October 5, 2006

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Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution, by Mark Puls (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006, 273 pages)

This book has me searching high and low to learn more about the origins of the American Revolution.

In fourth grade, you don't too much question these things (or at least I didn't) but as an adult, nowadays, you read about the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party and the destroying of Governor Hutchinson's house and you wonder what else did the colonists try before taking up arms? And how did the British government respond?

They gave us such a simplified version in grade school; now I'm curious. Because it wasn't that long ago.

Not grade school; the Revolution.

Puls makes clear that Samuel Adams was a major instigator of the Revolution and was spoiling for a fight long before the Stamp Act or anything else. So one wonders, if not for this guy...?

Puls also talks about the arguments Samuel Adams and others made but doesn't give us enough objective evidence to decide for ourselves the merits of those arguments. For instance, Adams "believed Parliament overstepped its bounds by applying legislative acts to America" well, did it or didn't it? Hence my recent trips to Google to look up "colonial charters."

There's a lot packed into these 250-plus pages, and it made me want to learn more.

Puls, a Michigan journalist, presents the political big picture of the Revolution at least Samuel Adams' slice of it, which was considerable. Puls' book is a pleasingly brisk chronological look at Adams' politics, from his childhood on Purchase Street in Boston to his aimless young adulthood (he went to Harvard and considered becoming a pastor but ultimately chose against) through his settling in to the role of chief rabble-rouser of his time. He wasn't in the streets handing out torches, but was publishing a newspaper, writing articles and dictating instructions for Boston's representatives at the Massachusetts general assembly. He laid out the arguments for resisting British policies and boycotting British goods (although, as Puls points out, Adams never used the word "boycott;" it hadn't been invented yet).

We learn that "No one else but Samuel Adams seemed to be thinking about breaking with the British Empire in 1743" when, at age 20, he made it the topic of his commencement speech.

We learn that in 1770, after the trials for the Boston Massacre, John Hancock was "uninterested in politics" and John Adams had retired from public life but Samuel Adams kept up the drumbeat loudly. He "spoke like a fire-and-brimstone evangelist" and "realized that he needed to rouse indignation over the taxes," Puls writes. And in the view of Governor Hutchinson, whom Puls quotes, Adams had a "talent of artfully and fallaciously insinuating into the minds of his readers a prejudice against the character of all whom he attacked." Yet Puls says he was not a belligerent propagandist, or a self-serving demagogue, as others have asserted, but rather a "highly reflective" man working to preserve civil rights.

Either way, it wasn't all musket balls and battlefields no, Mark Puls reminds us in clear detail: our nation originated in the 18th-century blogs of an impassioned Harvard grad. B+

Lisa Parsons