- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

By Ira Stoll
Free Press, $28, 352 pages

Louisiana State University Press $34.95, 416 pages

Don’t let anyone tell you that contemporary fashion does not dictate historical status and reputation. Just ask Thomas Jefferson, just a generation ago considered the prototype of American intellectual genius, now reduced to a priapic racist fit only for a cable television docu-drama.

Or ask Sam Adams, now a popular beer brand, who was once called (by Jefferson) “the patriarch of liberty,” and who was considered by his other Founding Father contemporaries to be the first combatant in the struggle for American independence.

The name Samuel Adams once was so famous that when his cousin John Adams arrived in Paris in 1778 he was delighted to receive almost as effusive a reception as had greeted Benjamin Franklin two years earlier. One can only imagine the fury of embarrassment that seized him when he learned that the Parisian mobs were under the impression he was the celebrated American patriot Samuel Adams and when John’s true identity was learned, he was left very much alone and deflated.

Certainly, the public awareness of John Adams has benefited from the recent hagiographic overload on our television sets. But the question remains, why has the name Samuel Adams almost vanished from our historical consciousness? Author Ira Stoll provides an interesting answer in a highly readable, thoroughly researched portrait of the man who might fairly be called the sparkplug of the American Revolution.

“I pitty Mr. Sam. Adams for he was born a Rebel,” his cousin John sneered in a letter to wife Abigail in 1794. And so he was. It’s a hard fact that Sam Adams was not much good at anything else but rebellion. He was born into the rising middle class of Puritan Boston, the son of a man who produced the malt essential for brewing beer. Sam could not even manage to hang on to that advantage and ended up a stint as a tax collector actually owing authorities money.

Yet long before the other Founders stirred from their plantations or merchant houses, Adams railed against the succession of unfair impositions being laid on the American colonies from London. With a skilled pen, a compelling voice, and zealous convictions Adams almost single-handedly made Boston the center of opposition to the British Crown. And without Boston’s increasingly violent protests, and the increasingly repressive reactions of the authorities, could the other colonies have been stirred out of their own passive resentments?

The list of the early protests led by Adams reads like the bulletpoints of our Founding history. It was he who organized and touched off the Boston Tea Party. When cousin John became the defense attorney for the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre, Samuel worked with the prosecution and then led the protests that ultimately led to the withdrawal of the punitive garrison.

Perhaps most significantly, he organized the first Committee of Correspondence in 1772, which spread a resolution on “The Rights of Colonists” throughout the American seaboard. The document argued that all men have the right “in case of intolerable Oppression, Civil or Religious, to leave the Society they belong to, and enter into another.”

Mr. Stoll does overstate a bit the document’s importance to the creation of the Declaration of Independence, but it does deserve to be returned to its place of influence along with the other preludes to the Declaration such as the various “Resolves” that came out of Virginia and North Carolina later on.

Moreover, it was he, not John, who led the Massachusetts delegation to Philadelphia in 1776 and worked for the Declaration and, still later, was the pivotal swing vote for his state in ratifying the Constitution.

There is one thing wrong with Sam Adams in the eyes of contemporary histories and author Mr. Stoll makes it clear what it was. Adams, it seems, was devoutly religious. He actually had the temerity to cling to the Puritan beliefs in an active and interceding divinity, known colloquially as God. His whole advocacy of liberty and democracy were inextricably linked to his firm conviction that it was an expression of Christian duty, and Protestant Christian duty at that. One of his early complaints against London was its efforts to establish the Church of England in the colonies. No such popery should be tolerated Sam declaimed.

Many current histories would have us believe that most of the Founders were deists at most, or preferably, hypocrites who invoked God’s support when in public while harboring atheistic convictions up their lace sleeves. In truth, Adams annoyed many of his contemporaries with his religious zeal for even then the rigidities and intolerance of the Puritan creed were going out of fashion.

There are other more obvious reasons why we don’t remember figures who once were important in our history. Adams, for example, systematically destroyed much of his correspondence and never sought national office so there is not much of a public record for researchers to troll through. Much the same problem confronts those who try to tell the story of our other biographical figure — Daniel Boone.

Unlike Adams, who was never happier than when he was stirring up his neighbors, Boone much preferred to be away from people altogether. He spent so much time off in various wilderness wanderings that his rather heroic wife, Rebecca, reportedly had a child by another man because of the prospect that Boone was never coming back. Boone was and remains an icon of the American character and was a participant in many of our early major events — from being a wagon driver at the age of 16 in Gen. Edward Braddock’s ill-fated campaign to oust the French from Fort Duquesne on the far Pennsylvania frontier in 1755 until his own death in the by then largely settled Missouri in 1820. The trouble with this well-researched book by author Meredith Mason Brown is that Boone seems to be hiding from the reader as well. In order to pad out the story, Ms. Brown lards in unnecessary treatises on how to fire a flintlock rifle, how to prepare animal skins for market, and the prevalence of huge herds of buffalo in Kentucky.

In the end, the most that can be said of Boone’s importance as a subject was summed up at the end when the author says, “Boone liked to explore new lands, to scout, to hunt, to trap. He was outstandingly good at these things, so people trusted him and followed him. The more that Boone succeeded in hunting and trapping and leading settlers to new lands and the more that people followed him, the harder it was for him to remain a successful hunter and trapper and scout, while staying in the same place, and the more he was driven to new lands, with ever more people following in his wake. By doing what he did best, Boone helped bring about the birth and transformation of America.”

And having said that, that is about all that can be said about Daniel Boone. Except that he never wore a coon-skin cap.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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