The Magazine

Adams the Less

Making the case for Samuel.

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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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.