Samuel Adams: The Often Overlooked Founding Father


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

One Founding Father whose name and legacy are often overshadowed by his more famous cousin, John, was ‘the rabble-rousing’ Samuel Adams. Thomas Jefferson called Samuel Adams the ‘patriarch of liberty’. John Adams, the nation’s second president, himself observed that, “Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.” Let’s learn more about Samuel Adams and his fundamental revolutionary role that is frequently overlooked.

Image of Samuel Adams’ grave
Samuel Adams descended from a Puritan family that had sailed for the New World as part of the Great Puritan Migration. (Image: McCarraher’s Photo 0p/Shutterstock)

Puritans Set the Stage

Samuel Adams’s hometown of Boston, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was founded by Puritans seeking freedom from religious persecution in England. Still, these colonists proudly thought of themselves as British subjects. And so, when Adams was born in 1722 the ties between Britain and its colonies remained strong. 

However, Adams’s view of the responsibilities and limitations of government had been set in motion generations earlier by the Puritans’ lament against the Church of England and King Charles I. It pushed Britain into civil war during the 1640s. The religious and political tensions at play in this upheaval ultimately found resolution with England’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 and 1689. 

Painting of King Charles I
The Puritans’ lament against King Charles I had set the stage for Adams’s later views of the limitations of government. (Image: Follower of Anthony van Dyck/Public domain)

The outcome resulted in religious tolerance being extended to Protestant dissenters and a bill of rights endowed British subjects with the assurance that a government’s function is to protect the rights of its subjects.

Samuel Adams’s Youth and Adolescence

Adams descended from a Puritan family that had sailed for the New World as part of the Great Puritan Migration in the first half of the 17th century. A devoutly religious man, he grew up in a relatively prosperous family and attended the Boston Latin School along with several other youths who one day would sign the Declaration of Independence.

Adams’s formative years coincided with America’s Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s. This was a religious movement in which itinerant preachers proselytized the need for personal devotion over doctrine and ritual. 

With the increased importance of the individual in religious matters, long-held assumptions about established social hierarchies came under scrutiny. The ensuing democratization of the religious experience would play a role in Samuel Adams’s radical ideas about liberty and equality during the American Revolution.

Adams entered Harvard College at age 14 and later began public service as a tax collector. He would go on to hold elected positions in several colonial representative bodies.

But, he first gained attention as a journalist.

Samuel Adams, the Journalist

Adams founded a weekly newspaper called The Independent Advertiser in 1748. And his position on issues of personal freedom come across in the very first issue. He wrote that, “Liberty can never subsist without equality”. But where liberty and equality both exist, he observed, sincere loyalty to the government can take root.

Adams initially identified himself as a loyal subject of the English king and, certainly, he recognized Parliament’s essential role in British politics. But the idea that all politics are local surely also resonated with him. Massachusetts, for instance, had an assembly elected by the colonists, which administered local affairs and questions of taxation. In fact, Samuel Adams’s father had served in the Massachusetts legislature.

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

American Colonies Gain More Control

As the 18th century wore on, and Britain found itself consumed with its own domestic and European affairs, it relinquished a significant amount of authority to these legislative assemblies in the American colonies. This was true in the economic realm, as well. 

Through a policy that historians dubbed ‘salutary neglect’, England refused to enforce restrictive 17th-century trade laws over the colonies. While this policy spurred trade, as intended, it also promoted a sense of growing economic autonomy in the colonies. This policy of salutary neglect ended abruptly with the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, which had pitted Britain against France.

Committing to the Patriotic Cause

The British won extensive territory in the Americas at France’s expense. The new territory came at a cost, though, as it needed to be secured against potential threats from Native Americans, among others. This proved a challenge since the British crown was already in debt from the war. King George III decided he needed to pass some of his financial obligations on to the colonists.

One thing we need to remember about the American Revolution is its leaders had the benefit of time. The authority they rejected was a distant metropole. So, the Founding Fathers had time and space to propagandize and recruit. This helped make the revolution a popular pursuit. About 20% of all colonists started out loyal to Britain. But the majority became committed to the patriot cause.

Common Questions about Samuel Adams

Q: How did Samuel Adams’s youth affect his ideas in the future?

Samuel Adams spent his younger years growing up in a Puritan family, which coincided with America’s Great Awakening. The increasing value that was placed on individuals in religion helped question the legitimacy of old social hierarchies and subsequently affected Samuel’s radical ideas about equality and liberty.

Q: What ideas and values did Samuel Adams support while writing for The Independent Advertiser?

The Independent Advertiser was a weekly newspaper founded by Samuel Adams himself. Starting from the first issue, Adams’s position regarding personal liberty came across clearly. He still believed that if liberty and equality existed simultaneously, loyalty to the government could take root, hence, he identified as a loyal subject of the king.

Q: What was the important advantage that the leaders of the American Revolution had?

The Founding Fathers, including Samuel Adams, had the advantage of space and time. They were both distant from the metropole they were opposing and had a great amount of time to propagandize and recruit which led to an overwhelming majority committing to the cause.

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