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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 7: The Road to Revolution, 1763 - 1775


Samuel Adams (1722 - 1803)

Samuel Adams was the principal political activist for American liberty and rebellion in the early 1770s. As organizer of the committees of correspondence, he strongly influenced the movement toward American independence.

Adams came from a moderately well off and ambitious clan that included his second cousin, John Adams. Samuel failed badly after taking over his fathers brewery and ended up deeply in debt. But he turned out to be as good at politics as he was bad at business. By 1763 he was the leader of the Whipping Post Club, a political group that had a strong local influence. Adams took the democratic side against royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his wealthy political allies. While Adams never endorsed mob violence, he proved a master at turning popular passions to the advantage of the radical cause. When the tea crisis began, Adams organized the rousing public meetings at Faneuil Hall that culminated in the Boston Tea Party.

Although he served in both Continental Congresses, Adams possessed the skills of an agitator, not a legislator, and he rapidly lost influence once the war began. His later career was confined to Massachusetts (where he served as governor from 1794 to 1797), and he remained deeply suspicious of all forms of centralized power.

Quote: Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum. (1776)

REFERENCES: Pauline Maier, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980); Dennis Fradin, Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence (1998).


Abigail Adams (1744 - 1818)

Abigail Adams was one of the most thoughtful and articulate American women of the Revolutionary era and an early advocate of a larger public role for women.

The daughter of a well-known Massachusetts family, she received almost no formal education, like many women of the time, but she taught herself a good deal by reading on her own, including French and English literature. After marrying John Adams at age twenty (he was twenty-nine), she bore five children between 1765 and 1772. During the ten years of revolutionary upheaval (1773 to 1783), she and her husband, though mostly apart, maintained a constant correspondence that shows Abigail to have been astute and strong-minded. During Johns absence she also managed the family businesses, including their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.

After the war, when her husband became president, she defended his policies so actively that some of Adamss political opponents sarcastically called her Mrs. President.

Quote: Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have not had voice or representation. (Letter to John Adams at the Second Continental Congress, 1776)

REFERENCE: Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams (1981).


Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757 - 1834)

Lafayette was the French nobleman who joined the American Revolution and promoted the Franco-American alliance. His strong sympathy for the Revolution made him an international liberal hero, while in America he has symbolized Franco-American friendship and devotion to freedom. His youthful decision to join the American cause was made partly because he was genuinely stirred by the Revolutionary appeal to liberty but also because the American war offered heroic adventure.

In his first combat, at Brandywine, the teenage general Lafayette was shot in the leg. He also commanded one of the divisions at Valley Forge. After persuading the French government to make a substantial commitment to the American cause, he played a crucial role as a commander of the Continental army in Virginia in the months preceding Cornwalliss surrender.

A leader of the early phase of the French Revolution of 1789, Lafayette lost power when the Revolution turned more radical, and he ended up in prison. His status as an honorary American citizen was used to gain his release. In 1824 he returned to America for a triumphant tour, during which huge crowds turned out everywhere and greeted him warmly.

Quote: The moment I heard of America I loved her. The moment I knew she was fighting for freedom, I burned with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her, at any time or in any part of the world, will be the happiest one of my life.

REFERENCE: Jean Fritz, Why Not, Lafayette? (1999).


Paul Revere (1735 - 1818)

Paul Revere, remembered especially for his midnight ride in April 1775 to warn that the British are coming, was a notable American artisan as well as an active patriot in the Revolutionary cause.

Reveres father was a French Huguenot refugee, and Paul took up his fathers trade as a highly skilled silversmith. Revere fought in the French and Indian War, and afterward became active in many patriotic groups such as the Sons of Liberty and the North End caucus. He became well known for his anti-British cartoons and engravings, including one of the Boston Massacre. He was one of the leaders of the Indians who carried out the Boston Tea Party.

On their famous ride, Revere and William Dawes successfully roused the colonial militia and alerted John Hancock and Samuel Adams to go into hiding to avoid arrest. Revere and Dawes were finally stopped by British patrols just before they got to Concord, but were released. Revere later designed and printed the first Continental money, and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary army.

Quote: (To a British officer) Youre too late. Ive alarmed the country all the way up. We should have five hundred men at Lexington soon.

REFERENCES: JoAnn Grote, Paul Revere: American Patriot (2000); David Hackett Fischer, Paul Reveres Ride (1994).


Questions for Class Discussion
  1. Evaluate the system of mercantilism. What were the benefits for Britain and for the colonies? What were the costs to Britain and to the colonies? Is the system of mercantilism sustainable or will colonies inevitably revolt?

  2. Was the American Revolution inevitable? Could America have gradually and peacefully developed independence within the British Commonwealth, as Canada later did, rather than engaging in a violent revolt? At what point in time, if any, was a violent revolt inevitable? What could the British have done to stop the Revolution?

  3. Were all the American grievances really justified, or were the British actually being more reasonable than most Americans have traditionally believed?

  4. What was the Revolutionary movement at its core really all about? The amount of taxation? The right of Parliament to tax? The political corruption of Britain and the virtue of America? The right of a king to govern America? The colonies growing sense of national identity apart from Britain? Was the Revolution truly a radical overturning of government and societythe usual definition of a revolutionor something far more limited or even conservative in its defense of traditional rights?

  5. In 1775 which side would a neutral observer have expected to winBritain or the colonies? Why?


Suggested Student Exercises
  • Examine the biographies of some of the better-known Loyalists, and consider why they remained loyal to Britain while others in similar positions did not. Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklins son William, governor of New Jersey, are good examples. (Even General Benedict Arnold came to be considered a belated Loyalist.)

  • Trace the history and continuing influence of the Loyalists who migrated to Canada after the Revolution. Examine their impact on subsequent Canadian history and political theory.



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