Sam Adams was the son of a wealthy merchant. And then one day he wasn’t.
He was born Sept. 16, 1722, according to the old calendar, in Boston. He was one of 12 children born to Samuel and Mary Fifield Adams, but only two of his siblings lived past age three.
His father also served as a church deacon, a justice of the peace and a political leader of the Boston Patriots.
In 1733, Parliament increased the tax on molasses, the key ingredient in rum. The tax threatened to destroy New England’s rum distillers as well as the livelihoods of longshoremen and shipbuilders. Sam was a schoolboy then, attending the Boston Latin School. He entered Harvard in 1736 at the age of 14. His father paid his tuition in molasses and flour.
Deacon Adams and his political friends were then trying to revive the local economy by creating a land bank. It issued loans in the form of paper money backed by real estate. Boston’s aristocrats hated the Land Bank, because it allowed inflation to lessen the debts of common people. Thomas Hutchinson, a wealthy Loyalist and later governor, wrote that the subscribers were “generally of low condition.”
The royal governor, Jonathan Belcher, tried to destroy the Land Bank and ultimately succeeded. He couldn’t do it through the colonial government, so he persuaded the British Parliament to dissolve the Land Bank in 1741.
Young Sam Adams was working toward his master’s degree at Harvard that year. Since his junior year, he had been allowed to board at a private home in Cambridge, a privilege that allowed him to avoid college food.
The Fall of Sam Adams
With the dissolution of the Land Bank, Sam Adams went from dining in his elegant private quarters to waiting on tables in the common dining hall.
He had to be ready “when the Bell tolls at meal time to receive the Plates and Victuals at the Kitchen Hatch & carry the same to the several tables.”
His master’s thesis was titled, “Whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.”
He would spend many years thereafter defending his family estate from government seizure. His father, as a director of the Land Bank, was held personally responsible for the currency it had put into circulation.
Later in his life, the threats to his family’s property constantly reminded Sam Adams, former waiter, that the British could exercise power over the colonies in arbitrary and destructive ways.
With thanks to Sam Adams, America’s Revolutionary Politician by John Alexander.
This story updated in 2022.
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