the revolutionary -- 9/12/23

Today's selection -- from The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff. In 1775, as delegates from the thirteen colonies gathered at the second continental congress in Philadelphia, Samuel Adams, John Adams’ older second cousin, was viewed with suspicion by the many who still wanted reconciliation with Britain. He had a reputation as a firebrand, irrevocably committed to independence and unwilling to consider any compromise. He knew this, and knew that as a result his job was to adopt a posture of mildness: 

“Spirits soared when the delegates learned of the Virginia colonel who had pronounced himself ready to march, with a thousand men, to Boston's relief. The social whirl continued, amid scalding heat, as they paid calls on the gentlemen who had called on them, some of whom cautioned against the Hutchinsonian types--the eminent Pennsylvania Assembly speaker Joseph Galloway was one--and as additional delegates filtered into town. By September 1 they had met twenty-five colleagues. It seemed they would be fifty-six in all, nearly half of them lawyers. Adams settled in at a Second Street home opposite the tavern. He heard flurries of opinions and raised glasses to countless exuberant toasts; already some Virginia men had begun to insist on a repeal of all revenue acts. The Massachusetts men felt everywhere killed with kindness. They came face-to-face with the exotic, discovering buckwheat pancakes and a thousand delicacies: turtles, floating islands, trifles, tarts, jellies, cheeses, curds, and creams--‘everything,’ wrote John, ‘which could delight the eye or allure the taste.’

“On the morning of September 5, the delegates gathered at City Tavern and together walked the two blocks to Carpenter's Hall. Nearly everyone agreed that the tidy new building would suit their purposes. It was easier yet to settle on Virginia's Peyton Randolph as chairman--Adams found him to be a kindred spirit--and on Charles Thomson as secretary. Galloway could not shake the strong sense that both decisions had been settled in advance and behind the scenes, already understood to be Adams's coordinates. Like the New Yorkers, Galloway thought it unwise to oppose either measure. The Southerners and the New Englanders seemed to move in lockstep. At fifty-one, Adams was among the oldest delegates. Even the new finery could not disguise the fact that he counted among the least prosperous. An ‘Esquire’ had only recently and erratically begun to attach itself to his name. Some were starstruck in his presence; the most conspicuous man in the room, he may also have been the least trusted. When later a colleague rose to Adams's defense he acknowledged those fears: ‘You may have been taught to believe, for what I know, that he eats little children, but I assure you he is a man of humanity and candor as well as integrity.’ Adams did not leave the overstaffed bag of political tricks in Boston but did stash the unwieldy ardor. He was all tact and performative mildness. At least to a meddling friend whom he knew to be in close touch with Great Britain, he continued to insist that the mother country had only to return them to their 1763 status and they would be happy. 

Adams as portrayed by Paul Revere, 1774. Yale University Art Gallery.

“In Philadelphia he found himself amid a group of men foreign to and often puzzled by one another, who spoke in dissimilar cadences and nearly hailed from different countries. They did not even divide a dollar into the same number of shillings. His task was to make himself invisible, to sit back while Patrick Henry made an impassioned plea for a new form of government and the Continental Congress determined how to allot votes. Should Rhode Island carry disproportionate weight? Adams left the floor to Virginia, proud men from the most populous colony, one that shared New England's views but not its reputation for fire-breathing fanaticism. (John Adams would later claim that this was the reason Washington commanded the army, Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and Richard Henry Lee proposed it.) The idea was to fade into the background, to feel the pulses, sound the depths, and act through others. It became Adams's task to shake off the wild-eyed imputations that Galloway and others tried to fix to him. We know something of how he fared: he established himself as ‘the most cautious, artful, and reserved’ of the New Englanders. They appeared ‘mere milksops’ next to the Virginians, judicious beside the Rhode Islanders. The radicals all seemed to hail from the South. Gadsden declared himself ready to march to Boston with his musket. 

“It was easier to be circumspect given the palpable sympathy; only one colony's charter had been gutted, its commerce suspended, its principal business shuttered, its courts closed. Massachusetts alone lived with troops stationed among them. The Philadelphia prize, Adams well knew, was not independence but unity. It was crucial to arrive at mutual assistance, even if veined with mutual suspicion. So much of what he had accomplished over the previous years was predicated on the belief that ideas were contagious and that when men met, they changed their minds. Over punishing six-hour days--the delegates could manage little afterward but to eat and drink, then tumble home exhausted--he deferred to the sentiments of the whole, or claimed that he did, while maneuvering tirelessly behind the scenes. 

“The matter of voting settled, Cushing moved that Congress open their deliberations with a prayer. New York and South Carolina objected. Their ranks included Episcopalians and Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians. How could they conceivably worship together? It was the larger question writ small: How to reconcile the diversity of convictions? On September 6, Adams rose for his first congressional speech. Personally he had no trouble with ‘a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.’ Though new to Philadelphia, Adams had heard that Episcopalian minister Jacob Duche fit the bill. Was there really so great a difference in their faiths? He knew he had a reputation to discard. He knew an Episcopalian would please his Virginia associates; he suspected it would also please the New Yorkers. The motion passed easily. An invitation went to Reverend Duche. At least one colleague that evening applauded Adams's ‘masterly stroke of policy.’"



Stacy Schiff


The Revolutionary


Little, Brown and Company


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