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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 b
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