Populism has become something of a dirty word in polite society, especially as illiberal ethno-nationalist demagogues the world over are proudly claiming it as their own. Many of today’s populists practice the dark arts of political manipulation, churn out racially charged propaganda, and eviscerate liberal democratic constitutions. But populism also has deep reformist roots in American history, during which leaders across the political spectrum, from Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan, have harnessed popular opinion against elitist conventional wisdom—occasionally providing a bracing and necessary corrective. If we define populism more neutrally as coupling widely held political beliefs with concerted opposition to a powerful minority to vindicate the well-established rights of a majority, then, as the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Stacy Schiff reveals in her thorough new study, Samuel Adams should be regarded as America’s first populist.
“The earliest, most active, and persevering man of the Revolution,” as Thomas Jefferson described him, Adams married learned study of republics, democracies, and natural rights to a finely tuned ability to discern public opinion and invoke the spirit of “the people.” He also showed skill in navigating the treacherous shoals of colonial Massachusetts politics in an extraordinarily successful effort to advance the fundamental liberties systematically denied the colonists by the Crown. “Without the character of Samuel Adams,” his cousin and future president John proclaimed, “the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.”
A fifth-generation New Englander, Adams was born in 1722 in Boston to a prosperous family of brewers living in a comfortable harborside house. He matriculated at Harvard at age 14, where he would later write a master’s thesis applying Lockean ideals regarding the lawfulness of resisting an unjust sovereign. A ruler who presides tyrannically, the 20-year-old Adams concluded, “overthrows the very design of government, and the people are discharged from all obedience.”
It didn’t take long for his theoretical exercise to take real form. In the 1740s, an economic and liquidity crisis disproportionately affecting small businessmen sparked the creation of a Massachusetts Land Bank, which issued paper money secured by real estate. But aristocrats and upper-class merchants, spooked by the emergence of an alternative currency that Mother England scarcely recognized, successfully lobbied the colonial legislature to scrap the bank. Schiff reckons that the bank’s shuttering, which had a grave impact on the Adams family’s debts, helped forge young Samuel into a champion of the common man and radicalize him against the crown.
Entering the workforce, Adams himself became a merchant, a newspaperman, a pork farmer, and a brewer, among other occupations, none of them financially fruitful. As Schiff notes, Adams was “the only member of his Harvard class to whom no profession could be ascribed.” As the anonymous publisher of the Independent Advertiser, he cautioned against creeping tyranny. “The foundation of a people’s ruin,” he surmised in 1748, “is often at first laid in small, and almost imperceptible encroachments upon their liberties.”
The Sugar and Stamp Acts of the 1760s marked another watershed, as Adams, an elected member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, successfully pressed Governor Francis Bernard, through the polemics he disseminated and the boycotts he organized, to prevail upon Parliament to repeal these undemocratic measures. “If Taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid,” he wrote, “are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves?”
Adams joined or aligned with the many mushrooming grassroots organizations gradually embracing independence, such as the Sons of Liberty, the Loyal Nine, the Long Room Club, and the North End Club. When Parliament flexed its legislative muscle again by imposing the Townshend Acts in 1767, he orchestrated a “Circular Letter to King George” blasting the governor, taking care to publish it in the newspaper before it arrived in Britain. “You know it was designed for the people and not for the Minister,” he explained to a local critic of his tactics.
Populists like Adams seek to channel popular discontent. Facing a rising insurgency, Bernard in 1768 appealed to London for a regiment of troops to help maintain order. This prompted Adams to write that if the people held “any sense of honor, liberty, and virtue,” they ought “to complain and complain ALOUD,” lest they become “poor deluded miserable ductile dupes.” Adams and colleagues assembled what Schiff labels a “syndicated news service” to carry far and wide the many allegations of improprieties perpetrated by the redcoats quartering among the colonists. And in the wake of the Boston Massacre in 1770, he delivered an impassioned speech praising the “determined citizens peremptorily demanding the redress of their grievances.”
Successful populists also know how and when to apply pressure to allies and foes alike. Bullying fellow merchants reluctant to participate in a nonimportation pledge, he proclaimed that “God perhaps might possibly forgive them, but the rest of the people never could.” Adams excelled at tormenting his adversaries. “I doubt,” said Thomas Hutchinson, Bernard’s successor and one of Adams’s many nemeses, “whether there is a greater incendiary in the King’s dominions.” General Thomas Gage, another of his sworn enemies, cursed “the black art of Adams.”
Adams’s antennae occasionally failed him. Some of his boycotts fizzled and his occasionally overwrought rhetoric backfired. He appeared to promote armed resistance as early as 1868, long before the nascent Americans were fully ready for independence. Indeed, the early 1770s saw him struggle to gain purchase among a populace mostly becalmed by Hutchinson’s crafty leadership.
Then came the Tea Party. In late 1773, Hutchinson had foolishly appointed his relatives and friends as customs agents to sell tea from the East India Company to Massachusetts residents and to collect import duties. Mocking the governor as a “shadow of a man, scarce able to support his withered carcass or his hoary head,” Adams whipped Bostonians into a frenzy, voting to declare tea pernicious and improper. And while Adams himself never expressly exhorted the to-this-day unidentified rabble of 40 to 50 disguised young men who dispatched into Boston Harbor the contents of 342 tea chests, each weighing over 400 pounds, Schiff posits that “the very lack of fingerprints points to his unruffled, rigorous brand of stage management.” For his part, Adams summarized the raid, with more than a little satisfaction, by noting that “the spirit of the people on this occasion surprised all who viewed the scene.”
The Tea Party electrified Massachusetts, as well as New York, Philadelphia, and points farther south—a lightning storm that only intensified when Parliament punished Boston in early 1774 by blockading it and imposing the Intolerable Acts, which empowered the Crown to try suspected colonial criminals before London juries. Aid, in the form of money, food, and liquor, poured into the besieged city from Virginia, South Carolina, Canada, and the Caribbean. Capitalizing on this goodwill, Adams traveled south to lead the Massachusetts delegation at the inaugural meeting, in Philadelphia, of what would become the Continental Congress.
Soon thereafter, it was General Gage who fired the first shot, when, on April 19, 1775, he dispatched redcoats to Concord to seize munitions, soon famously encountering doughty “minute men” in Lexington. Hutchinson laid the revolt at the hand of Adams, that cunning firebrand: “I believe it has been the determination of the man who has been the grand incendiary in Massachusetts Bay for seven years past…intending nothing short of the present confusion from his first setting out as a politician.”
From his redoubt at the second congress in Philadelphia, where he found himself buffeted by aggressive New Englanders and cautious southerners, Adams carefully and thoughtfully calibrated a unified colonial response to the Crown’s aggression. “It requires time,” he reflected, “to bring honest men to think and determine alike even in important matters.” By July 1776, his patient approach paid robust dividends, and American independence was inscribed for eternity.
It would be wrong to oversimplify geopolitics by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” populists, but in Adams’s case we can make an exception: He was a humble, thoughtful, restrained, and dignified statesman who succeeded not merely in understanding and motivating the masses but in directing their energies toward legitimately worthy ends. Today’s budding populists would do well to follow his example.
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