Last updated on March 5, 2023
The following article was written by Diane Ackerman and was originally published in Parade Magazine on September 6, 1987. I was only able to find scanned photos of it, so I have transcribed it in it’s entirety here.
Strangers’ fires always seem to burn brighter than our own. Stroll through the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, and you’ll pass the Graves of Paul Revere, Robert Treat Paine, John Hancock, James Otis, Samuel Adam’s and other giants who lived blazing, action-mad lives and created much of our history. In the center lie Benjamin Franklin’s parents; to the right, the grave of Mrs. Elizabeth Vergoose (the original Mother Goose). Elsewhere, there are witches, and Quakers hanged on Boston Common, 23 known Revolutionary War soldiers, 17 members of the Boston Tea Party raid, the five victims of the Boston Massacre, an early portrait painter, sea captains, governors, victims of duels. What a lot of commotion to find in one small bulge of land tucked away on a busy street in a honking metropolis.
Thousands of tourists drift through the black, wrought-iron gates at Tremont and Broomfield Streets, half a block from Boston Common, then walk past a tall fence on which crescent moons and pineapples sit atop pointed spears. Even in winter, when an icy wind scours the face like a wire whisk, they come to commune with their favorite heroes, envying lives that crackled with drama, novelty and risk.
Even an ordinary life has many versions. But a historic life is an heirloom greatly altered by time and goodwill. In the heat of history, a vivid deed, like Paul Revere’s midnight ride, becomes alloyed to the era, and all his human features melt away. “Will the real Samuel Adam’s please step forward?” you want to say. Not the “firebrand of the Revolution,” as he is so often tagged, or the discreet signer of the Declaration of Independence, but the badly combed, somewhat paunchy, rumpled-looking man who shook from palsy, hung out with the scruffiest riffraff along the wharves and rapidly became known as a blue-blooded eccentric.
Samuel Adam’s was born in 1722 in Boston. A failure at everything he tried, from brewery-tending to banking, he finally flourished in politics, which seemed to caulk all the cracks in his life and drove him to mastermind wild acts of sedition. He was one of the first Americans to oppose British rule of the Colonies and to demand independence. He assumed leadership of the Massachusetts radicals in 1769, wrote passionate propaganda to stir up the citizenry to revolt, actively planned for war and finally served as a member of the new nation’s Continental Congress until 1781. He remained involved in Massachusetts politics throughout his life, serving as the state’s governor from 1794 to 1797, and he even made a bid for the presidency in 1796. He died in 1803, shortly after retiring to private life.
His personal habits were strange. people recognized him at a distance: an ink-stained man in a dingy red coat followed by a huge Newfoundland dog named Queue. He craved raw oysters, fish chowder and poultry stuffed with sage, chopped nuts and sausage. Unlike the men of his day, he didn’t hunt or fish, attend concerts or theater, or care for the arts. He owned horses but never rode them. A Puritan and a regular churchgoer, he married twice and had two children from his first marriage. He was a faithful husband but neglected his family, whom he saw occasionally at breakfast. And he appears to have had no hobbies, advocations or much of a private life.
Many historians have excused his passion for brawly taverns by saying that he was merely sampling the mood of the common man; if so, it was an experiment conducted lifelong. Today, some would call Adams a terrorist. Organizing the Boston Tea Party was just one of his better-know pranks. He also burned houses, hired thugs to persuade loyalist merchants to join in boycotts against the British and unleashed vigilantes.
Born into the upper class, he preferred the company of roustabouts, lusty sailors and stevedors rigged with muscle and nerve, who became the group known as “The Sons of Liberty,” his own private gang. Adams didn’t invent the phrase “rabble-rousing,” but he raised the act to an art form. Early on, he realized that revolutions don’t require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds. Dogged, subtle, eloquent and cunning, he was obsessed with a vision of the ideal state he wanted America to become. Fueled by the tonic of his self-righteousness, he published a blizzard of circulars, newspaper articles and letters that bristled with restrained indignation. The letters were signed with pseudonymns, so that it would appear that many vocal zealots were enraged, but his one-man propaganda factory wrote them all. It was his form of pyromanis, and it worked.
Besides launching boycotts, he fought customs officials, railed against soldiers quartered in civilian homes, humiliated the royal governor so fiercely that the man was recalled, held secret meetings of outlawed assemblies, harassed British loyalists and officials and excelled particularly at staging “spontaneous” demonstrations. At times, he seemed to foment the Revolution almost single-handedly. Liberty was what he believed in and, as his cousin John Adams (the second President of the United States) once said, of all the Founding Fathers, he had “the most habitual, radical love of it…as well as the most artful pen.”
Of course, the British governor saw Samuel Adams as a rebel, not a patriot, and labeled him “the most dangerous man in Massachusetts, a man dedicated to the perpetuation of mischief.” Adams was a zealot and, like all zealots, sometimes got carried away by his idealism – intimidating merchants, manipulating mobs, exaggerating the facts and presenting every issue in starkest black and white. There were no grays on his political palette. A century later, the French novelist George Sand, who served briefly as a minister of propaganda for the provisional French Republic, looked up to Adams as “the most persuasive user of the written word for political purposes in all history.”
Although he often used the methods of tyrants, Adams never wished to become a tyrant himself. he was called the Cato of the American Revolution because, like the Roman statesman and moralist, throughout his life he called for the return to a simpler, more honest way of life. Out of modesty, or sheer mania, he kept no copies of his countless letters and worked so cunningly behind the scenes that he became eclipsed by other luminaries of his time who freely confessed, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, that Adams was “truly the Man of the Revolution.”
His remains have lain through 184 harsh Boston winters. Most of the patriots lie close together in a caucus. But Adams’ grave stands apart from the others, right up front behind the iron fence, as if he were a leopard not even death could cage. His marker isn’t a simple obelisk or cheek of slate, such as the others have, but a thick wall of cement toughened by a mob of stones. It is a single strength made from many weaknesses. No visitor leaves the Granary Burying Ground without stopping to commune, though calm was not Adams’ chosen manner. How can a bonfire be still?
“Death of a Nonconformist”
On the day after Samuel Adams’ death, William Bentley, a Boston clergyman and diarist, wrote in his diary: “Samuel Adams persevered through life in his Republican principles without any conformity to parties, influence or times. He was feared by his enemies, but too secret to be loved by his friends. He did not put confidence in them…He preserved the severity of Cato in his manners, and the dogmatism of a priest in his religious observances.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Resister proudly flies the flag of the Sons of Liberty on our front page in honor of the debt owed by us all to Samuel Adams and his gang of “rabble-rousers”.
Please note that the author is quoting Sam Adams. He is the one who said “revolutions don’t require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.”
It’s my understanding that this is incorrect. The quote is usually attributed to Samuel Adams, but some research I read said that there is no original source material to verify this. The only place it appears is in this article. You’ll note that the author does not put the saying in quotes or indicate that Adams actually said it. If you have something authored by Adams that shows he said it, I would love to see it. Personally, I think it’s a misattribution.
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