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Summary: The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff

The Revolutionary (2022) offers a nuanced look at one of the most central figures in the lead-up to the American War of Independence. It reveals a man of character and contradiction, whose revolutionary thinking and deep commitment to civil liberties came to define a revolution.

Introduction: Discover the man whose ideas shaped a revolution.

While names like Washington and Jefferson spring to mind when thinking about the Revolutionary War in America, the movement which actually made that war necessary was decades old by 1776. And no one had worked harder to make the conditions for revolution more necessary than Samuel Adams. This Massachusetts malter’s son had been a thorn in the side of the King and Parliament for decades. His writings united the colonies and his politics were revolutionary. But to uncover his story is to understand the obscurity: he wanted it that way.

While Stacy Schiff’s The Revolutionary covers Adams’s life well into the Revolutionary War, in this summary, we’ll primarily focus on the events leading up to it. We’ll take a closer look at Samuel Adams’s political roots and how he became the thinker whose Enlightenment ideals formed the backbone of the American Revolution.

Book Summary: The Revolutionary - Samuel Adams

The Public Enemy

The death of Samuel Adams, senior, in 1748 left his son Samuel in dire straits. Although his father had been a successful roaster of barley for local breweries, in the process he’d also accrued a sizable debt. Now, not only was that debt the problem of Samuel Adams, junior, but the sheriff and public officials were trying to sell his family’s home to cover it.

Despite the finest classical education and two degrees from Harvard University, Samuel’s professional life had been a disaster. His devout Christianity led to interest in the ministry, which promptly faded with his divinity studies. Same for reading law and starting a business. While everyone in Boston knew Samuel as a highly intelligent and influential man, he was by no means conventionally successful.

Unconventionally, too. When his first wife died, instead of quickly remarrying like most of his peers, he spent seven years lovingly raising his children alone. When he remarried, his second wife’s family bestowed a particularly valuable wedding present for the time – an enslaved woman. Samuel proclaimed to the family that if this person were to live in his house, then she must be free. It’s a promise he immediately kept.

Samuel Adams cared quite little for what others thought about him. He valued his privacy as much as his ideals. The time he’d spent with Enlightenment philosophers in Harvard’s main library had formed him into a man of reason and compassion, who had a deep understanding of what motivated individuals to fight for their own interests.

But the struggle over his father’s debt was caused by the dissolution of the Land Bank – a colonial improvisation to grant Massachusetts business owners and farmers access to the credit they needed, secured by land. When England dissolved the Land Bank as counter to their own interests, Adams’s own precarious position felt like nothing compared to that of the colony’s. Forced to rely on London for everything from house paint and mirrors to hard currency, the fate of the owners and farmers was entirely up to the whims of a King and Parliament who couldn’t point out Boston on a map. Samuel’s cousin John Adams, recalled this moment as the first time Samuel stepped out onto Boston’s political stage. And he came out roaring.

Instead of collapsing under the weight of this disaster, it forged Samuel Adams, into a powerful adversary of English rule. One who had, in almost every sense, nothing to lose.

A Ghost

At the ripe age of 41, Adams stepped out onto the political stage for the first time. After accepting a modest elected position as market clerk in early 1747, with a small salary that staved off poverty, he decided to join together with several friends to start a newspaper.

In January 1748 the Independent Advertiser debuted, covering a recent violent uprising against a British admiral. When Admiral Knowles’s British crew deserted, he thought nothing of pressing Bostonian men into replacement service the London way – by kidnapping them from the wharves and taverns.

The violent uprising that resulted as Bostonians fought off their unlawful capture with bricks and clubs gave Samuel his first real taste of the power of collective resistance. He was sure his articles, often written under a pseudonym, could stoke the fires of civil disobedience and highlight the discrimination the people faced as colonial subjects when it came to matters of self-governance.

The writing was deeply partisan with a true bias against British rule. At a time when newspapers largely published official reports, the impassioned, and mostly anonymous, writings drew attention. It was here that ideas like the balance of power and taxation without representation were voiced and argued by an unknown writer who was likely Adams himself.

The crown’s dissolution of the Land Bank in 1741, which was Massachusetts’s first real attempt at establishing a local economy, had revealed that the interests of the colony and those of the King and Parliament were quite opposed. Adams’s writing shows he’d grasped this fact very early and believed that if he could persuade constantly and loudly for Massachusetts interests, he might forge a solidarity that could bring about real change.

Like his public writing, Adams had a real concern that his private letters could be used against him or his network. His messages often ended with, ”burn after reading.” Several times, cousin John found him burning stacks of letters. At his cousin’s shock, Samuel remarked that he cared far more about the safety of his friends than his place in history.

Behind All the Right Doors

In 1751, instead of settling Land Bank debts, the English government set up another committee to assign debt to the original borrowers and their heirs. When Samuel Adams climbed the statehouse steps for the meeting, it was the second time he’d faced off against collectors. He’d carefully prepared ledgers to prove his debts were mostly paid off, but these were ignored. Just his asking whether or not the committee would consider such evidence sparked offense among members.

But Boston’s response to news of this confrontation was to elect him as one of six public tax collectors. Not a lucrative position and one that meant becoming personally liable for uncollected taxes. But Adams took the position knowing it would stave off his deepening poverty and allow him the possibility of lightening the economic burdens of fellow citizens by remaining hopeless at his job.

He grew a remarkable network by granting dispensations and arguing against collection after local disasters like the 1760 fire that consumed much of Boston Wharf and blew up a nearby arsenal. By 1764 he’d accumulated a tax debt of over 8,000 pounds, more than double that of the second-worst collector. In 1765 he refused reelection and his enormous debt was settled over several years through a committee of private donors, including many of his old friends from Harvard. But Bostonians seemed to approve of his approach to tax collection and elected him to the House of Representatives shortly after in 1769.

Adams seemed to have a natural ability to be in all the right rooms at all the right times and the influence of his persuasive ideas could be heard resoundingly throughout all classes in Boston. Adams’s election to the House put him in yet more influential circles and at the center of the coming political storm.

Between Acts

If the Land Bank confrontation had spiraled Samuel Adams into both debt and resistance, it was the next series of acts by the British Parliament that set his sights on independence.

The Sugar Act, signed into law by King George III on April 5, 1764, had a singular purpose: to raise money taxing colonial sugar imports to help offset the costs of maintaining the colonies. Many raised the concern over taxation without representation. Benjamin Franklin sent up the alarm, too, noting that by restricting trade in the colonies to Britain alone, they were already raising money to offset the cost of the colonies by enriching London merchant coffers.

Adams let slip the rhetorical dogs of war in his newspaper. Noting again that colonists claimed the rights of British citizens by birth, this new sugar tax levied on them amounted to discrimination and injustice. If citizens could be subject to extra taxes based on the situation of their birth, why not to subjugation or loss of life? Politics were suddenly everywhere and Adams worked tirelessly to keep the conversation going.

By the end of May, news of the Stamp Act arrived. A new tax striking at the heart of the resistance. This act would require all paper to be purchased with a royal stamp, which added considerably to the cost. A diploma could now cost two pounds, and you could no longer print a death certificate, a newspaper, or a license without an official stamp.

If the resistance to the Sugar Act was through boycott and a thriving local molasses trade, the Stamp Act of 1765 couldn’t be so easily avoided. Here, Adams engineered a different response. While confronting the act through official channels, including letters to England and lobbying Parliament, his back channel network of merchants, tradesmen, and laborers made sure no royal paper would be unloaded onto Boston docks without risking violence.

British officials on American shores soon learned the precariousness of their own position when the Stamp Act remained impossible to collect without troops to squash violent resistance. If the far-away British Government couldn’t enforce the law, it was forced to repeal it, but in doing so it reaffirmed its ability to tax at will.

While the American colonies had remained largely isolated and dependent on English trade up until now, the Stamp Act united them across geography with a singular purpose. So the act designed to exert British dominance over the colonies had in fact united them against it. And this was just the beginning.

From Resistance to Revolution

While the repeal of the Stamp Act was met with joy on colonial shores, Adams was troubled. He realized that Parliament and the King weren’t acting in the best interest of the colonies, either through ignorance or ill will. If it was the former, he’d educate them. If it was the latter, he’d do his damnedest to organize resistance to tyranny.

To increase transparency and solidarity in local government, he organized the building of a public gallery in the House of Representatives, so private citizens could observe the proceedings. Resolving to counter misinformation in London about the colonies, the Massachusetts House hired its own agent in London with the sole responsibility of presenting colonial points of view to London.

While English lawmakers had imposed a raft of other importation taxes, called the Townshend Act, and were sending English customs officers to Boston to collect, the House was kept from convening by the governor.

This time, Adams encouraged a boycott of all these taxable imports. If fabric or mirrors were to be taxed, then homespun and humble surroundings would be the fashion of the day. He took his argument against this new raft of taxes to English noblemen directly, penning impassioned letters countering widely held views about the colonists being disloyal, unfaithful, or uncivilized subjects.

Adams even wrote on behalf of the House of Representatives to the King himself. Appealing to reason, he argued that the imposition of taxes and the attempt to rule from afar were impractical and untenable. The colonists should self-govern but remain loyal subjects. Building on the unification of the colonies around the repeal of the Stamp Act, he asked the House to circulate his letter widely before sending it on to London.

This idea was met with shock by some of the representatives as it amounted to a rebuke of Parliament. In short order, though, Adams appears to have worked his persuasive magic behind the scenes, and weeks later, by a large majority vote, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted to circulate the letter to all the American colonies.

Every attempt of the English government to tax the colonies had been met with resistance since Adams first stepped into the center of Massachusetts politics. And it was forcing a crisis of epic proportions on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Midnight Ride

On the evening of April 18, 1775, at around 10:30, the whispered order went through the barracks of British officers currently occupying Boston. Their aim was to counter the growing violent resistance in the colonies and confront the Massachusetts militia near Lexington. With the countryside occupied by troops, Paul Revere pulled on his riding boots. It was time to get the message to his friends: the British were mobilizing.

Just after midnight, he reached his destination. Just two hours earlier he’d dodged British sentries throughout Boston trying to get the word to the last patriots in town. His goal was to get news to Adams and Hancock, who were traveling to Philadelphia for a gathering of colonial governments responding to the recent British military occupation.

No man had made himself more dangerous a nuisance in the run-up to the revolution than Samuel Adams and he realized several days earlier that he was no longer safe in Boston. His careful nurturing of resistance through political persuasion and constant writing, whether anonymous or not, had made colonial revolt inevitable. The British hoped to eliminate him quickly. If things had gone differently, they would have.

But decades of discipline in working discreetly and erasing all records of himself had taught Adams to see the writing on the wall. He was several steps ahead of British intelligence. When London sent General Gage in June 1774 to squash the growing Massachusetts rebellion, all eyes were on Samuel Adams.

Adams had formed a careful network of spies and analyzed every move of the British occupiers. British officers often lamented that the colonial network had early and very good intelligence on their every move. Samuel seemed to have an uncanny ability to anticipate every single move General Gage made. So even though Paul Revere didn’t gallop into town until well after midnight, Adams and Hancock were ready for him, and so was the armed resistance.

The revolution had begun.


No founding father had a greater influence on the ideals that shaped the American Revolutionary War and early American democracy than Samuel Adams. His views formed early in life through education and his unique talent for reason, argument, persuasion, and discretion served him well. Helping unite the colonies, resisting British taxation, and surviving the revolution that formed a new nation, his obscurity reveals his own success in erasing himself from the historical record.


The book [The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams] by [Stacy Schiff] is a biographical account of one of the most influential and elusive figures of the American Revolution. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and writer who has authored several books on historical figures and events.

The book aims to shed light on the life and legacy of Samuel Adams, the Bostonian leader who orchestrated the resistance against British taxation and tyranny. The book explores how Adams, a failed businessman and tax collector, became a political genius and a master of public opinion. The book also examines how Adams mobilized the people of Boston and the colonies to rebel against the British crown, creating the cause that created a country.

The book is based on extensive research and analysis of the available sources, as well as the author’s own interpretation and insight. The book covers the major events and episodes of Adams’s career, such as:

  • His role in the Stamp Act Riots, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the First Continental Congress
  • His collaboration with other patriots, such as John Hancock, Paul Revere, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson
  • His evasion of British arrest and his participation in the Declaration of Independence
  • His challenges and struggles in the post-revolutionary era, such as his opposition to the Constitution, his governorship of Massachusetts, and his declining health and influence

The book is written in an engaging and accessible style, with vivid descriptions, anecdotes, and quotations that bring the characters and events to life. The book also provides useful context and background information on the historical, social, and cultural aspects of the colonial era. The book is suitable for anyone who is interested in American history, politics, or biography.

The book is available in various formats, such as hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and ebook. The hardcover edition has 432 pages and costs $17.71 on Amazon. The paperback edition has 432 pages and costs $17.88 on Amazon. The audiobook edition has a length of 6 hours and 30 minutes and costs $13.99 on Amazon. The ebook edition costs $14.99 on Amazon.

The book has received positive reviews from critics and readers who have praised its originality, clarity, and usefulness. The book has a rating of 3.74 out of 5 stars on Goodreads based on 4,716 ratings. The book has also been nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best History & Biography in 2022. Some of the comments from the reviewers are:

  • “This book is a fascinating and compelling portrait of Samuel Adams, one of the most important but least understood figures of the American Revolution. It reveals his personality, motivations, strategies, and achievements in a captivating way. It’s a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about this revolutionary hero.”
  • “I enjoyed this book very much. It’s well-researched, well-written, and well-argued. It shows how Samuel Adams was a visionary leader who inspired and mobilized a nation to fight for its independence. It also shows how he was a complex and contradictory man who faced many challenges and dilemmas in his life. It’s a book that makes you think.”
  • “This book is a remarkable biography of Samuel Adams, one of the most influential and elusive figures of the American Revolution. It offers a balanced and nuanced perspective on his life and legacy. It also provides a rich and vivid picture of the colonial era and its people. It’s a book that educates and entertains.”

In conclusion, [The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams] by [Stacy Schiff] is an excellent book that can help you understand the life and legacy of Samuel Adams, one of the most influential and elusive figures of the American Revolution. It covers his major events and episodes in his career, from his role in the resistance against British taxation and tyranny to his challenges and struggles in the post-revolutionary era. It provides clear and detailed guidance that can help you understand his personality, motivations, strategies, and achievements. It’s a must-read for anyone who is interested in American history, politics, or biography.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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