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Samuel Adams

Section 1: Sam of the Adams Family

Important Terms, People, and Events

Section 2: Out in the World

There are few families in American history that have had quite an impact on the country's future as the Adams family. By September 27, 1722, when Samuel Adams was born in Boston, the Adams family already had a long and distinguished history in the new colonies. Adams's father, also named Samuel, was a successful businessman in the Massachusetts capital, who ran a brewery and served as deacon of the Congregational Church. Even then, long before the revolution, before John Adams would serve as President, and even longer before America had ever heard of John Quincy Adams, Abigail Adams or Henry Adams, the Adamses were already involved in politics. Samuel Adams, Sr. was a justice of the peace, selectman, and representative to the General Court, the colony's governing body. His mother supported the increasingly narrow Calvinist faith movement, and the pious woman influenced her son enough that he would later be called "the last of the Puritans."

From his earliest days of schooling, Adams was known for his impassioned emotions–emotions which would sometimes keep him from seeing an issue clearly. His emotions sprang from the interplay of theology and political science, where political theory met dogmatic theory. Thus Adams often found himself influenced in his arguments by theology, and he was normally known as a religious man.

Little is known of Adams's boyhood, and what little is known comes from the comprehensive three-volume biography his great-grandson William V. Wells later wrote. Little other information on Adams's early years has been found. He studied at the Boston Latin School for eight years, learning Latin and Greek. Adams, like most of the sons from Boston's elite, entered Harvard College in 1736 at the age of fourteen. Although his father had expected him to pursue the ministry, it quickly became obvious that Adams had little interest in following his father to the pulpit. Adams progressed through college without distinguishing himself in any way. He was disciplined once by Harvard for sleeping through morning prayers, and he was ranked fifth in the class of twenty-two when ranked by the social standing of his parents. He studied arithmetic, metaphysics, Latin, Greek, rhetoric and other subjects–but he remained surprisingly weak in literature throughout his life. During his junior year, Adams's father lost most of the family's money in a bad business deal, and Adams was forced to work the rest of his way through school by serving as a waiter in the college dining hall. The city fined him five shillings during his senior year when he was caught drinking in public.

While Adams attended college, the Great Awakening swept over New England. The evangelist George Whitefield arrived in Massachusetts, and he deeply affected many of Harvard's men. He worked to convert many of the students to the gospel, and when he left in 1740 it was said that little but "voices of prayer and praise" could be heard on campus. In fact, Whitefield was able to reverse the growing trend throughout Boston of indulging in drink and fine clothes.

Colonial politics also began to heat up as Adams graduated from Harvard in 1740. Samuel Adams, Sr. had helped to run the opposition to the crown's demand for a fixed salary for the governor and was quickly becoming known as one of the colony's leaders. A failed attempt to establish a Land Bank in Massachusetts had forced the colony into an economic depression. Massachusetts's farmers had suffered from the lack of a stable currency, and a movement had begun to establish a bank where the money would be backed with land. Again, Samuel Adams had helped lead the fight, serving as one of the bank's directors, and the effort appeared likely to upend the political world of the state. By 1741, rebellion looked possible. The colony's governor acted quickly, arresting the ringleaders and vetoing the election of Adams and other Land Bankers to the colony's governing council–the highest governmental body. Soon, the Land Bank movement lay in tatters as Parliament outlawed such banks.

The movement had a profound impact on the younger Samuel Adams, and after graduating from the College in 1740, he continued on to pursue a Master's degree. In an ominous sign of things to come, he chose as his question of study, "Whether it be lawful to resist the supreme magistrate, if the commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved?" Adams decided on the affirmative, and left little question in his response exactly where his sympathies lay.

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