Some historical records would place him at the scene of the Boston Tea Party; other accounts would have him participating in the action. Other historians left him out of their accounts altogether.
Why did Thomas Jefferson describe Samuel Adams as “truly the man of the Revolution”?
What do you really know about Samuel Adams?
Very little? You’re not alone.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff, a native of Adams and author of the newly released “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams,” once found herself in the same situation.
“Honestly, there was just a great deal of embarrassment, on my part, that I had grown up in Adams [which is named after Samuel] and really not known anything about [Samuel] Adams,” Schiff said during a recent interview over Zoom. “He makes a cameo in my Ben Franklin book, but even there I had never really looked into much of his background. So those things, you know, began to sort of simmer. The more I looked into it, the more I just became completely obsessed.”
However, “The Revolutionary,” which debuted at No. 8 on the New York Times’ hard-cover nonfiction list, was not the biography Schiff set out to write in 2016.
At the time, Schiff had just come off a promotional tour for “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” a non-fiction account of the Salem Witch Trials based on firsthand accounts and source material.
“After Salem, I really was, I think, deliberately looking for someone admirable; someone who had taken a very courageous moral stand, someone who has sort of spoken truth to power, and someone who could be said to have rerouted history,” she said.
The more she read, the more Samuel Adams checked off all of those boxes for Schiff.
“I thought I was writing about someone else,” she said. “The person I was researching, their books were to the right, and Samuel Adams’ [books] were to the left, and I kept kind of walking onto the floor of the library and going left.
“Three hours later, I would be sitting on the floor, reading the papers of Samuel Adams. At a certain point, my agent finally said, ‘Obviously, you want to write a book about Adams.’”
The following conversation with Schiff about “The Revolutionary” is lightly edited for clarity and length.
QWhen it comes to the Revolutionary War, why do we know more about John Adams than Samuel Adams?
STACY SCHIFF: I think one of the many reasons why Samuel Adams falls off the radar is that John occupies so much of center stage … When I was looking at the accounts of Paul Revere’s ride and thinking it’s crazy that we all know Paul Revere gets on his horse on April 18, 1775, but we never stopped to think where he actually going.
The idea that [Samuel] Adams and [John] Hancock were at the end; were actually his destination kind of threw me back. I thought, you know, this so much explains so many parts of those years and so many hidden recesses of those years.
I mean, just the question of, ‘How does the resistance movement take off as fast as it does after the Boston Port Act?’ [is answered when you add him into the equation]. The answer is the Committees of Correspondence and Samuel Adams. So, it was piecing those questions together and realizing how little I knew.
QYou write at one point that Samuel Adams burns his letters; at another point, he took scissors to them, and, unlike his contemporaries, he does not write a memoir. He just disregarded John Adams’ plea to put his papers [from the Revolution] together. How hard was it to research someone who didn’t want to be in front of the curtain? Someone who really was behind the curtain?
STACY SCHIFF: I think the problem is you end up with a lot of questions that are unanswered. I have so many questions. For starters, how much does he mastermind the Boston Tea Party? When does resistance begin to mutate into independence? You know, just the questions that we can’t answer.
The biggest cache of his remaining papers is in New York at the New York Public Library, as are the papers of the Boston Committee of Correspondence. So those were really, really rich resources. Although they, of course, don’t answer some of those central questions. But because you have the other side of his correspondence there, which had not been published, you can begin to really flesh out the man because the published letters are just as letters, not what he’s responding to.
And then there’s just a great wealth of material in the British archives because you can read what the crown officers are writing about him. Obviously, it’s very damning material, as it’s often very colorful material and sometimes it’s also erroneous. But it gives you a sense of what a thorn he is in the British side and how effective he is …
There’s so much personal stuff we don’t have. We don’t have some of his letters to his wife. We have very little correspondence with his children. I should say, there is mention in his great-grandson’s book about him, of this memoir that was left by Samuel Adams’ daughter about her father. I think it’s like a 50-page document. I just assumed it would turn up in the archive and it never did.
So that was one of those things where you count on something, thinking ‘that will give me the personal dimension of the man’ and no one can find it. There are heartbreaks like that, but I felt as always as if, that was the Holy Grail because when I had that, I would be able to get a more rounded sense of his personal life or his emotional life, and that never turned up.
QIt seems like so much about him was lost. Was it done purposefully?
STACY SCHIFF: That ritual destruction of the letters, of which John Adams writes, I suspect that happened at many addresses, that many people were destroying documents. I’m sure that Dr. [Joseph] Warren [who was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill] had a great cache of documents that went missing. A lot of this was meant to be ‘no fingerprints’ and came down to us without fingerprints.
QWhat are some of the biggest misconceptions about Samuel Adams?
STACY SCHIFF: Well, I think, first of all, most of us have combined [Samuel Adams] with John Adams. So, the fact that he’s not John. He’s actually the older, more refined, more established of the two cousins. He recruits John.
I think most people think he was a brewer because of Samuel Adams beer. It’s not his beer. So obviously, he wasn’t a brewer. [His father, Samuel Adams Sr., was a brewer.]
I think the whole thing about where was Paul Revere going that night? Samuel Adams fell out of that picture completely. So we don’t know that Paul Revere is riding toward Samuel Adams and how close the two of them are working at that point.
How involved he is with the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party is designed to be an actor-free crime. No one wants his name associated with it, that’s the whole point. But all of the people who are deposed afterward in London mentioned Adams first when they talk about who the prime movers were over those very tense weeks. So, I think it’s fairly obvious that he’s instrumental if not one of the greater masterminds behind it. He’s missing from that picture.
QMost people don’t realize what a big role Samuel Adams played in the founding of the country. Why do you think that is?
STACY SCHIFF: I think the whole binding the Colonies together, he’s the person who really is most eager to unite everybody and he is trying to do something from a really early date. I think that gets lost because it’s just there’s no event attached to it, but it is a thing that explains, as I say, how the Boston Port Act misfires as loudly as it does because he’s knit everybody together at that point. It’s hard when someone’s behind the scenes to know what to attribute to him. But that one we know when people say Samuel Adams’ Committees of Correspondence, we know that one is his creation.
QCan you talk a little bit about his relationship with John Hancock? Very early on, you write about John Hancock paying part of his debt, but then later on it’s quite different. Does it seem they had a type of love-hate relationship?
STACY SCHIFF: They’re very much the ultimate odd couple, in that Adams is 13 years older and he recruits Hancock — as well as he had recruited John Adams — thinking that Hancock will enjoy this moment in the spotlight and all of the attention and that the party will greatly benefit from Hancock’s fortune. Both of which are true. But what he doesn’t count on is how much Hancock preens. Hancock is a very vain man. He’s very much given to ostentatious displays of wealth. He’s beloved for that. He’s very generous with the town of Boston and he’s very generous with Adams and who it seems, he partly supports through much of these years. But the manner could not be more different. On the one corner, you have this aesthetic Republican, who really cares about first principles, and in the other corner, you have this, like, early American plutocrat, who is very busy, designing splendid uniforms for his officer core of ceremonial cadets. They are very much a study in contrasts. At several points, they fall out.
QYou write that Samuel Adams is written off by 19th-century historians. Is there a reason for that? Did they just not like him?
STACY SCHIFF: I think that there are many reasons why he gets forgotten, but I think part of it is the fact that he stands for this very anarchic, very messy side of the Revolution. We like to think of the Revolution as having been a very sanitized affair — nobody was hurt and the Tea Party was a party. It was not a destruction of personal goods. In cleaning that up for posterity, I think Adams got tossed out with the very idea that [$1 million worth of] tea had been destroyed; that people had been hurt.
It was much easier to cart the revolutionary off after the Revolution so you could have a stable government. It was much easier to cart away all those scenes of messiness in the Boston streets.
QWas there anything you found during your research that astounded you about Adams? That you weren’t expecting?
STACY SCHIFF: The Jefferson piece [about Adams being the man of the Revolution], I think is one of those things — how he clearly is a figure of great respect and very much a role model to people, in the Virginias even.
I was surprised by how central he is to so many events. I had initially thought — and I thought this when I was writing about Cleopatra as well — I thought of writing the book just in a couple of key scenes of the life and then it turned out that the fingerprints were really visible on money and many more moments than I had initially understood.
I think that there are a lot of indications of how popular he is in Boston. When he goes off to the Continental Congress, there’s this almost fairy tale procession of tailors and shoemakers and wigmakers who come in, call and take his measure and deliver him up. He gets a brand new wardrobe because he’s so ill-dressed normally and it would be better for Massachusetts if he appeared looking somewhat respectable in Philadelphia. And that’s just an indication of how truly popular he is, of how he connects the man in the street to the political elite, which is also one of the great contributions here.