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Book Review

Politics, religion, and the man Sam Adams

By David Waldstreicher
January 21, 2009
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He's best known as the friendly face that launched a thousand microbrews. In his time he was an uncompromising agitator who headed every British short list of rebels to be hung.

So why aren't there more books about Sam Adams? Ira Stoll tries to set things right by giving Boston's greatest patriot the treatment that has been lavished on Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, and his cousin, the other Adams, in recent years.

There is certainly enough drama in the story. Riots in Boston, tough political choices, desperation in the Continental Congress and its army: Through it all, Sam Adams scribbled away by candlelight. Some of Stoll's best passages come when he matches the events to Adams's surviving newspaper writing, revealing the canny journalist behind the icon. Sam Adams failed as a tax man but found his vocation denouncing them. To watch Adams come into his own is to see the beginnings of American journalism and politics.

Unfortunately, Stoll bypasses these themes in favor of repeated reminders of how pious Adams was and how "fundamentally intertwined" religion and politics were for this son of the Puritans. Stoll can't resist quoting a good sermon, especially one that compares the American patriots to the Israelites in Egypt. Something like a third of the text is devoted to religious references from Adams's documents.

This may have something to do with a fact Stoll relates only in the final pages: Adams burned incriminating letters, throwing whole bundles into the fire. It does not seem to occur to Stoll that however important religion was to Adams and his politics, the deck is stacked in its favor. What else would he keep except the most pious pronouncements?

Taking his lead from Adams's self-censored correspondence, Stoll avoids opportunities to dwell on conflict in Adams's life. There's no tension between him and the leaders of Boston's crowds, with whom he dealt regularly but whom he publicly criticized after they tore down Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson's house in the wake of the Stamp Act: Stoll just defends Adams from the accusation that he approved of tarring and feathering. There's no contradiction between Adams's antislavery beliefs and the fact, unmentioned by Stoll but explored by other scholars, that Adams denied the presence of Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre in the hope of keeping the patriot movement white. (All Stoll can muster is a claim that Attucks's race made his killing "no less abhorrent" to Adams.) He simply suggests Adams was right to have denounced Shays's Rebellion, a tax revolt undertaken by people who took his own rhetoric seriously. Instead of the give-and-take of real politics, Stoll offers excuses and quotes. And there's almost no private life at all. The husband-and-wife letters that help bring John and Abigail Adams to life just don't exist - or Stoll is unwilling to read between what few lines do survive.

Nevertheless, his material shines through in its way. Adams combined a winning egalitarianism and love for politics with a strident defense of property rights. He served the public for 40 years, with several terms as governor. His only son, a doctor, lost his health in wartime service. If Stoll does not let us inside the taverns where Adams read the papers and plotted the patriots' next move, he gives us something close to how he wanted to be remembered. Every movement has its austere revolutionaries. When we raise our glasses we should remember them.

David Waldstreicher teaches at Temple University and is the author of "Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution."

SAMUEL ADAMS A Life By Ira Stoll

Free Press, 336 pp., $28

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