Samuel Adams, the troublemaking firebrand who stirred the common rabble into supporting the American Revolution, became known as the last Puritan late in his life. He shook his head in dismay at how the country made use of its new freedom following the American Revolution.
Adam’s contemporaries credited him with bringing a passionate zeal to his support for the American Revolution. His critics on the English side accused him of underhandedness. They said he used smear tactics to incite the public to support his position.
But Adams’ zeal for a virtuous America was real, founded in a deeply religious upbringing in the Congregational Church. He was sadly disappointed by what he saw as moral decay following the Revolution. In particular, the last Puritan opposed the push to bring theatre to Boston, attacks on the city’s cherished public town meeting and the start of a libertine society that elevated flash over substance.
The Last Puritan
An early irritant to Adams emerged in 1784 when a group of young people decided Boston needed more entertainment. It needed to be more like New York and Philadelphia. They created the Sans Souci (Without Care) Club to bring merriment and mirth to the city.
The organization irked the more conservative members of society. Sam Adams hated the club and some of its more radical ideas, such as allowing women into gambling parlors. He viewed it as an invitation to bring European court society, with its lack of virtue and questionable values, into America. And that happened just at the moment when the country expelled them on the battlefield.
A play critical of the club circulated: Sans Souci, Alias Free and Easy: or an Evening’s Peep into a Polite Circle. The character Little Pert speaks for the supporters of the club:
Damn the old musty rules of decency and decorum – national characters – Spartan virtues – Republican principles – they are all calculated for rigid manners, and Cromwellian days; – they are as disgusting as old orthodoxy.
Fashion and etiquette are more agreeable to my idea of life – this is the independence I aim at – the free and easy air which so distinguishes the man of fashion, from the self-formal republican – the court style – the je ne sais quoi – give me but this and way with all your buckram of Presbyterianism.
For all the anger the club caused, it had few outward impacts on the city. It was merely a private forum for club members to indulge themselves.
More public was the fight to bring theatre to Boston – an equally abhorrent idea to Adams.
Board Alley Sprouts a Theater
In 1792, a group of theatre advocates put up the money to launch the Board Alley Theatre, in defiance of the laws that forbid theatre in Boston.
As a venue for entertainment, the theatre, which could hold 500 people, was not much of a success. But as a statement of a mini cultural revolution at hand, it worked wonders. John Hancock, the pomp-loving peacock of a governor, was angered by the cheek of the theater supporters in openly defying the law.
He ordered his attorney general to break up the theater and arrest its managers in the midst of one performance. The stoppage of the play was cause for a mini riot. The case against the theater was thrown out of court on a technicality. But working class Bostonians would not let the matter drop. Why was their entertainment being banned when the wealthy and privileged could idle away their hours in private clubs and card games?
The message to the state’s legislature was loud and clear and the prohibition of theater was stricken from the books, clearing the way for Charles Bullfinch’s Federal Street Theatre to be constructed on the corner of Franklin and Federal Streets a year later, opening Boston to theater of all sorts.
Puritans in Decline
The arrival of theater in Boston highlighted the ways in which a new order was asserting itself, sweeping away the aging leadership that brought about the American Revolution. John Quincy Adams wrote to his father John and defended the theater.
For Sam Adams the theater was just another symptom of a society growing sick. His great worry was that the elites who ran the country, having summoned the rabble to do the dirty work of the Revolution, now wanted to put the farmers and working class on the back bench and elevate themselves as a new breed of royalty.
This fight between those who favored the old vs. those who wanted change manifested itself in the town vs. city fight that continuously enveloped Boston. As early as 1708 some had agitated for Boston to do away with its town meeting and establish a city form of government.
While other cities moved ahead with killing off direct democracies, Boston hung firm. In 1785 a proposal was put forward to do away with town meeting. Samuel Adams derided it at a public meeting at Faneuil Hall. Some of his countrymen, he noted, seemed to have “a hankering for the leeks and onions of Great Britain.”
And in a town meeting called to consider the issue, Adams warned against creating a political class: “A love of novelty and a desire for change has been an avenue through which aristocracy has entered.”
Overwhelmingly the town meeting voted down the change.
At Last, A City
In 1792, opponents of town meeting made a better organized attempt to change the government. By now the young bloods had grown in strength, but again the idea failed.
John Quincy Adams could barely contain his disdain for the town meeting supporters in writing about the defeat: “Seven hundred men, who looked as if they had been collected from all the jails on the continent, outvoted by their numbers all the combined weight and influence of wealth and abilities and integrity of the whole town.”
The town meeting would beat back proposals to change the charter in 1785, 1792, 1804 and 1815. Finally, in 1822, a city government was established. By then Samuel Adams was long dead. He had won election as governor for one term when John Hancock died, but his brand of politics was dying out. The last Puritan then failed in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat.
Adams died in 1803 after several years in political obscurity. Palsy had made it impossible for him to write and he slipped into retirement. Historian Edward Everett would note that with Adams’ death, “the last of the Puritans” was gone.
Thanks to: The Magic of the Many: Josiah Quincy and the Rise of Mass Politics in Boston by Matthew H. Crocker
The Gardiners of Massachusetts by T.A. Milford. This story about the last Puritan was updated in 2021.