January 9, 2009


Sam Adams: the first professional revolutionary: It’s high time we reclaimed and celebrated this rabble-rouser of the first order, without whom the American Revolution might not have occurred. (Guy Rundle, December 2008, spiked review of books)

Contrary to received opinion, the American Revolution began not with the drafting of noble and soaring documents by a Virginia philosopher-slave owner, but in the roiling and turbulent port of Boston in the 1760s. More than any other city in the thirteen colonies, Boston took both its politics and religion seriously, its Established Congregationalist church identifying firmly with the revolutionary Puritan traditions of seventeenth-century England. Its seat of learning, Harvard College, had branched out from the training of clergymen, to become a seat of rationalist philosophy and the early Enlightenment, the focus of a passionate interest in the New England colonies in the question of natural rights and laws, independent of traditional notions of attachment, rank and privilege.

Adams, the son of a maltster, was part of that rising generation of the mid-eighteenth century. One of the first recorded comments about him is that he was too busy reading books on politics to be much use around the counting house to which he had been apprenticed. The reading, and soon the writing for Boston’s numerous publications, occupied him so much that his efforts in one or two early professions were indifferent at best – he was eventually relieved of his job as a tax agent because so many levies went uncollected. The reasons for his distraction are not hard to find: by the 1760s, the British authorities were imposing an increasingly arbitrary series of taxes on commodity trade – tea, sugar – as a way of paying for their wars with other European powers.

In the received, and off-puttingly tedious, version of that period, the Bostonians rise as one group of free citizens and toss the tea and the British back into the Atlantic. The reality was more complicated, and it is here that Adams emerges as an historical figure. The taxes, though high-handed, were hardly crippling, and many were as happy to get around them as to challenge them on principle. Throughout the eighteenth century, the colonies had been criss-crossed with conflicts – town and country, small farmers versus large ones – and they were by no means all revolts against the British.

It was Adams more than anybody who turned these haphazard impositions into something other – matters of principle that went to the heart of natural rights and liberties; acts that brought into focus the notion of what it meant to be free. Through protest committees, newspaper columns under a dozen pseudonyms, public meetings, and one-on-one persuasion in the taverns and on the docks, Adams hammered the issue of taxation over the mid-1760s into a matter which defined Americans as an oppressed and dictated-to people – brilliantly so, by constructing Americans as British subjects with rights deriving from 1649 and 1688. It was thus the Americans who were the true heirs of England’s Glorious Revolution, while the increasingly imperial Britain of George III represented the negation of that revolution.

...when it fails to apprehend that the colonists have accepted the End of History and are simply claiming their co-equal rights.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2009 9:00 AM
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