He was the patriot who had propagandized the Boston Massacre, had helped orchestrate the town’s famous tea party, and had signed the Declaration of Independence when a signature on that document essentially meant a death sentence. Yet he was uneasy about the proposed Constitution, which he saw as a counter-revolutionary gesture with few checks on a potentially powerful central government, the very thing that had caused men to rebel against England and risk death just a decade earlier.
Nevertheless, on this date in 1788, Massachusetts delegates voted on whether to ratify the proposed Constitution that had been written the previous year in Philadelphia. Significant opposition to the Constitution from surprisingly prominent people such as Virginia’s Patrick Henry and George Mason and New York governor George Clinton alarmed the Constitution’s champions. They dubbed themselves Federalists to paint their opposition as obstructionists, an attitude they thought the label “Antifederalists” described perfectly. Even so, a fairly large number of Antifederalists were raising their voices in small New England states, and Massachusetts, the second largest state in the country per population, became a major testing ground for the Constitution’s chances. And that is where the other Mr. Adams, John Adams’ cousin, figures in our story.
Massachusetts looked shaky for the Federalists. An Antifederalist majority was poised behind the old and esteemed patriot Samuel Adams, who had been denied a seat at the Constitutional Convention but was conspicuously given one at Boston. Many Bay State opponents of the Constitution were those sympathetic to the recent armed uprising led by Daniel Shays against the state’s extremely high taxes , and these sympathizers still frowned over how Massachusetts had forcefully quashed the insurgency.
The shadow of Daniel Shays, however, hurt as much as it animated Massachusetts Antifederalists. Federalists denounced them as closet incendiaries as well as obstructionists, which was clearly unfair, especially in the case of Sam Adams.
In 1788, Adams was in sixty-fifth year and had developed a philosophical resignation about life in general. He was of the older generation, the one that still wore tri-cornered hats long after they had passed from fashion because hats properly tended, like principles, do not wear out. Adams had been among the earliest resolved to throw off the British yoke, but his determination had been sober and single-minded rather than flamboyant, and his weapons were pen and ink rather than fire and sword. It is wrong to think of Sam Adams as austere and distant with his lips pursed in perpetual disapproval or his eyes wild with radical zeal. He was an extraordinary type of revolutionary quite alien to modern conceptions of what makes a revolutionary. He and his cousin John were not bearded, sloganeering anarchists but dedicated idealists, men far better than those willing to kill for a cause. Sam Adams was willing to die for one. The British had him on a list during the Revolution.
Everyone knew this, and it made the Federalists wary and respectful of Mr. Adams, a difficult target who did not conform to type or provide openings for criticism. His personal life was spotless, his finances regular, his associations uniformly cordial. He had a conservative bent his cousin described as preferring “softness and delicacy, and prudence where they will do.” He couldn’t be depicted as a Shays sympathizer because he had from the start called for the suppression of the uprising. Lawlessness repelled him when aimed at governments ruling with the consent of the governed. So he came down to the convention in Boston from his home on Winter Street and sat quietly listening to the debates. He rarely spoke and when he did, it was usually to ask a question.
Everyone noticed that he was preoccupied and knew the reason why. At their house, his wife Elizabeth was caring for their only son, also Samuel, a surgeon who had contracted a chronic disease serving the army in the Revolution. Samuel was only thirty-seven, but his malady had aged him, and this flare up seemed worse than all the others. It seemed to be killing him.
At the convention, the Federalists controlled proceedings because of their better organization, and finally their pledge to add amendments to the Constitution convinced Adams of their sincerity. The vote for ratification on that February 6 was quite close all the same — 187-168 — and suggested that if Adams had been livelier in debate and persistent in opposition, the Antifederalists could have prevailed in Massachusetts. Had that happened, Federalist momentum could have been spent in February 1788 and likely would have been inadequate for the long haul still ahead. It could have meant the defeat of the Constitution, and in the aftermath everything about the place calling itself the United States of America would have have been far different from anything we can imagine.
Yet Samuel Adams’s heart had not been in this fight, and the Federalists in Boston had been careful about his feelings. Adams did not like the Constitution and still had serious reservations about the government it would establish, but he would not turn away from accommodating gestures and a spirit of reconciliation. He never sought glory and was so modest that his careless disregard for preserving his papers made them almost useless as an archive when he died. He never enriched himself at the public’s expense, and even after changing fortunes did not require him to exercise great frugality, he still did so, only buying what he needed and careful to keep his needs separate from his desires.
The change in his and Elizabeth’s fortunes occurred because of a bequest. Their son died during the ratification convention, and young Samuel’s claims against the government for his war service would make them more than comfortable. Losing their son nearly killed them with grief, however, for he had made them wealthy in a more important way long before leaving them his vouchers and overdue pay certificates. He had made them exceedingly proud.
It was good, Sam Adams had told his wife, to have the approval of virtuous citizens but even better to have earned it. “Such a Man,” he said, “if he cannot retreat with Splendor, he may with dignity.” The delegates of the Massachusetts convention had postponed their work and adjourned to attend the funeral of Samuel Adams' only son. It was impossible to turn away from such a gesture, impossible not to give the men who made it a fair hearing and the benefit of the doubt. With the approval of the virtuous, one could always retreat with dignity. And thus by silence Sam Adams did not stop ratification, and the Constitution moved to its ultimate triumph. For this and his unflinching, quiet courage that always guided him to the right when what was right was dangerous ground, he is worthy of remembrance. He was a man of great dignity, and splendor too. Sam Adams would have disagreed with the assessment. It would have been the rare occasion when he was wrong.