Samuel Adams Radical Puritan Essay

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Samuel Adams Radical Puritan



A Book Review of Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan
Historians such as Drew McCoy and Joseph Ellis have produced noteworthy studies of the
Founders and their impact on the time period of the American Revolution. Fowler's
supplement to this blossoming literature is in many ways a traditional biography. It
investigates Samuel Adams's life as it unfolded and pays less attention to the larger
conceptual issues that commanded the age. No reader can escape this brief biography
without a sense of the personal loss that Samuel Adams felt when he witnessed the death of
many of his children and his wife. “Delivering five children, three deaths among them
took a heavy toll on Elizabeth…Elizabeth died on 25 July.” (37) Nor will an attentive
reader assume that political events unfolded according to some foreseen path. Fowler's
achievement here is to bring the reader into the loll of Boston politics, the arena of
much of Adams's life. His representation of Adams's Harvard, his outline of the careers
and reputations of other notable figures - such as John Hancock and John Adams - and his
depiction of Adams's disenchantment with the rise of the Federalists in the 1790s - which
included the election in 1796 of his cousin, John, to the Presidency - have particular
distinctness.

But this book is designed to be more than an abstract biography. Fowler disputes that
Adams was in many ways the revolutionary leader most impressed with upholding the mission
of the Puritan founders of the Bay colony. "It would be difficult to find among Adams's
contemporaries any who matched him in his selfless devotion to public service" Fowler
writes. (77) During his discussion of the non importation movement, Fowler emphasizes
that the "staunch Puritan Adams urged repeatedly that luxuries and superfluities be
eschewed." (94)

The difficulty here is that historians remain divided on what the term "Puritan" meant in
the eighteenth century. Although Fowler briefly traces the objectives of early
seventeenth-century Puritan leaders, he spends inadequate space on the complex evolution
in Puritan ideology. Instead of a careful evaluation of Congregational religion in late
eighteenth-century Massachusetts, the reader comes across a "Puritan" Adams whose
religious beliefs seem closer to those of John Winthrop or William Bradford than his
contemporaries. But was this the case? A good way to make his argument would have been
to deal directly with the boundless historical literature on the evolution of Puritanism,
none of which is cited in the bibliography, an unusual omission given the supposed
influence of Puritanism in Adams's world view.

“Though the book was critically acclaimed in many quarters, some are of the view that it
lacked spirit.” (Peter C. Mancall, “Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan,” Historian, v. 61,
issue 4, Summer 1999, 903-904.) According to those who hold this view of the book Samuel
Adams: Radical Puritan, the book recalls only the major events in its subject's life, but
doesn't leave you with a feeling about the basic nature of the man. Samuel Adams does not
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