Viewed on television and from a safe distance, the Trumpite insurrection of 6 January 2021 looked bedraggled and tawdry – not least by contrast with the sedate backdrop of the Capitol. Although construction didn’t begin until 1793, the neoclassical building irresistibly evokes the high-mindedness of the Founding Fathers. How low America seemed to have fallen, from these philosopher-statesmen to Trump and his followers. But the cult of the founders can be seen as one of the ills from which the patient is suffering, not the picture of health against which all other eras of American political life are to be judged. Might America’s obsession with its late 18th-century founding be one of the causes of its current hyper-partisan polarisation? There are, of course, more immediate causes in populism and the echo chambers of the social media age; but a fossilised system that enshrines for all time the indefeasible wisdom of the founders makes modest reforms and compromises almost impossible.
Things were different only a couple of generations ago, when the cult of the founders underpinned consensus. In the 1960s sociologists discussed the role of a non-denominational ‘civil religion’ centred on the founders’ secular scriptures – the Declaration of Independence, the constitution and the Bill of Rights – and a calendar of public observance. Was America’s civil religion a substitute for Christianity, or merely a supplement to it? In the easy-going days before the rise of the evangelical right, it didn’t seem to matter, and the cult of the founders had no ulterior partisan or ideological significance. Indeed, liberals were just as committed to it as conservatives, happily hymning the Jeffersonian separation of Church and state.
By the same token, until the 1980s justices on the Supreme Court – both Democrat and Republican appointees – felt able to accommodate emerging social trends and behaviours within the capacious parameters of a living constitution: a constitution devised and ratified in the late 18th century, but not one inflexibly binding subsequent generations to that century’s social practices. Things started to change when conservative Republicans on the bench turned to the new jurisprudence of originalism, which ostentatiously deferred to historical values and paved the way for the eventual overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. In reaction, the liberal left now challenges the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in its current form, as well as the electoral college, which often appears to defy rather than encapsulate the democratic will of the people. Republicans retort that in 1787 the founders deliberately created a republic, not a democracy. And, by the most excruciating of ironies, they are right: the founders envisaged the electoral college as a cut-out mechanism which would prevent the inflamed passions of the populace carrying a Trump-like demagogue into the presidency.
Inevitably, American history in the second half of the 18th century has become a major theatre in the culture wars, and not only for the right. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, which attempts to update and defamiliarise the founders for a multicultural, multiracial America, derived from Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. In recent decades many academic historians have turned away from the old civil religion, depicting instead the lives of women, the enslaved and the poor in the era of the American Revolution. Nevertheless, there remains a seemingly unquenchable demand for books on the founders. The results are, on the whole, nuanced and balanced, surprisingly so at times; in 2014, Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, published a respectable biography of James Madison. Still, there’s a lurking suspicion that the public interest in the lives of dead white patriarchs is predominantly hagiographical.
Stacy Schiff’s life of the revolutionary patriot Samuel Adams is an unobtrusively subversive contribution to the genre. Schiff’s Adams is, if not quite a purveyor of fake news, a master craftsman in the arts of distortion and exaggeration, whose spin and sensation-mongering transformed loyal colonial Britons into revolutionary Americans over the course of little more than a decade. The origins of the American Revolution remain a conundrum. Why did the colonies that had supported Britain in its North American struggle against France between 1754 and 1763 turn so quickly against Britain’s relatively benign parliamentary government? Understandably enough, British attempts after 1763 to make the colonists contribute to the costs of imperial defence provoked protest. But the escalation from loud discontent about taxes to outright independence wasn’t predictable or straightforward. The most persuasive explanation, advanced by Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), is that the reading habits of the 18th-century colonists tilted heavily towards the fretful opposition Whiggery of the mother country. By contrast with mainstream Whiggish celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, opposition Whigs – indebted to mid-17th-century commonwealth ideals, suspicious of government power in general, and nervous of conspiracies against liberty – stressed the frailty of English freedoms, not least from the poisons they identified in the body politic. Transatlantic distance aggravated such concerns. Eventually, colonials came to fear that England’s liberties were on the point of expiry, and British America’s might be next.
Schiff adds a twist to this story. The colonies’ instinctive British loyalties counterbalanced suspicion and mistrust; it took sustained, deliberate effort from Adams between the mid-1760s and mid-1770s to transform protest into outrage, then militancy, and finally a willingness to shed blood for an as yet unimagined American nation. Abetted by London’s misunderstandings of Boston, and Boston’s exaggerated misreadings of London’s intent, Adams’s persistent scheming, Schiff suggests, contrived America into existence.
Contemporaries recognised Adams’s hand at work in a series of episodes that preceded the outbreak of the War of Independence. Thomas Hutchinson, the penultimate royal governor of Massachusetts, described him as ‘that Machiavelli of chaos’, responsible for stirring up anti-government sentiment along the Atlantic seaboard. Writing under more than thirty pseudonyms in the colonial press – including Vindex, Candidus, Alfred, ‘a Bostonian’, Shippen, Populus, TZ, EA, ‘a Son of Liberty’ – Adams, as Schiff notes, was adept at turning ‘a small grievance into an unpardonable insult’. He also developed something approaching a ‘syndicated news service’, the Journal of Occurrences, which relayed accounts of imperial oppressions in Massachusetts to newspapers in the other colonies, and introduced committees of correspondence – networks of resistance – among patriot leaders. Stealthily, Adams helped orchestrate much of the Bostonian ‘street theatre’ – riots, public commemorations, mob actions against the property of targeted individuals – that he then glossed in the press: commending the upright principles that underpinned popular protest, downplaying the vandalism that ensued and amplifying the violence of the colonial authorities.
This sanitised version of the American Revolution still prevails, but it fails to capture the raw historical realities. When in 1765 the British government introduced stamp duty in the colonies – a tax on printed materials, ranging from legal documents, college diplomas and newspapers to calendars and playing cards – it provoked widespread opposition. In Boston this took a menacing turn. On the morning of 14 August 1765, Bostonians discovered an effigy of Andrew Oliver, a local worthy who had applied for the post of stamp collector, hanging on a venerable elm at the corner of Essex and Orange Streets. In case anybody failed to get the message, the effigy had on its right sleeve the initials AO, and on its left a ditty: ‘What greater glory can New England see/Than stamp men hanging from a tree.’ That evening the Boston mob destroyed Oliver’s intended stamp office, then proceeded to his family home, where they broke china and furniture, and fed fencing, doors and cushions to a bonfire. The next day Oliver was induced – on pain of further destruction, including death threats – to resign his commission. On 26 August, the home of Benjamin Hallowell, a wealthy customs comptroller who had loaned Adams money that was yet to be repaid, was ransacked and its valuables – wine cellar included – were plundered. The house of Hutchinson, then lieutenant-governor, was looted during an eight-hour rampage. Adams was not, of course, a participant in these events, but in the press he eagerly ‘minimised the violence of both evenings’. On the night of 31 October, more effigies were hanged from Boston’s Liberty Tree, including one of the former prime minister George Grenville, who had introduced the Stamp Act.
The Boston mob had acquired a reputation. In the autumn of 1768 troops were quartered in the town; for Adams, their presence was a source of friction and complaint. On the cold evening of 5 March 1770 a crowd gathered on King Street and began to throw snowballs and oyster shells at a sentry. After calling for assistance, the sentry was joined by Captain Thomas Preston and eight men. The mob pushed and shoved on the icy ground, and in the melee the soldiers fired, killing five members of the crowd. These scenes provided an excuse for uncaveated anti-British propaganda. Adams was the first to call the deaths a ‘horrid massacre’, and, as Schiff notes, ‘rinsed the evening of all crowd action and premeditation’. He was ‘wholly comfortable at the intersection of allegation and surmise’ and somehow managed to implicate the customs commissioners in the Boston Massacre; their houses were later vandalised.
After a long career of mediocrity, Adams was in his element as a revolutionary. His father had been a successful maltster, but involvement in a controversial land bank scheme in the 1740s meant that he had bequeathed massive debts to his son. Despite his Harvard degree, Adams floundered in business. Potential relief came from his election as one of Boston’s six tax collectors. A collector could take a modest surplus over and above the designated tax assessment, but was responsible for paying the authorities the assessed sum whether or not he succeeded in collecting it. Shambolic where money was concerned, Adams now added to his considerable debt arrears. Schiff points out that he was the only downwardly mobile Founding Father, and notorious among patriot leaders for his shabby dress. He was the antithesis of his vain and ambitious cousin John Adams, a patriot of a more conservative kind who later became America’s second president. Revolutionary politics, however, was the making of Samuel Adams. He was assumed to be the remote master of ceremonies at the Boston Tea Party in December 1773; and when Paul Revere made his midnight ride from Boston to Lexington in the spring of 1775, it was to warn the chief instigators of rebellion, Adams and John Hancock, that British redcoats were on their way to arrest them.
The success of the revolution made it inconvenient to pry into the means by which Adams – more than any other figure – had brought it about. Good fortune enabled American patriots, unlike the French revolutionaries of the following decades, to bring their revolution to a prompt, uncontroversial conclusion: the revolution merged ambiguously into the American War of Independence, and the two became ever harder to disentangle. Revolutionary principles quietly withered, providing no sanction for extra-legal opposition to the new authorities. Adams did not adjust easily to the post-revolutionary political scene. In particular, he was suspicious of the United States constitution of 1787, which to his mind introduced a dangerous centralised authority in place of the looser union of sovereign states established at the revolution. In the end, he voted reluctantly for its ratification. Adams became acting governor of Massachusetts in 1793 and governor the following year, but in the longer run his reputation, Schiff remarks, ‘escaped the golden haze that settled around his fellow founders’: he wasn’t a military hero like Washington or an Enlightenment colossus like Franklin, Madison and Jefferson.
A throwback to a thrawn New England Puritanism, Adams was less easily aligned with the Enlightenment or liberal modernity. He was an ascetic, indifferent to worldly baubles, decent comforts, respectable clothing. His republican vision for Massachusetts was forbiddingly austere, not an open marketplace free of intrusive British taxation, but what he termed, uninvitingly, a ‘Christian Sparta’. Religion was not then a private matter of belief unrelated to political attitudes. Congregationalism, which in its fiercest form encompassed undeferential egalitarianism, hostility to Episcopalianism and a conditional dissenting loyalty towards Britain’s Anglican state, underpinned Adams’s ‘scrappy, iconoclastic spirit’. His Harvard MA thesis had tackled – very conventionally, despite its prophetic resonance – a central topic in Puritan political thought: was it lawful to resist the supreme magistrate if the commonwealth could not otherwise be preserved? Puritan ideas of this sort, as Bernard Bailyn argued, constituted an important strand in the oppositional outlook of the revolutionaries.
But, as those who cling to the founders tend to forget, the revolution divided colonial society. Bailyn, its most ingenious and imaginative historian, who died in 2020 at the age of 97, wrote not only the most compelling account of revolutionary politics in Ideological Origins, but also produced its ‘Tory’ counterpart in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), a tragic interpretation of the early stages of the revolution seen through the offended, uncomprehending eyes of a pro-British loyalist. In its vividness, literary flair and unexpected empathies, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson bears comparison with The Leopard (Lampedusa’s fictional account of a Sicilian prince caught up in the turbulence of the Risorgimento). So ardent is Bailyn’s ventriloquising of Hutchinson that the reader is hard-pressed to tell apart author and subject. Bailyn’s masterpiece, acknowledged in Schiff’s bibliography, is a discreet presence in her story. Because Adams often needed to erase his tracks, we know less about him from his correspondence with friends and allies than we do from the observations of ‘his apoplectic adversaries’, not least Hutchinson, who is both a central source and protagonist here. Is Schiff also ventriloquising Hutchinson? She offers in passing several harsh remarks on Adams’s revolutionary activities and his lukewarm attachment to truth. In sharp contrast, however, her overall arguments are understated and more enigmatic. Such circumspection is perhaps a response to marketing pressures. The puff from the publisher indicates that her book is directed at a filiopietistic readership – despite much of its content and incidental commentary tending in the opposite direction.
The implications of Schiff’s account are unsettling, and possibly more disruptive than she intended. Her Adams and the mid-18th-century Boston crowd supply disturbing precedents for rabble-rousing populism, truth-bending demagoguery, intimidation, violence, vandalism and the destruction of property; the hanged effigies of Oliver and Grenville foreshadow the gallows the Capitol mob built for Vice-President Pence. Founding-era exemplars of this sort still matter. Most obviously, the Tea Party movement, which has now been absorbed by the Republican Party, klaxoned its debt to the American Revolution, and its anarchic, ultra-libertarian obstructiveness crudely echoed the chariness of government so characteristic of 18th-century Whig patriots. But if Americans are to temper their current tribalisms, they need to see their revolution straight. One place to start is with the recognition – uncomfortable as it might be, on both sides – that dubious conspiracy theories and MAGA-like mob action were also the birthpangs of American independence.
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