Sam Adams Walked Into a Tavern and Started a Revolution

Sam Adams was a devout Puritan who brought his religious convictions to the fight for American liberty. That did not mean he stayed out of taverns or shunned his family’s malt business.

Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley.

Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley.

Far from it. He embraced both.

Puritans were anything but Puritanical about beer. Among the Pilgrims’ many vexations was the shortage of beer on the Mayflower.

By the time Sam Adams was born on Sept. 16, 1722 (Old Style) beer brewing was a well-established and protected commercial activity in Boston. Brewers and maltsters earned good wages and positions of respect. Many wealthy and prominent colonists started out as brewers or maltsters. (Maltsters make the malt that gets brewed into beer.)

Boston Beer

Common breweries sprang up in Boston shortly after the Puritans arrived.  Soon the General Court regulated the price of beer at 2-1/2 cents per quart.

In the mid-17th century, England imposed a tariff on malt in order to encourage the domestic beer industry. In 1705, Massachusetts began to export beer. By 1731, Massachusetts was exporting malt to New York and Philadelphia.

Ethelbert Stewart, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, wrote in his Beer Brewing in the New England Colonies, that Massachusetts discouraged noncommercial beer brewing. Anyone who wanted to make beer had to prove they had “sufficient skill in the art or mystery of a brewer.”

Sam’s Hops Receipt

Massachusetts also fined people for trying to sell improperly cleansed malt. Malt cleansing could only be properly done at the regular malt houses.

There were advantages to regulation, however, as the public gained a better quality of beer, the trade of maltsters and brewers became recognized as such, and the business became settled. … (Patriot Samuel Adams was probably the most famous maltster in history, though there remains debate about whether he ever engaged in actual brewing of beer.)

Ira Stoll, author of Samuel Adams: A Life, writes in a footnote ‘The founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company, parent of today’s Samuel Adams beer, James Koch, told me in an interview that he was once offered for sale a receipt for hops signed by the patriot Samuel Adams, proving that Samuel Adams was a brewer and not just a maltster.

Sam Adams, Maltster

Sam’s Adams’ father, Deacon Samuel Adams, was a man of wealth and respect. He made his living selling malt to beer makers from a malt house in his backyard. Deacon Adams led the populist political party known as the Boston Caucus, whose members met in taverns.

Young Sam Adams entered Harvard in 1736 at 14, graduated in 1740 and received a master’s degree in 1743. He didn’t want to be a lawyer or a minister, so he tried working in Thomas Cushing’s counting house. Adams hated it. He ended up living at home on the income from his father’s malt house.

sam adams green dragonHe haunted the taverns of Boston, honing his political skills and making his political connections. His cousin John Adams noted taverns were where ‘bastards, and legislators, are frequently begotten.’

Sam Adams didn’t become a legislator, at least not at first. He won election to clerk of the market, then town scavenger and then tax collector, a position he held for nearly a decade. Later he became clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, delegate to the Continental Congress and president of the Massachusetts Senate. Finally, he won election as John Hancock’s lieutenant governor and then governor.

When Sam was 24, his father died. The next year, British naval officers kidnapped 50 men on the Boston waterfront to impress them into service. A riot ensued, the prisoners were released and Sam Adams became a journalist. He started a newspaper, The Independent Advertiser. In it, he portrayed the rioters as an assembly of people defending their natural right to life and liberty.

Sentiments of Liberty

He also organized the Sons of Liberty, which flourished in Boston’s tavern-based political culture.

In 1769, Sam Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Benjamin Edes and 350 Sons of Liberty celebrated the fourth anniversary of resistance to the Stamp Act at the Liberty Tree Tavern in Dorchester. They dined in a tent set up for the occasion and drank 45 toasts. John Adams, who attended, noted that no one got drunk (beer could be pretty weak). The future president grudgingly approved of the affair.

“Otis and Adams are politick, in promoting these Festivals, for they tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty,” he wrote.

This story about Sam Adams was updated in 2018.



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