When John Adams arrived in France in 1779 to assist Benjamin Franklin in his crucial work of obtaining loans and battleships for America's War of Independence, the first question he was asked was whether he was the "famous" Adams.
"Le fameux Adams? Ah, le fameux Adams," his French greeters cooed, politely ignoring his embarrassed attempts to correct them. To John's exasperation, only slightly cloaked decades later in his amusing description of his reception, the world famous Adams at the time was not the future president and "Atlas of Independence" (as one of his congressional colleagues called him) but his second cousin Samuel Adams, the hothead and fiercely partisan rabble-rouser.
Now, of course, the tables are turned. John has received the warm embrace of David McCullough's kindly prose and has become an improbable HBO miniseries idol, while Sam Adams is best known as perhaps America's finest brand of beer.
Yet a case can be made that Samuel Adams was a key player in America's struggle for liberty, as Ira Stoll argues in his sprightly new biography. Calling Samuel Adams "the moral conscience of the American Revolution," Stoll contends that his intense religious beliefs--notably his faith that God would support the cause of liberty as long as Americans proved worthy of it--inspired his efforts to buck the British, and to buck up his fellow patriots who were striving for freedom against an oppressive and distant government that wished to tax them without representation.
In Stoll's telling, the supreme expression of Adams's contribution to the cause was the events of September 1777, when the dream of liberty seemed all but extinguished. On the haunted date of September 11, George Washington had suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, in which 200 Americans were killed, 500 were wounded, and 400 were captured.
One year after 56 men had signed the Declaration of Independence, a skeletal band of 20 remained in Congress. Having fled Philadelphia to escape advancing British forces bent on imprisoning (and quite possibly hanging) the rabble-rousers, the small, scared group assembled in York to decide whether to go on. Wrote John Adams: "The prospect is chilling, on every Side: Gloomy, dark, melancholly, and dispiriting." It was cousin Samuel who stiffened the spines of his fellow politicians.
If we despond, public confidence is destroyed, the people will no longer yield their support to a hopeless contest, and American liberty is no more. . . . Despondency becomes not the dignity of our cause, nor the character of those who are its supporters. We have proclaimed to the world our determination "to die free men, rather than live as slaves." We have appealed to Heaven for the justice of our cause, and in Heaven we have placed our trust. . . . Good tidings will soon arrive. We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.
Congress listened, and Heaven seemed to prove Adams right a few weeks later at Saratoga, where 5,800 British soldiers surrendered to the American general Horatio Gates. That was the turning point--for French recognition of America as an independent nation followed, along with crucial military aid. With France's help, the threadbare Americans drove out the British, and established what would become the freest, richest, most powerful nation in history. Thomas Jefferson was among those who saw Adams as a monumental figure in that struggle: "For depth of purpose, zeal, and saga- city, no man in Congress exceeded, if any equalled, Sam Adams," he wrote.
The British certainly understood that Adams's drive and courage were crucial to the American cause. When Gen. Thomas Gage, Britain's military governor of Massachusetts, made a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation with the colonists in 1775, he offered His Majesty's "most gracious pardon" to all of the rebels, with the exception of two: Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
Still, it isn't hard to figure out why Sam has fallen out of fashion. Our secular times show little patience for anyone who was a self-righteous religious zealot, and who saw America as a "Christian Sparta."A classic prig, he betrayed none of his cousin John's self-deprecating humor, born of his wry awareness of the fallen nature of man. Sam's contemporaries seemed to share our revulsion, and as the years went by he faded into provincial politics rather than becoming a major figure in the new country's government.
But there is no denying the religious element of Adams's story. He perceived the colonists' struggle for liberty not as a revolutionary act but as a conservative one: to preserve the freedoms obtained at great cost by his Puritan forebears, particularly to worship God in a way that stood at odds with England's established religion. He hated the Church of England, thought it smacked of Roman Catholicism (which he also despised), and feared that a British bishop would be set over America. That would not only help the British promote religious conformity, he believed, it would also weaken the independent, soul-searching spirit of the colonies' citizens, effectively turning them into sheep that the government could more easily enslave.
Stoll explores this element of Adams's passion at length, and sets his beliefs in the context of the religious movements of the times. Still, he also shows why the values spawned by Adams's zealotry have little to do with the intolerance and oppression we typically associate with religious fanaticism.
For one thing, Sam was a fierce champion of freedom of the press, and loudly sounded the alarm of the dangers posed to liberty by a powerful central government. Very early on, he warned about the way special interest money in politics can hurt the common interest, and cautioned citizens about populists who used the language of America's ideals only to gain power for themselves.
"It is not infrequent," he wrote decades before the Revolution, "to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it than their own liberty--to oppress without control or the restraint of the laws all those who are weaker and poorer than themselves."
He warned that only a society that inculcates values of honesty and consideration for others can hope to be free: "Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt," he wrote.
Needless to say, these ideas are well worth contemplating as Barack Obama, acting in potent combination with a lopsidedly Democratic Congress and an even more lopsidedly cheerleading press, seeks to put his stamp on America. As a brief biography of a complex man, Samuel Adams is not without its flaws and omissions. I would have liked to learn more about his relationship with his cousin, and there are aspects of his psychological development that seem to be unexplored. Yet Ira Stoll has done us a service by helping to bring Adams, and particularly his writings and passionate belief in liberty, back into the light. Certainly, the difficult struggle for freedom in the face of power-hungry government is never over, as today's headlines--"Gloomy, dark, melancholly, and dispiriting" indeed!--make ominously clear.
Edward Achorn is deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal.