Samuel Adams and the Declaration of Independence


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

At the end of the turbulent 17th century and England’s Glorious Revolution, the new monarchs, William and Mary, had agreed to a 1689 Bill of Rights that ‘reaffirmed the “ancient rights and liberties” of Englishmen’ and articulated the limits of English monarchical power. The Continental Congress asserted that such rights extended across the Atlantic.

A painting commemorating the First Continental Congress
The Continental Congress believed that what the British monarchs had agreed at the end of the 17th century, also applied to them. (Image: USCapitol/Public domain)

Parliament Not the Authority

While the delegates attending the First Continental Congress affirmed that they remained ‘loyal and happy subjects’ of the king, they declared that since they were not represented in Parliament, it had no authority over them except in terms of trade legislation, and even that must be subject to colonial consent. 

The delegates agreed to collectively boycott all British goods until Parliament repealed the Coercive Acts. The congress still hoped to reconcile with the British king. But the framework of a unified new nation was beginning to appear.

Lexington Was Heard Around the World

Tensions continued to swirl between Britain and the colonies. This was especially so in Massachusetts where the governor, the British General Thomas Gage, proved hostile to the colonial demands. Fearing that Gage planned a move against them, the leaders of a local body, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, even left the capital city of Boston and moved westward to the town of Concord.

These fears were well-founded. On April 14, 1775, Governor Gage received word from London that he was to arrest the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Furthermore, he was to use force to disarm the population. British soldiers set out from Boston for Concord to satisfy these instructions. But their movements were detected. Two sentries, Paul Revere and William Dawes, raced on horseback to alert the provincial congress and local militia of the danger. 

Illustration of the Battle of Lexington
The battle of Lexington and Concord signified the start of a revolutionary war. (Image: William Barnes Wollen/Public domain)

With the alarm raised, militiamen were ready when British troops arrived. As the British regulars entered the town of Lexington at around 5 am, they encountered a collection of New England militiamen. Gunfire erupted and the course of history changed. 

The poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson hailed these as “shots heard around the world”. Fighting ensued throughout the day and when the gunfire ceased, 73 Redcoats were dead. The colonists had lost 49 men, and the Revolutionary War had begun. John Adams said that the Battle of Lexington “changed the instruments of warfare from the Pen to the Sword”.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Samuel Adams’s Turning Point

Samuel Adams had been in Concord when the fighting erupted. He was one of the men General Gage’s men were charged with apprehending. But Samuel Adams’s role in the American Revolution wasn’t as a warrior; he was a pundit, a legislator, an inflamer of passions. 

Portrait of Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams urgently got underway to assemble the Second Continental Congress, the same one that would declare the independence of the colonies. (Image: Graham/Public domain)

So, as the fighting at Lexington and Concord got underway, Samuel Adams got underway as well—for Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress. Indeed, the fighting gave urgency to the assembly of a Second Continental Congress; something the first congress didn’t have. It was to be a life or death battle.

The Continental Congress Goes to War

In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress now sanctioned the creation of a Continental Army. At the end of August 1775, the king proclaimed the colonists to be “in open and avowed rebellion”. Before Parliament, George III announced that he would use every resource at his disposal to suppress the rebellion and restore British authority.

The news reached Philadelphia in early 1776. At around the same time, a recent immigrant from England, Thomas Paine, published the pamphlet Common Sense, which took direct aim at George III and the monarchy. Paine argued that the essence of government was a contract with the governed. Monarchies, he argued, were unnatural states to which no one owed allegiance.

Paine wrote in a language that was accessible to the common people and based on what he called plain facts and common sense. He asserted, “We have in our power to begin the world over again.” Some 150,000 copies of Common Sense were sold by the end of 1776. It is undoubtedly one of the most influential political tracts ever published.

A few weeks later, Samuel Adams wrote his own appeal for independence. Adams claimed that independence would place the colonies on equal footing with the British and bring an end to hostilities. That spring, an increasing number of groups pressured the Continental Congress to declare the colonies independent.

First Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson was tasked with preparing a document to declare the colonies’ independence. He submitted his work on June 28. The Continental Congress spent the next six days debating and revising Jefferson’s draft.

On July 4, 1776, Samuel Adams signed the completed document. He was the first delegate from Massachusetts to do so. The Declaration of Independence was rooted in Britain’s own constitutional history. But the struggle had transformed the colonists’ voice—and Adams—into asserting a still more profound, and inalienable, sense of liberty and rights. 

These unalienable rights were derived not just from the English constitution but from the Creator. Consequently, any government that trampled on such rights deserved to be overthrown. In essence, sovereignty must be derived from the consent of the governed.

Common Questions about Samuel Adams and the Declaration of Independence

Q: How did the delegates attending the First Continental Congress view future relations with the British king?

The delegates attending the First Continental Congress affirmed that they were loyal subjects to the king but they did not view Parliament making laws for them without colonial consent as just. They hoped that they could eventually heal relations with the king.

Q: What led to the Second Continental Congress sanctioning the creation of a Continental Army?

The fighting that broke out in Lexington and Concord between the colonists and the British redcoats led to the death of soldiers on both sides. This was when the revolutionary war started and Samuel Adams sought to assemble the Second Continental Congress. Their task was urgent since fighting in a life-or-death battle was already underway.

Q: Why is Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine, one of the most influential political tracts ever published?

In the pamphlet, Thomas Paine argued that the essence of a government must come from a contract with the governed. His political tract was written in an accessible language for common people and ultimately sold about 150,000 copies by the end of 1776.

Keep Reading
The Mexican Revolution: The First Major Social Revolution
The Differences and Betrayals during the Mexican Revolution
How an Unfinished Mexican Revolution Led to a Bloody Civil War