Adams play such a critical role in all of this? Let’s take a closer look…

Samuel Adams (1722 – 1803)

"The Constitution shall never be construed... to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”
— Samuel Adams

"The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.”

— Samuel Adams

Samuel Adams was a philosophical follower of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government which provided Adams with the basis for a series of essays on this subject. In essence, Adams advocated strong resistance against any action of the British Parliament to exert control over the internal affairs of the American colonies. These colonies were operating under charters issued by the British Monarchy and not via the laws of Parliament, in which the colonies had not representation. The colonial charters gave the settlers a great degree of independence in their internal affairs. This all changed after the end of the ‘French and Indian War’ (or, as the Europeans knew it, the ‘Seven Years War’) the British treasury was almost depleted of resources. The Parliament, in an attempt to replenish the treasury, imposed a series of taxes upon all British subjects; those in England had representation in the British Parliament while those in the colonies did not. Therefore, the taxation of the American colonies was philosophically intolerable to the colonists, especially those in Boston, since they were not represented in Parliament. These colonists considered this as ‘taxation without representation’ on the American colonies, especially Massachusetts.

"It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds”

— Samuel Adams

Furthermore, Samuel Adams advocated the position that the colonies were essentially promised self-governance by their charters. The colonists, therefore, were given certain rights that were outside the control of the Parliament. Within Adams’ and Locke’s viewpoint, this included the rights of Life, Liberty, and Property. Adams viewed these new taxes levied upon the colonies, although not overbearing, as outrageous and illegal – an attempt by Parliament to gain legitimate control over the internal affairs of the colonies. Indeed, they were intended to limit the sovereignty of the colonialists. These actions were strongly to be resisted. Thus, Boston became a ‘powder keg’ ready to explode into revolution.

"Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.”

— Samuel Adams

And who would light the match to this revolution? Samuel Adams, of course! He was a strong advocate for a democratic republic directly elected by the people. As a delegate to both the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses, he strongly pushed this position with the congresses. While not a great debater, he was a strong influence behind the scenes, like a congressional ‘whip’ in our present Congress. He helped write both the Massachusetts’ Constitution and the Articles of Confederation. He incorporated into both of these documents the annual elections, states’ rights and no strong central government that could be demeaned into the abuses of the British Monarchy. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, he joined with Jefferson and Madison in defending these states’ rights and controlling the Federal (central) government. He didn’t believe in the need for a strong central control of monies, a standing army or navy, or the rights to tax the citizens. By the strict interpretation of the Constitution, these were prerogatives reserved for the states.

Was Samuel Adams a politician? Yes he was, but by choice or happenstance, he spent his life dedicated to Massachusetts and Boston, serving in the state legislature, as governor, and in other local positions. He never served in any national position nor did he cross the pond to serve in any diplomatic position. He was a dedicated Bostonian patriot and public servant. He was satisfied in that role and dedicated his life to that city and to the search for freedom and virtue.

"Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they can never act as a wise part of the government of societies, great or small in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system."

— Samuel Adams

Would we have had an American Revolution without Samuel Adams? Probably, but providence would have needed to have provided us with a firebrand like Adams. He was the right man in the right place at the right time in our country’s history. He facilitated the revolution, so, Mr. Adams, THANK YOU for fulfilling your historic role in our quest for freedom!

Next Time: We will examine the contributions of John Marshall, a significant Chief Justice. Join us for this review…

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