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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter V: A Little Discreet Conduct

It has been his [Thomas Hutchinson’s] principle from a boy that mankind are to be governed by the discerning few, and it has been ever since his ambition to be the hero of the few.–Samuel Adams.

We have not been so quiet these five years …. If it were not for two or three Adamses, we should do well enough.–Thomas Hutchinson.

In December, 1771, Horace Walpole, a persistent if not an infallible political prophet, was of opinion that all the storms that for a decade had distressed the Empire were at last happily blown over; among which storms he included, as relatively of minor importance, the disputes with the colonies. During two years following, this prediction might well have appeared to moderate minded men entirely justified. American affairs were barely mentioned in Parliament, and a few paragraphs in the “Annual Register” were thought sufficient to chronicle for English readers events of interest occurring across the Atlantic. In the colonies themselves an unwonted tranquillity prevailed. Rioting, as an established social custom, disappeared in most of the places where it had formerly been so much practised. The Sons of Liberty, retaining the semblance of an organization, were rarely in the public eye save at the annual celebrations of the repeal of the Stamp Act, quite harmless occasions devoted to the expression of patriotic sentiments. Merchants and landowners, again prosperous, were content to fall back into accustomed habits of life, conscious of duty done without too much stress, readily believing their liberties finally vindicated against encroachments from abroad and their privileges secure against unwarranted and dangerous pretensions at home. “The people appear to be weary of their altercations with the mother country,” Mr. Johnson, the Connecticut agent, wrote to Wedderburn, in October, 1771; “a little discreet conduct on both sides would perfectly reestablish that warm affection and respect towards Great Britain for which this country was once remarkable.”

Discreet conduct was nowhere more necessary than in Massachusetts, where the people, perhaps because they were much accustomed to them, grew weary of altercations less easily than in most colonies. Yet even in Massachusetts there was a marked waning of enthusiasm after the high excitement occasioned by the Boston Massacre, a certain disintegration of the patriot party. James Otis recovered from a temporary fit of insanity only to grow strangely suspicious of Samuel Adams. Mr. Hancock, discreetly holding his peace, attended to his many thriving and very profitable business ventures. John Adams, somewhat unpopular for having defended and procured the acquittal of the soldiers implicated in the Massacre, retired in high dudgeon from public affairs to the practice of his profession; in high dudgeon with everyone concerned–with himself first of all, and with the people who so easily forgot their interests and those who had, served them, and with the British Government and all fawning tools of ministers, of whom Mr. Thomas Hutchinson was chief. Meanwhile, Mr. Hutchinson, so roughly handled in the secret diary of the rising young lawyer, was the recipient of new honors, having been made Governor of the province to succeed Francis Bernard. For once finding himself almost popular, he thought he perceived a disposition in all the colonies, and even in Massachusetts, to let the controversy subside. “Though there are a small majority sour enough, yet when they seek matter for protests, remonstrances, they are puzzled where to charge the grievances which they look for.” The new Governor looked forward to happier days and an easy administration. “Hancock and most of the party are quiet,” he said, “and all of them, except Adams, abate of their virulence. Adams would push the Continent into a rebellion tomorrow, if it was in his power.”

No one, in the year 1770, was better fitted than Samuel Adams, either by talent and temperament or the circumstances of his position, to push the continent into a rebellion. Unlike most of his patriot friends, he had neither private business nor private profession to fall back upon when public affairs grew tame, his only business being, as one might say, the public business, his only profession the definition and defense of popular rights. In this profession, by dint of single-minded devotion to it through a course of years, he had indeed become wonderfully expert and had already achieved for himself the enviable position of known and named leader in every movement of opposition to royal or magisterial prerogative. In this connection no exploit had brought him so much distinction as his skillful management of the popular uprising which had recently forced Governor Hutchinson to withdraw the troops from Boston. The event was no by-play in the life of Samuel Adams, no amateur achievement accomplished on the side, but the serious business of a man who during ten years had abandoned all private pursuits and had embraced poverty to become a tribune of the people.

Samuel Adams had not inherited poverty nor had he, after all, exactly embraced it, but had as it were naturally drifted into it through indifference to worldly gain, the indifference which men of single and fixed purpose have for all irrelevant matters. The elder Samuel Adams was a merchant of substance and of such consequence in the town of Boston that in Harvard College, where students were named according to the prominence of their families, his son’s name was fifth in a class of twenty-two. In 1748, upon the death of his father, Samuel Junior accordingly inherited a very decent property, considered so at least in that day–a spacious old house in Purchase Street together with a well-established malt business. For business, however, the young man, and not so young either, was without any aptitude whatever, being entirely devoid of the acquisitive instinct and neither possessing nor ever being able to acquire any skill in the fine art of inducing people to give for things more than it cost to make them. These deficiencies the younger Adams had already exhibited before the death of his father, from whom he received on one occasion a thousand pounds, half of which he promptly loaned to an impecunious friend, and which he would in any case doubtless have lost, as he soon did the other half, on his own account. In such incompetent hands the malt business soon fell to be a liability rather than an asset. Other liabilities accumulated, notably one incurred by the tax collectors of the town of Boston, of whom Samuel Adams was one during the years from 1756 to 1764. For one reason or another, on Adams’s part certainly on account of his humane feelings and general business inefficiency, the collectors fell every year a little behind in the collections, and one day found themselves declared on the official records to be indebted to the town in the sum of 9,878 pounds. This indebtedness Mr. Hutchinson and other gentlemen not well disposed towards Samuel Adams conveniently and frequently referred to in later years as a “defalcation.”

In this year of 1764, when he had lost his entire patrimony except the old house in Purchase Street, now somewhat rusty for want of repair, Samuel Adams was married to Elizabeth Wells. It was his second marriage, the first having taken place in 1749, of which the fruit was a son and a daughter. Samuel Adams was then–it was the year of the Sugar Act–forty-two years old; that is to say, at the age when a man’s hair begins to turn gray, when his character is fixed, when his powers, such as they are, are fully matured; well known as a “poor provider,” an improvident man who had lost a fair estate, had failed in business, and was barely able, and sometimes not able, to support his small family. These mundane matters concerned Samuel Adams but little. To John Adams he said on one occasion that “he never looked forward in life; never planned, laid a scheme, or formed a design for laying up anything for himself or others after him.” This was the truth, inexplicable as it must have seemed to his more provident cousin. It was even less than the truth: during the years following 1764, Samuel Adams renounced all pretense of private business, giving himself wholly to public affairs, while his good wife, with excellent management, made his stipend as clerk of the Assembly serve for food, and obtained, through the generosity of friends or her own ingenious labors, indispensable clothes for the family. Frugality, that much lauded virtue in the eighteenth century, needed not to be preached in the old Purchase Street home; but life went on there, somehow or other, decently enough, not without geniality yet with evident piety. The old Bible is still preserved from which each evening some member of the family read a chapter, and at every meal the head of the house said grace, returning thanks for God’s benefits.

If Samuel Adams at the age of forty-two was known for a man who could not successfully manage his own affairs, he was also known, and very well known, for a man with a singular talent for managing the affairs of the community; he could manage successfully, for example, town meetings and every sort of business, great or small, incidental to local politics. This talent he may have inherited from his father, who was himself a notable of the neighborhood,–one of the organizers of the “New South” church, and prominent about 1724 in a club popularly known as the “Caulkers’ Club,” formed for the purpose of laying “plans for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power,” and was himself from time to time introduced into such places of trust and power as justice of the peace, deacon, selectman, and member of the provincial assembly. From an early age, the younger Samuel exhibited a marked aptitude for this sort of activity, and was less likely to be found “in his countinghouse a-counting of his money” than in some hospitable tavern or back shop discussing town topics with local worthies. Samuel Adams was born to serve on committees. He had the innate slant of mind that properly belongs to a moderator of mass meetings called to aggravate a crisis. With the soul of a Jacobin, he was most at home in clubs, secret clubs of which everyone had heard and few were members, designed at best to accomplish some particular good for the people, at all events meeting regularly to sniff the approach of tyranny in the abstract, academically safeguarding the commonwealth by discussing the first principles of government.

From the days of Anne Hutchinson, Boston never lacked clubs; and the Caulkers’ Club was the prototype of many, rather more secular and political than religious or transcendental, which flourished in the years preceding the Revolution. John Adams, in that Diary which tells us so much that we wish to know, gives us a peep inside one of these clubs, the “Caucus Club,” which met regularly at one period in the garret of Tom Dawes’s house. “There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one end of the garret to the other. There they drink flip, I suppose, and there they choose a moderator who puts questions to the vote regularly; and selectmen, assessors, collectors, wardens, fire-wards, and representatives are regularly chosen before they are chosen in the town. Uncle Fairfield, Story, Ruddock, Adams, Cooper, and a rudis indigestaque moles of others are members. They send committees to wait on the merchants’ club, and to propose and join in the choice of men and measures.” The artist Copley, in the familiar portrait by which posterity knows Samuel Adams, chose to represent him in conventional garb, on a public and dramatic occasion, standing erect, eyes flashing and mouth firmset, pointing with admonitory finger to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay–a portrait well suited to hang in the Art Museum or in the meeting place of the Daughters of the Revolution. A different effect would have been produced if the man had been placed in Tom Dawes’s garret, dimly seen through tobacco smoke, sitting, with coat off, drinking flip, in the midst of Uncle Fairfield, Story, Cooper, and a rudis indigestaque moles. This was his native habitat, an environment precisely suited to his peculiar talent.

Samuel Adams had a peculiar talent, that indispensable combination of qualities possessed by all great revolutionists of the crusading type, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Brown, or Mazzini. When a man abandons his business or job and complacently leaves the clothing of his children to wife or neighbors in order to drink flip and talk politics, ordinary folk are content to call him a lazy lout, ne’er-do-well, worthless fellow, or scamp. Samuel Adams was not a scamp. He might have been no more than a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, if cosmic forces had not opportunely provided him with an occupation which his contemporaries and posterity could regard as a high service to humanity. In his own eyes, this was the view of the situation which justified his conduct. When he was about to depart for the first Continental Congress, a number of friends contributed funds to furnish him forthwith presentable apparel: a suit of clothes, new wig, new hat, “six pair of the best silk hose, six pair of fine thread ditto, ….six pair of shoes”; and, it being “modestly inquired of him whether his finances were not rather low than otherwise, he replied it was true that was the case, but HE WAS VERY INDIFFERENT ABOUT THESE MATTERS, SO THAT HIS POOR ABILITIES WERE OF ANY SERVICE TO THE PUBLIC; upon which the gentleman obliged him to accept a purse containing about fifteen or twenty Johannes.” To accept so much and still preserve one’s self-respect would be impossible to ordinary men under ordinary circumstances. Fate had so ordered the affairs of Samuel Adams that integrity of character required him to be an extraordinary man acting under extraordinary circumstances.

The character of his mind, as well as the outward circumstances of his life, predisposed Samuel Adams to think that a great crisis in the history of America and of the world confronted the men of Boston. There was in him some innate scholastic quality, some strain of doctrinaire Puritan inheritance diverted to secular interests, that gave direction to all his thinking. In 1743, upon receiving the degree of Master of Arts from Harvard College, he argued the thesis, “Whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.” We may suppose that the young man acquitted himself well, reasoning with great nicety in favor of the legality of an illegal action, doubtless to the edification of Governor Shirley, who was present and who perhaps felt sufficiently remote from the performance, being himself only an actual supreme magistrate presiding over a real commonwealth. And indeed for most young men a college thesis is but an exercise for sharpening the wits, rarely dangerous in its later effects. But in the case of Samuel Adams, the ability to distinguish the speculative from the actual reality seemed to diminish as the years passed. After 1764, relieved of the pressure of life’s anxieties and daily nourishing his mind on premises and conclusions reasonably abstracted from the relative and the conditioned circumstance, he acquired in a high degree the faculty of identifying reality with propositions about it; so that, for example, Liberty seemed threatened if improperly defined, and a false inference from an axiom of politics appeared the same as evil intent to take away a people’s rights. Thus it was that from an early date, in respect to the controversy between the colonies and the mother country, Samuel Adams became possessed of settled convictions that were capable of clear and concise presentation and that were at once impersonal and highly subjective, for which outward events–the Stamp Act, the Townshend duties, the appointment of Thomas Hutchinson as Governor, or whatever–furnished as it were the suggestion only, the convictions themselves being largely the result of inward brooding, the finespun product of his own ratiocinative mind.

The crisis which thus threatened–in the mind of Samuel Adams–was not an ordinary one: no mere complication of affairs, or creaking of wornout institutions, or honest difference of opinion about the expediency or the legality of measures. It was a crisis engendered deliberately by men of evil purpose, public enemies well known and often named. Samuel Adams, who had perhaps not heard of even one of the many materialistic interpretations of history, thought of the past as chiefly instructive in connection with certain great epochal conflicts between Liberty and Tyranny–a political Manicheanism, in which the principle of Liberty was embodied in the virtuous many and the principle of Tyranny in the wicked few. Those who read history must know it for a notorious fact that ancient peoples had lost their liberties at the hands of designing men, leagued and self-conscious conspirators against the welfare of the human race. Thus the yoke was fastened upon the Romans, “millions… enslaved by a few.” Now, in the year 1771, another of these epochal conflicts was come upon the world, and Samuel Adams, living in heroic days, was bound to stand in the forefront of the virtuous against “restless Adversaries…forming the most dangerous Plans for the Ruin of the Reputation of the People, in order to build their own Greatness upon the Destruction of their liberties.”

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