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Samuel Adams’ rebellious nature chronicled

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Rabble-rouser, agitator, firebrand: Samuel Adams of Boston, Mass., was a leading light of the American Revolution, which established American independence from Britain in the 18th century.

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Rabble-rouser, agitator, firebrand: Samuel Adams of Boston, Mass., was a leading light of the American Revolution, which established American independence from Britain in the 18th century.

Adams’ tempestuous career is recounted by Stacy Schiff, an award-winning, New York City-based author, in this well-written biography.

Born in 1722, Adams struggled to find his footing in life. It was not until the 1760s that he found his metier: resisting British colonial policy as it pertained to Massachusetts in particular, and Britain’s other North American colonies in general.

The Revolutionary Samuel Adams

For Adams, resistance meant writing. His platform was the Gazette, the most widely read newspaper in Boston. As Schiff says, he had no rival as a contributor.

Unfortunately, Adams was so devoted to the cause of colonial liberty that he seems to have believed the ends justified the means. In his journalism, he was not above disseminating false reports and character assassination — anything to portray British colonial administrators in as negative a light as possible.

It is likely for this reason that Adams’ historic reputation is not as lustrous as that of other prominent American founders.

But Adams’ protean struggle for colonial rights was not confined to the printed word. It incorporated, Schiff writes, boycotts and pickets, street theatre, invented traditions, a news service and innovative, extralegal institutions.

Schiff depicts Adams’ response to and role in the familiar events that galvanized public opinion in the lead-up to the Revolution: opposition to the Stamp Act, the “Boston Massacre,” the Boston Tea Party.

In early 1776, British-American writer Thomas Paine published his pamphlet, Common Sense. Many believed Adams was the author, but the pamphlet exceeded even Adams in its radicalism. Adams emphasized liberty and equality; Paine explicitly assailed monarchy and hereditary succession.

The pamphlet convinced Adams that only American independence could resolve the conflict with Britain.

“Probably no American did more than Adams to bring on the revolutionary crisis,” American historian Edmund Morgan observed.

In her excellent biography, Schiff shows Adams’ passionate commitment to colonial rights, a commitment that was not always pursued with scrupulosity. It is a warts-and-all account that evokes the era in which America defied the British Empire and became an independent nation.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

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