Samuel Adams — The Declaration Revisited
“Let us disappoint the Men who are raising themselves on the ruin of this Country. Let us convince every invader of our freedom, that we will be as free as the constitution our fathers recognized, will justify.” –Samuel Adams (1772)
The Federalist honors this 227th anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence by contemplating the courage and character of the signers. We ponder what our Founders would say of how we are tending this land of liberty – how they would rate the courage and character of their posterity. How do we measure up against the Founders' standards?
One Signer of the Declaration of Independence has particularly inspired us. We hope the spirit of our favorite Founder, Samuel Adams, imbues our work.
Adams provides the most complete expression of ideas driving the American Revolution, and he was among the earliest to recognize the ultimate objects of growing British tyranny in the 1760s. His prescience and precision in language earned him the descriptor “incendiary”; his principles earned him the reputation of “radical.” But he was mistakenly so branded, as shown in this passage from October, 1773: “We are far from desiring that the connection between Britain & America should be broken. Esto perpetua, is our ardent wish; but upon the terms only of equal liberty.”
Adams often wrote anonymously, as do we; among his more colorful pseudonyms were “A Chatterer,” “Candidus,” “Vindex,” “Determinatus,” and “Valerius Poplicola.” He was also a devout Christian: “First of all, I … rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ for a pardon of all my sins.” Likewise, Adams affirms our aspiration to humilitas, in “political literature … as selfless as politics itself, designed to promote its cause, not its author.”
Samuel Adams studied the classics and science, eventually earning a master’s degree from Harvard College. From an early career in merchant trades, he later joined his father’s brewery business. He was never financially prosperous; at times, near poverty. But his natural genius lay in politics.
Personally modest and unpretentious, he shunned powdered wigs and other such stylish affectations. His cousin John Adams described him thus: “in common appearance, he was a plain, simple, decent citizen, of middling stature, dress, and manners.”
But John also coined the term “working the political machine,” complimenting Samuel as a master of those arts of practical politics: from forming activist groups like the Sons of Liberty and organizing galvanizing events such as the Boston Tea Party, to literary agitation and revolutionary philosophy. His oratorical skills incited passions for liberty, as John recalled: “Upon great occasions, when his deeper feelings were excited … nature seemed to erect him, without the smallest symptom of affectation, into an upright dignity of figure and gesture and gave a harmony to his voice which made a strong impression on spectators and auditors – the more lasting for the purity, correctness, and nervous elegance of his style.”
A delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, Adams also voted to ratify the Constitution. When the colonial governor offered a blanket amnesty to colonials who would lay down their arms, he specifically refused to pardon only Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Mid-career, Adams fell into disfavor over his vehement opposition to a strong national government. But his popularity had before then waxed and waned with the temper of the times.
Adams believed, as we do, that liberty and virtue are inseparable: “Liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.” And, “As long as the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader…. If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.”
His “The Rights of the Colonists,” also called “The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, Nov. 20, 1772,” contained original outlines of the political philosophy undergirding both the Declaration and its subordinate guidance, the Constitution. Indeed, his virtuous modesty produced so little self-promotion that Adams is rarely credited sufficiently for his contributions to our nation’s founding. Referring to this Adams essay, the Massachusetts colony’s Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, noted, “the Grand Incendiary of the Province prepared a long report for a committee appointed by the town, in which, after many principles inferring independence were laid down, many resolves followed, all of them tending to sedition and mutiny, and some of them expressly denying Parliamentary authority.”
If Samuel Adams were present today, he would be appalled at the eroded state of American liberty, and nowhere would he find liberty more threatened than the descent of our nation’s courts into increasingly tyrannical usurpations of individual and state-government rights and responsibilities. In particular, Adams would have thundered against two of the Supreme Court’s rulings last week. He would scoff over the court’s decision that current racial discrimination is permissible for the sake of redressing past racial discrimination: “Every natural right not expressly given up, or, from the nature of a social compact, necessarily ceded, remains.”
As for the Lawrence v. Texas ruling, which overturned the Texas state law prohibiting homosexual sodomy, Samuel Adams would inveigh over judges arrogating to themselves rights of self-government already claimed by the people of Texas through their state representatives. Writing as Candidus, Adams proclaimed, “…[I]f the public are bound to yield obedience to laws to which they cannot give their approbation, they are slaves to those who make such laws and enforce them.” He would note the unnaturalness of the act being protected, as contrary to the rights of natural family formation: “The natural liberty of man is … only to have the law of nature for his rule.” We can envision Adams today demanding of the Supreme Court majority, “And you still declare yourselves to be justices?”
But Adams would reserve his fieriest denunciations for this week’s 11th Circuit Appeals Court conclusion that Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore strayed into constitutional impermissibility by placing a monument depicting the Ten Commandments as “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” in his state’s Supreme Court rotunda. Of this legal commemoration of our law’s foundation, that court declared: “Any notion of high government officials being above the law did not save … [state’s rights proponents] from having to obey federal-court orders, and it will not save … [Moore] from having to comply with the court order in this case. … If necessary, the court order will be enforced. The rule of law will prevail.”
Adams would note that this decision is most emphatically the opposite of the rule of law. He wrote of that first Independence Day, 227 long years ago, “We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient.” He would note that Moore’s appeal is going to the Supreme Court, where a relief engraved with the Ten Commandments appropriately appears above the Justices' bench and court sessions begin with the proclamation, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” He would remind that the First Amendment states plainly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
On this greatest of threats to our liberty, Adams would recall the words of his fellow Founders: “The Constitution which at any time exists, ‘till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all.” (George Washington) “…[T]he danger is not, that the judges will be too firm in resisting public opinion, and in defence of private rights or public liberties; but, that they will be ready to yield themselves to the passions, and politics, and prejudices of the day.” (Joseph Story) “The opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.” (Thomas Jefferson).
But what would Adams do?
Most assuredly he would advise as he once did, “The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have receiv’d them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: They purchas’d them for us with toil and danger and expence of treasure and blood; and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlight'ned as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle; or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. Of the latter we are in most danger at present: Let us therefore be aware of it. Let us contemplate our forefathers and posterity; and resolve to maintain the rights bequeath’d to us from the former, for the sake of the latter. Instead of sitting down satisfied with the efforts we have already made, which is the wish of our enemies, the necessity of the times, more than ever, calls for our utmost circumspection, deliberation, fortitude and perseverance. Let us remember, that 'if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom.’ It is a very serious consideration, which should deeply impress our minds, that millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers in the event.”
Adams would urge better representative leadership amid cultural conflicts: “We cannot make events. Our business is wisely to improve them. …It requires time to bring honest men to think and determine alike even in important matters. Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason. Events which excite those feelings will produce wonderful effects.”
He would advise, “Since private and public Vices, are in reality, though not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much Importance, how necessary is it, that the utmost pains be taken by the public, to have the Principles of Virtue early inculcated on the minds even of children, and the moral sense kept alive, and that the wise institutions of our ancestors for these great purposes be encouraged by the government. For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when Knowledge is diffus’d and Virtue is preserv’d. On the contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauch’d in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.”
He would counsel that religious liberty requires faith-minded (and faithful) defenders, as “…Our enemies have made it an object, to eradicate from the minds of the people in general a sense of true religion and virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their point of enslaving them.” And he would caution remembering which are first principles: “…[N]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”
This, which Samuel Adams penned in April, 1773, could as easily describe The Federalist’s mission today: “It is no wonder that a measure calculated to promote a correspondence and a free communication among the people, should awaken apprehensions; for they well know that it must detect their falsehood in asserting that the people of this country were satisfied with the measures … and the administration of government.”
Adams himself would chide us, “…No people ever yet groaned under the heavy yoke of slavery, but when they deserv’d it. …The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom, and defended it as they ought. …If therefore a people will not be free; if they have not virtue enough to maintain their liberty against a presumptuous invader, they deserve no pity, and are to be treated with contempt and ignominy.”
Of those who have forsaken the Founders' legacy of liberty, he would condemn, “If you love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”
Let us honor the sacrifices of Samuel Adams and the other oft-forgotten Founders this Independence Day – by defending freedom as we ought and striving to rebuild the foundation they so carefully laid for their posterity.
Today, we stand in reverence of, and in the immeasurable debt of all those who have fallen in defense of freedom in the 227 years since the signing of our Declaration of Independence. As we celebrate freedom this Independence Day, The Federalist Staff and Advisory Committee extend our gratitude to all of our Patriot readers for your vigilance, and for making this exercise of First Amendment freedom a beacon for liberty. God bless each of you and your families.