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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Lecture For LO II

Learning Objective II 

Discuss Sam Adams' background and how Sam Adams used the key events from the Stamp Act in 1765 until the Second Continental Congress of 1775 to manipulate society toward unity and into the American war for independence.  

Your discussion of the key events should include the following:

  • Stamp Act Riots
  • Townshend Acts and the Circular Letters
  • Boston Massacre
  • Tea Act and the Tea Party
  • Intolerable Acts (aka Coercive Acts)
  • First and Second Congressional Congresses
  • Background


More than any other individual, Sam Adams was responsible for the course America took after 1765. Like all successful revolutionaries, Adams was a Machiavellian (a political doctrine which denies the relevance of morality in political affairs and holds that expediency and manipulation are justified in pursuing and holding political power.) who relied upon the principles of expediency, demagoguery, manipulation, and terrorism.


Most of the leaders of the American Revolutionary War period were successful merchants and professional men. Adams, by contrast, failed in everything he tried except revolutionary politics . Adams was born in 1722. His father was a well-to-do owner of a malting house or brewery and was active in the Caucus Club, a little group of insiders who had long directed Boston politics. Educated at Harvard, he tried a variety of occupations: such as theology, law, and accounting, and even lost his father's malting business before going into public service.


In 1746 Sam started his public life at the bottom by being elected to the local post of clerk of the town market; in 1753 he moved up to the job of town scavenger. By 1756 he became tax collector for the town of Boston, a post he held until 1764. These local offices were important for many reasons. They gave him the opportunity to be in constant contact with the common people of Boston. For instance, he built friendships by being a most generous tax collector, in that he was reluctant to perform the duties of his office, especially when citizens were in dire financial straits. When he quit the post in 1764 he was 8,000 in arrears in his collections.


Sam was one of those rare individuals to whom money meant nothing, and only a practical wife and generous friends kept his personal affairs going. In 1765 he was elected as one of the four members from Boston to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The following year the house elected him its secretary, a post he held until 1780. In the meantime, he was admitted as his father before him, to the Caucus Club. The Caucus Club's membership consisted of individuals who controlled the inner circle of Boston politics, where Adams' ability as a propagandist soon made him the leader.




During the Stamp Act crisis, he turned the Caucus Club into the Sons of Liberty and added mob violence to their back room activities. With his abilities, Adams united and controlled the mob, so that from 1765 the mob was Sam Adams' militia. There is no doubt that he was responsible for the Stamp Act riots in Boston and the destruction of the home of his old enemy, Lt. Governor and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson. (Sam's father was financially ruined in the 1740s by a Land Bank scheme largely through the work of Thomas Hutchinson and his father).

Thomas Hutchinson

In colonial Boston there was a surefire way to gather a crowd: hang an effigy, or dummy, of just about any authority figure. Effigies were closely associated with November 11th, known as Pope's Day, when Protestant laborers reenacted an oldEnglish custom — hanging effigies of the Pope, setting bonfires, and brawling in the streets. In a fiercely anti-Catholic city, indulgent officials looked the other way while the lower classes used the excuse of an Old-World holiday for a bit of hooliganism. 

But after Parliament passed the hated Stamp Act in the spring of 1765, colonial merchants and master craftsmen who bore the brunt of the new law used the rituals of Pope's Day to enlist the common people in political protest. They soon discovered that once incited, the mob had a mind of its own.


The Stamp Act was the first direct tax Parliament imposed on the American colonies. All paper items were required to carry a special stamp; the revenues from the stamp would be used to support the cost of administering the colonies. The impact of the Stamp Act was widely felt. No one could buy or sell land, write a will, become an apprentice, read a newspaper or almanac, or even play cards without paying the tax, but the heaviest burden fell on merchants, shopkeepers, and master artisans. They angrily denounced the act as "taxation without representation."


Two effigies were discovered at dawn on August 14th: one was a crude figure of Andrew Oliver, Boston's Stamp Act Commissioner and the brother-in-law of the colony's second highest ranking official, Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The other was a large boot, with a devil peeking out — a reference to the Earl of Bute, the English lawmaker who was the architect of the Stamp Act. As a crowd began to gather, everyone expected the usual — a day of mockery and high spirits.


But the men who organized the event had something more political in mind. They put on a carefully orchestrated bit of street theater, stopping each cart and "stamping" its goods. The large crowd included laboring men and women, apprentices, schoolboys, artisans, some merchants, and a few gentlemen disguised as artisans. At 5:00 pm the effigies were cut down, and a good-natured mock funeral procession passed the State House shouting "Liberty, Property and No Stamps." The marchers proceeded to the stamp office and pulled the little building down.


Crown officials quickly came to fear crowds that met at Liberty Tree, and the men who had engineered the events of August 14th soon learned that they, too, had something to fear. Out-of-door meetings were difficult to control. The line between liberty and license to riot was not easily maintained.


This was never clearer than on August 26th, when a bonfire was lit on King Street (today's State Street). A large and unruly crowd gathered. The object of their anger that night was Thomas Hutchinson, a man whose arrogance, ambition, power, and wealth made him one of the most unpopular men in Massachusetts. The mob attacked his house, one of the city's most elegant homes, where they proceeded to loot the contents and tear down walls and part of the roof, reducing the mansion to a mere shell. Several hundred people watched, without moving to stop the violence.

The next day, the men who had helped focus mob action on political targets were quick to distance themselves from the riot, which even the hotheaded Samuel Adams called the work of "a lawless unknown rabble." They sought to reassert control, but it was too late. The common folk had awakened to their political power. 


British soldiers cut down Liberty Tree during their ten-month occupation of Boston in 1775. Today, a small plaque marks the site. Hence, during the Stamp Act crisis Sam contributed a very important line of communication to the colonial unification. The Sons of Liberty was first organized in Boston and developed into an inter-colonial organization with 12 of 13 colonies (all except Georgia) developing a branch. Adams made it an effective political tool. He used it to control the mob and kill participation by any government officials in Massachusetts in the Stamp Act and other acts passed by Parliament.

Depiction of a British Official Being Tarred and Feathered


What is the following quote from the clip below defining?

"...a brutal and illegal act to enforce a political principle..." 

Sam Adams' contribution to the revolutionary movement did not lie solely with his ability to use the mob. He was constantly on the lookout for men who could add something to the movement, such as wealth, intellect, or respectability.


Among his proteges were two young physicians, Joseph Warren and Benjamin Church. Also included, were a couple of outstanding lawyers who gave much of their legal and literary talents to the cause. The lawyers were John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Junior. The prize catch was a young merchant who had inherited a large fortune from his uncle, but whose craving for fame and popularity far exceeded his love of money. Sam Adams gave John Hancock what he craved by engineering his election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1766.

After the election Sam told John Adams that Boston had done a very wise thing: they had "made that young man's fortune their own.


However, Sam did not neglect the lower classes in his search for talent; Paul Revere, an artisan, and Ebenezer Mackintosh, the chief bully of the South End mob, are only the most famous examples of the class that formed the bulk of Adams' following. The street people or the mob were made up overwhelmingly of poor or marginally employed young men, who were often social outcasts to some degree by virtue of class, occupation, or race. For example, seamen were always suspect because they belonged to no community, but merely came and went and were always prominent in the riotous crowds.


These fringe elements did the dirty work in the Stamp Act crisis and were also the ones who fought the soldiers in the streets and who were killed in the Boston Massacre. John Adams who thought little of the mob of the Boston Massacre described them as "Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack-tars."


Very few men in the eighteenth century could make their way as petty politicians, living each hour by currying favor with the people. It might have been different had the modest Adams family fortune not been decimated by the Land Bank fiasco. But that is conjecture and it appears both out of necessity and temperament Sam reached out and touched the "poorer sort."


He lived meagerly and closely to the people. Described by one contemporary as a "plain, simple, decent citizen, of middling stature, dress and manners." Sam Adams was cultivating a constituency despite the accepted canons about hierarchy and political stewardship and in so doing he established himself as America's first and foremost propagandist.


Townshend Acts in 1767,and Circular Letters of 1768


"Nervous tension" is the term that best describes the relationship between the American colonies and England in the aftermath of the Stamp Act repeal.


Several issues remained unresolved. First, Parliament had absolutely no wish to send a message across the Atlantic that ultimate authority lay in the colonial legislatures. Immediately after repealing the Stamp Act, Parliament issued the Declaratory Act. This act proclaimed Parliament's ability "to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever." The message was clear: under no circumstances did Parliament abandon in principle its right to legislate for the 13 colonies.


In the Western Hemisphere, leaders were optimistic about the repeal of the Stamp Act but found the suggestions of the Declaratory Act threatening. Most American statesmen had drawn a clear line between legislation and taxation. In 1766, the notion of Parliamentary supremacy over the law was questioned only by a radical few, but the ability to tax without representation was another matter.


The Declaratory Act made no such distinction. "All cases whatsoever" could surely mean the power to tax. Many assemblymen waited anxiously for the issue to resurface.


Townshend had ulterior motives, however. The revenue from these duties would now be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors. This was not an insignificant change. Traditionally, the legislatures of the colonies held the authority to pay the governors. It was not uncommon for a governor's salary to be withheld if the legislature became dissatisfied with any particular decision. The legislature could, in effect, blackmail the governor into submission. Once this important leverage was removed, the governors could be freer to oppose the assemblies.


Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, sponsored the Townshend Acts. He believed that the Townshend Acts would assert British authority over the colonies as well as increase revenue.

Townshend went further by appointing an American Board of Customs.


This body would be stationed in the colonies to enforce compliance with tax policy. Customs officials received bonuses for every convicted smuggler, so there were obvious incentives to capture Americans. Given that violators were tried in juryless admiralty courts, there was a high chance of conviction.



During the crisis that was created by the Townshend Acts in 1767, Sam wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter of 1768 which informed the assemblies of the other 12 colonies of the steps taken by the Massachusetts General Court.


The letter also denounced the Townshend Acts as violating the principle of no taxation without representation, attacked Parliament for its inability to represent American interests and concluded by soliciting proposals for united action. As part of this united action he suggested that the Non-Importation Association be created in Massachusetts. This idea gained the support of 12 out of the 13 colonies (all but New Hampshire). By the end of 1769, this action had caused trade to drop with England by$700,000.


Thus, during the crisis after the Townshend Acts were passed Sam Adams contributed an additional two lines of communication to colonial unity with his circular letter and Non-Importation Association.


Tension Mounts in Massachusetts


After the repeal of the Townshend Acts, the tension between the colonies and England relaxed. There were still enough incidents in the next two years, however, to give agitators like Sam Adams a chance to keep American rebelliousness alive. The most inflammatory was the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, which American propagandists exploited to the hilt.


Minor clashes between citizens and soldiers were common occurrences in Boston following the arrival of 4,000 British troops (Boston only had a population of about 16,000) in October of 1768. No doubt aggravated by the prolonged winter which brought unemployment as well as discomfort, conflict between town laborers and soldiers seeking employment in off-duty hours became frequent.


On the afternoon of March 5th a fist fight between a worker and a British soldier quickly became a small riot. That evening belligerent bands of both civilians and soldiers roamed the streets of Boston. The pent-up tension exploded about 9 p.m. when a handful of hecklers, some of whom were fresh from a tavern, started cursing and throwing snowballs at the sentry on duty near the State House on King Street. When the mob swelled in numbers, to about 60, the sentry called for support which was led by Capt. Thomas Preston. As the mob pressed closer, the soldiers fired (upon the command of a person never identified) killing three outright and wounding two mortally. A general uprising was averted only when Lt. Governor Hutchinson bowed to a demand by Sam Adams and withdrew the troops from the town to islands in the harbor.


After the shooting Sam Adams and Joseph Warren quickly spread the word. John Adams found his cousin that evening "cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurrences &c. working the political engine."



1. How did Sam Adams transform this event into an opportunity for propaganda?

2. These two pictures depict the same event. What are the differences between the two? Which one do you think is more accurate?  

Sam Adams described the incident as murder, and distributed hundreds of woodcut prints made by Paul Revere showing a deliberately ordered volley fired into a group of innocent citizens. The woodcuts bore only slight resemblance to fact, but they were potent propaganda fully exploited by the Boston radicals.


A number of colonial newspapers reported the affair, framing the story with a black border to represent mourning, and soon word of the Boston Massacre was in every colony.


John Adams and Josiah Quincy, though ardent patriots, defended the soldiers in court and managed to get them acquitted of murder charges. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter and, under the rules of that time, were branded on the thumbs and discharged from the British army.


John Adams and Quincy's reasons for defending the soldiers were clear:

(1) if the mob and the radicals convicted Preston and his soldiers without a trial, what kind of future treatment could Massachusetts expect from England?


(2) And if mob rule took control of the city and the colony, the other colonies would declare that there was a state of anarchy. Their alliance and support in any upcoming struggle would be lost.


However, the "massacre" itself was picked up as a favorite theme for oratory and Massacre Day was observed in Boston as a patriotic holiday until 1776, when the Fourth of July eclipsed it. Hence, with the Boston Massacre, Sam's contribution lay with the negative image (gate keeping) created in the minds of many colonists throughout the 13 colonies who read about the incident in the colonial newspapers. After the trial, a post-massacre truce settled over Boston and the rest of the English colonies until 1772. During the next two years no serious crisis erupted and imports of British goods were up nearly 50% from before the non-importation agreement.

So long as the English continued to be conciliatory, the colonists seemed satisfied with their place in the empire. During this period of comparative calm, Sam carried on almost alone. Between August 1770 and December 1772 he contributed over 40 articles to the newspapers enunciating many of the basic arguments that later became familiar Revolutionary doctrine in trying to keep the issues of revolution alive before the people.


In 1772, this informal truce ended and new troubles broke out. In June of 1772, the new Governor Thomas Hutchinson announced that henceforth he would receive his salary from the Crown. In September it was announced that the judges of the superior court were to be paid from customs receipts, not by legislative appropriations.


Since control over the salaries of royal officials gave the legislature a somewhat powerful hold over the officials, this development was disturbing. This incident gave Sam the opportunity he had hoped for to introduce his idea of intercolonial Committees of Correspondence, which he had suggested to Arthur Lee in 1771.


On November 2, 1772, Sam Adams used the salary issue as a pretext to secure the appointment of a 21 man standing Committee of Correspondence to communicate Boston's position to the other towns in Massachusetts and "to the World" with the request that the other towns reciprocate.

By January 1773 a hundred towns had formed Committees of Correspondence. The Committees of Correspondence were probably the greatest contribution of Sam Adams to the revolutionary movement. The committees were perfectly legal, for they were regularly chosen by voters at town meetings. Their avowed purpose was simply to communicate the sentiments of each town, but it gave the Boston radicals a chance to disseminate their views throughout the colony for the first time.


Thus, Sam Adams built a propaganda machine and, ultimately, a true revolutionary organization. (Later other revolutionists would adopt this underground technique in establishing "cells.") Most of all, the Committees of Correspondence brought unity to the revolutionary movement. With the information gathered from the local committees, the Boston committee could act as a central command post. issuing orders for local action and coordinating the efforts of the whole.


Intercolonial committees of correspondence were the next logical step. Radicals elsewhere hastened to adopt the Massachusetts system. In March 1773, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee seized the opportunity to get the Virginia House of Burgesses to set up a "standing committee of correspondence and enquiry" to acquire information about acts of Parliament and to correspond with committees set up by other colonial legislatures. By the end of 1774 all of the colonies had formed a "standing committee of correspondence." These intercolonial groups were extremely significant in stimulating and disseminating sentiment in favor of united action. They became an effective underground government in each colony and eventually evolved directly into the First Continental Congress in 1774.




The lull in agitation that lasted after the repeal of the Townshend Acts and the Boston Massacre came to an abrupt end when the English government passed the Tea-Act which precipitated the financial crisis.


By early 1773 the British East India Company held a monopoly on all trade between India and the rest of the empire and was on the verge of bankruptcy. This was no ordinary commercial venture but a gigantic monopoly to which the English government had entrusted not only the economic exploitation but even the government of India.


There were many influential Englishmen deeply involved in the company's fortunes and, like the English government, the company was shot through with corruption and mismanagement. Consequently, the company appealed to Parliament for aid, after which Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773 which:


(1) eliminated the export tax on all tea exported from England to the American colonies,


(2) allowed the company to sell directly in America through its own agents (obliged up to this time to sell its tea at public auction in England), thereby eliminating both English and American wholesalers.


The act allowed the company to undersell both the law-abiding colonial merchant who had bought tea through middlemen at higher prices and the colonial smuggler who bought his tea in Holland. Also, the savings would permit a sharp reduction of the retail price and at the same time yield a nice profit to the company. The Townshend tax was retained to preserve the principle of Parliament's right to tax the colonies.


Colonial opposition to the Tea Act centered not upon the duty (now six years old) but upon the threat of monopoly. If Parliament could bestow a tea monopoly on the East India Company, what was to stop it from granting similar monopolies over other commodities?

Colonial reaction to the Tea Act took various forms. In Charleston the tea was landed, but not offered for sale. At Philadelphia and New York the consignments were rejected and returned to

England. But in Boston the ingenious brain of Sam Adams brought about a dramatic showdown--the Boston Tea Party.


Boston Governor Thomas Hutchinson would not allow the tea ships to depart from the harbor, as they had in Philadelphia and New York. Hutchinson decided to seize the tea for nonpayment of the three cent per pound tax on tea (left from the Townshend Acts); thus the royal government of Massachusetts, rather than a more vulnerable private company, would unload the tea. It was a clever idea, but Sam Adams had a better one.

On the 16th of December some 8,000 people assembled in and near Boston's Old South Church and learned of Hutchinson's final refusal to allow the tea ships to leave. Thereupon, at a signal from Adams, a group of the Sons of Liberty dressed like Indians and filled with rum went to the wharf where they boarded the three tea ships and dumped all 342 chests of tea into the harbor to the rousing cheers of a large crowd.


Adams knew what he was doing. He knew that England could not let the incident pass. He gambled that Parliament would overreact it did by passing the Coercive Acts. The significance of the Coercive Acts is that they got England to do just what Sam Adams wanted her to do--punish the colonists of Massachusetts in hopes she would gain the support of the other colonies. This would force the people of Massachusetts to take a stand against England. These measures struck sharply at the very liberties the colonists had been fighting for since 1763, and the other colonies were quick to rally to the support of Massachusetts.


In an unfortunate bit of timing, Parliament picked this moment to pass the Quebec Act. Although it was NOT a part of the coercive program, it was regarded by the colonists as one of the Intolerable Acts, (the colonists referred to the Quebec Act and the Coercive Acts collectively as the Intolerable Acts). The Quebec Act recognized certain features of French law as valid in Canada and it granted religious freedom and rights of Englishmen to Catholics. Most objectionable to the colonists, however, was that the Province of Quebec was enlarged to include the territory north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia all had claims to this land, but the Quebec Act completely ignored them.

The popular leaders now had a torch with which to touch off rebellion. No longer did they have to exaggerate the danger to traditional liberties; the danger had been plainly revealed for all to see.


Although the popular leaders, including Sam Adams, regarded the Intolerable Acts as a mechanism by which they might achieve a more tenacious and unified colonial resistance, they quickly realized the need to proceed with caution.


In all the colonies, particularly Massachusetts, there was an aversion to the destruction of property involved in the Boston Tea Party, and substantial numbers of conservative colonists believed Boston deserved to be punished and should pay for the tea. Determined to counter this sentiment, Adams appealed to all the colonies for an immediate policy of stopping ALL trade with the British empire. The local situation in each colony, especially the merchants' resistance to stopping trade, made the immediate acceptance of Adams' call impossible.


First Continent Congress: September 5 to October 26, 1774


In order to sidestep and avoid Adams' appeal for immediate non-importation, on May 17, 1774, the citizens of Providence, Rhode Island, the first of many cities, called for an intercolonial congress to discuss possible common strategies against the Intolerable Acts. Rhode Island's proposal met with almost universal consent, and 12 of the 13 colonies (all but Georgia) sent representatives to the meeting, which was known as the First Continental Congress.


During the crisis created by the Tea Act, Sam's contribution to colonial unity was the all important Boston Tea Party which forced England's hand and led to a series of actions which began a point of no return for both England and the colonists.

The First Continental Congress met at Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774. After considerable bickering, the Congress was able to agree on four things.


1.The first was a petition sent to Parliament entitled "Declaration of Rights and Grievances".

  • The Declaration summed up a new, in a list of colonial grievances, the traditional arguments of the American protest.
  • It denounced the Intolerable Acts and asked that harmony be restored between the two parties.

2. Second, to protect themselves and give weight to their Declaration, the colonists advocated troops be raised in each colony for self-protection .

3. Third, the Congress suggested a non-importation policy (a boycott) be enlarged to include an embargo on all exports to England, Ireland and the British West Indies. And at the same time the Congress organized a Continental Association to make sure that there would be no economic intercourse of any kind with England.

Most notable were those clauses establishing extra legal machinery for enforcement. A committee was to be elected in each county, town, and city to enforce the Association's position.


Violators were to be punished by publicity and boycott. On the higher level, any colony which failed to enforce the Association's policies was to be boycotted.


4. Finally, having completed their business, the Congress adjourned on October 22, 1774. Before doing so, they agreed to meet again the following May if colonial grievances had not then been redressed--the Second Continental Congress.


The Second Continental Congress was called on May 10, 1775 (less than a month after the Battle of Lexington and Concord). The Second Continental Congress was called on May 10, 1775 (less than a month after the Battle of Lexington and Concord).


After watching the clips below, compare and contrast how John Adams and John Dickinson believed how their rights were to be restored.

The Congress met in June at Philadelphia with 65 delegates from 12 colonies (Georgia joined in September, 1775). The delegates to the Congress were to continue to serve with brief recesses for the next 14 years. During the first six years (1775-81) they had no constitutional authority and were thus an extra legal government.


There were three distinct factions present at the Congress which included:


1. Delegates who hoped for conciliation were from some of the well established and wealthy families. These delegates felt they would lose more in a war with England and the social and political anarchy that might occur at home than what they were losing under English rule.


2. At the opposite end were the popular leaders like Sam Adams who felt that England would yield only to armed force.


3. At the beginning of the Congress the largest group was made up of moderates who believed that a show of armed strength would force England to back down and give into their demands. This group felt that independence was neither desirable nor necessary.


One of the first measures the Congress enacted was to create a continental army (by asking the various states to raise troops to meet the need) and selected George Washington to head the hastily improvised army besieging Boston.


On June 17, 1775, two days after Washington was asked to command the continental army, one of the bloodiest battles of the war took place, called Bunker Hill (actually on adjacent Breed's Hill).

The British won the battle but suffered heavy losses of men--1150 to the 441 lost by the colonists. Although the colonial leader, General Joseph Warren, was killed, the battle demonstrated the colonists' tenacity of purpose.


Following Bunker Hill, the King slammed the door on all hope of reconciliation by rejecting Dickinson's "Olive Branch Petition" and decided that a full-fledged war was the only way to settle the problem with the colonists.