Stacy Schiff’s biography, “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams,” is an excellent and highly readable popular account of the life of one of the most influential but least understood Founding Fathers of the United States. It also presents a puzzle for those of us carefully watching the modern information space, as it describes how techniques we routinely condemn now — misinformation, anonymity, and information manipulations of various sorts — gave leverage to people trying to gain their independence.
The cousin of John Adams, Samuel Adams was essentially the 1700s version of a loser until his early 40s, when a confluence of circumstances placed him in position to shape events. He did this mainly via orchestration, often leaving no sign of his hand, most famously with the Boston Tea Party, which he was certainly central to organizing, but which found him far away and with an alibi complete with witnesses the night it occurred. Adams also used his role as clerk of the legislature to elevate or suppress various bills and messages, effectively using the pocket veto. He ran various publications, and wrote for others. Prolific, eloquent, and tireless, he dragged the Revolution forward on the back of his words and machinations.
Adams’ most important source of power came from the fact that he cared little to nothing about what others thought of him, a trait that immunized him against criticism, flattery, graft, or threats. He had an early and evolving vision of what a self-governing country could be, and worked tirelessly to bring that vision about as it gained clarity.
Adams orchestrated major events, and made subtle changes, in the name of democracy, with Schiff writing about one of the latter:
Soon after his election, Adams arranged for the House to construct a gallery. It went up in a matter of days. For the first time, the people of Massachusetts could observe their representatives in action. As Adams saw it, for the first time the representatives could look up at their equals. The gallery suggested that the government served its constituents rather than the other way around. . . . Adams also began publishing House proceedings, buttressing Bernard’s charge that some seemed, by every available means, intent on carrying government “nearer and nearer to the common people.” What struck one side as suffrage appeared as insolence to the other.
Adams was also a careful and eloquent writer, as Schiff describes it:
Indifferent at the table, even-tempered and sweetly obliging, patient in the extreme, he was fussy when it came to words, which he buffed, buffed again, and afterward refined. Meaning mattered. With swift precision, he reduced the convoluted to the essential, shaking an argument upside down until the nonsense tumbled out.
He was a master propagandist, using multiple pseudonyms and creating both the Committees of Correspondence — an underground network of letter writers which made it possible to coordinate opposition to the British and support of the Revolutionaries — and a syndicate of newspapers which would publish his works and news (and misinformation) from Boston while further concealing their source:
Composed in secret, the newspaper pieces made for a brand of pure propaganda new to America. The genius of the enterprise was to dispatch them for publication to New York, where they might appear on Thursday, then to Philadelphia, where they appeared on Saturday, returning only later to Massachusetts, their origins obscured.
Adams also worked assiduously to leave few traces of his efforts in most areas — via pseudonyms, and by destroying documents and letters.
How misinformation, propaganda, and unseen censorship can make sense in one historical context and deserve condemnation in another was a question that arose in my mind now and again as I read the book. I recalled that the Allies and the Axis both participated in propaganda campaigns in WWII, but for different ends — one to help encourage people to push for greater freedoms, liberty, and justice, and the other to discourage, constrain, and enslave. The ends don’t always justify the means, but sometimes the ends make all the difference. And in the context of a functioning democracy, scientific efficacy, and a state of self-government, propaganda, misinformation, and anonymity as exercised on social media today have shown themselves to be anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian, and anti-science.
The ends are also important to comprehend.
Schiff’s book is highly readable. The events it covers are fascinating, and newly relevant in some ways as democracies around the globe struggle against misinformation and its deleterious effects.
A fascinating experience in reading book comes from its focus on Adams, leading Schiff to refer to some major events only sidelong as she drills down on where Adams was, what his role was, and what he and his counterparts had done in preparation or response. She brings to life some of the petty frictions, grudges, vainglories, and conflicts that occurred between people aligned to bring about a democracy in America, and makes these people feel real, vital, and not at all certain of success.
Plus, what other book about an American historical figure will consistently remind you of a popular brand of beer?