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How Samuel Adams became the fearless patriot Britain loved to hate

“I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the king’s dominions,” sputtered the previous royal governor of Massachusetts, whom Adams had done all in his power to sabotage.

Samuel AdamsFrom the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A glimmer, a gleam, the hurry of hoofs: a sturdy, square-jawed man speeds through the night, with an urgent message, on a borrowed horse. His topcoat flaps behind him. A bright moon hangs overhead. Within days he will know he has participated in some kind of history, though he will hesitate to attach his name to it for decades and is never to know that his own account will be obliterated — the adrenaline alone enduring— by verse, leaving him trapped in tetrameter, a mythic figure, eternally jouncing his way toward Lexington.

It is just after midnight on April 19, 1775. Despite a near-encounter with a pair of British officers, Paul Revere has made excellent time. Only two hours earlier he had rushed through town to the home of the last remaining patriot leader in occupied Boston. On previous occasions Revere had stood at hand while Dr. Joseph Warren wrote out secret messages for him to carry; already in advance of this evening, Revere has devised a system. Friends await him on the north side of town, where they have hidden a boat in which to row him to Charlestown. From there, he will ride 12 miles west. He knows he has minutes before British regulars lock down Boston. He knows, too, that Warren has dispatched an earlier rider, by a longer route, with a similar message. Both speed toward Samuel Adams and John Hancock, in Lexington.


What the newspapers would later term Revere’s “secret and speedy intelligence” was simple: British regiments are on the move. Adams and Hancock are their quarry. Revere gallops off to warn of imminent arrest, if not outright assassination.

Minutes after Revere has pulled on his riding boots, British officers circulate through fetid Boston barracks to lay hands on sleeping backs, whispering to their men. It is time to march, unwelcome news at 10:30 p.m., “a soldier’s hour to be in bed,” as one light infantryman later put it. Furtively the men file from their barracks, through rear doors, in small parties. The dog who opts to announce them meets with a bayonet.


By the time some 800 British regulars finally assemble in east Cambridge, stalled as they wait for the supplies that should have preceded them, word of their clandestine sortie has already reached Lexington.

Adams and Hancock had retired for the night when Revere galloped into town, which was not to say that either the messenger or his message was entirely unexpected. Two days earlier Revere had made the same ride, in daylight and at a more relaxed pace, to confer with the patriot leaders. Both had recently fled Boston, where they no longer felt safe. Adams had made a hasty exit with only the clothes on his back.

Having attended the last session of a provincial congress that Saturday, Adams and Hancock were poised to ride to Philadelphia for a more momentous gathering. The two lodged temporarily in the comfortable, clapboard Lexington parsonage, guests of the Rev. Jonas Clarke, a gregarious man, a Hancock relative, and a firm friend of American liberty. The Bostonians shared a wallpapered room on the ground floor. Hancock’s fiancé lodged above.

On the earlier visit, Revere would have revealed what many in Boston had noticed: The regulars had hauled their longboats out of the harbor. General Thomas Gage had relieved his elite troops, his prized grenadiers and light infantry, from duty, ostensibly for training. The feint fooled no one. Twice already Gage’s men had ventured into the Massachusetts countryside to confiscate munitions. Twice already the countryside had known to expect them.


It was on the return from that ride that Revere had arranged for signals from the North Church steeple. A single lantern would indicate that the British intended to march by land. Two lights would indicate that they proceeded by boat. It was imperative that word reach the countryside even if a messenger could not. All depended on provincial readiness.

We cannot control events, Samuel Adams liked to say. The trick, he revealed that summer, “is to foresee as far as we are able, prepare for, and improve them.”

Adams could not have been surprised to learn that friends believed him the object of Gage’s expedition. He had made himself more obnoxious to the Colonial authorities than any man in British North America. For the same reason, advertisements ran that spring for poster-sized portraits of him. For half a dollar — well below the price of a primitive brand of toothpaste — one could acquire a fine mezzotint likeness, printed in Rhode Island, of “that truly worthy patriot, S. A.” (The printer anticipated robust sales.) Panegyrics circulated, lauding Adams’s genius and predicting immortal fame.

What qualified from one vantage point as sterling patriotism appeared from another as bare-faced treason. For the better part of a decade, Adams had, as General Gage saw it, churned irritations into insults, poisoning the minds of Americans, ripening them for insurrection. “I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the King’s dominions,” sputtered Thomas Hutchinson, the previous royal governor, whom Adams had done all in his power to sabotage; whom Gage had arrived, with four regiments, to replace; and who could never sufficiently excoriate “the black art of Adams.”


This story was adapted from the forthcoming "The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams" by Stacy Schiff.Handout

Color rushed to the Tory face at the mention of Adams’s name. So “thorough a Machiavellian,” he would stop at nothing to accomplish his ends, assumed, despite his early disavowals, to be American independence. He employed every dirty trick along the way, including, one Crown officer fumed, “such arts as an oyster wench disdains to lower her reputation to.”

From the imperial descriptions, Adams can sound like Marx, Lenin, and Robespierre rolled into one. Over and over he had sent British legal authorities scrambling to review case law on treason. He distinguished himself as the most wanted man in the Colonies. Peace could not be restored in America until someone made an example of him. When a Tory sympathizer threw an anonymous letter into an encampment of the Boston troops, he offered up a roster of those who had instigated the Massachusetts madness. Were rebellion to break out, they should be executed. Adams topped his helpful list.

Already Gage had attempted by other means to eliminate the problem that was Samuel Adams. He had sent a British colonel to call on Adams, at home. The two were acquainted; the officer asked if he might speak in confidence and without interruption. Adams’s conduct left him vulnerable to a treason conviction. Might he rethink his stance? He could both make peace with his king and expect a handsome reward.


Adams listened in silence to the elegantly packaged bribe. He rose when the colonel had finished. “Tell Governor Gage,” he glowered, “it is the advice of Samuel Adams to him no longer to insult the feelings of an exasperated people.”

Over the years Adams had read plenty of cheerful doggerel about his hanging. Colleagues admonished him. Why had he no nighttime security at his doors and windows? Was he fully alert to traitors and informers? Had he forgotten the Ides of March? Even his most unflappable friends— and Samuel Adams had many friends— cowered a little. One had it on reliable Tory authority that Adams was to be arrested before he could make his way to Philadelphia for the Continental Congress, scheduled to begin on May 10.

Meanwhile, his enemies snickered. Adams quaked, they taunted, at the sight of rope. Indeed, Adams trembled often, on account of a mild palsy that intensified over the next years, and with apprehension for the fate of the American Colonies, oppressed and insulted by the mother country. But nowhere does the record convey a syllable of fear. He nonetheless took a few precautions. He desisted from signing his letters. He began to carry a pistol wherever he went. He removed most of his family from Boston. By mid-April, the majority of his associates had slipped out of town as well, some in disguise; others with bare possessions; one by water, at midnight, with his printing press.

Still, Adams remained unintimidated. Crown officials in Massachusetts attempted all in their power to overawe, “endeavoring,” Adams wrote, “to terrify the people with strange ideas of treason and rebellion.” They labored in vain. And they had their terms backward: The right-minded were those who insisted on Colonial liberties; treason, he held, consisted of the failure to defend those liberties.

Adams had an additional reason for equanimity. Revere belonged to a Boston surveillance team that scrutinized every military move. Its 30 members patrolled the streets nightly, swearing on a Bible to confide their observations largely to Warren, Adams, and Hancock. Even Gage was impressed by the results. “The people get very early and good intelligence,” the British commander in chief alerted London. Everyone seemed to know his instructions before he did. He had been mystified by the mad exodus of rabble-rousers. His orders to arrest them arrived only on April 14, by which time, regretted Gage, “They had received notice of their danger, and were fled.” It was an odd thing about Boston, Crown officials observed. A confidential, early-morning insinuation could blossom into common knowledge by evening. Yet when 342 crates of tea immersed themselves in water, no one had seen a thing.

Military stores tended to vanish hours before Gage arrived to confiscate them. Cannon burrowed their way under piles of coal or loads of manure. Powder kegs secreted themselves under beds. As soon as red-coated backs turned, the woman who appeared to be brewing tea well after midnight picked up where she had left off, melting pewterware into bullets.

General Thomas GageNo credit

As royal governor and military commander, General Gage’s task was to subdue an obstreperous community that he believed should have been subdued long before. It was an unenviable assignment. Gage was simultaneously to “quiet the minds of the people,” close Boston’s port, and prosecute the leading radicals. For weeks he had attempted subtly to make his presence felt outside Boston. He hoped he might encourage the countryside to relax its guard.

In February he had dispatched two officers, disguised as surveyors, to reconnoiter Eastern Massachusetts. Red bandannas around their necks, sketchbooks in hand, they managed to observe a militia exercise. Even the waitress in a local inn penetrated their disguise, however. The only people the officers seemed to fool were Gage and his aide-de-camp, who failed to recognize them on their return.

Early in the evening of April 18, 1775, a group of some eight British Army officers had been spotted milling about near Lexington. A gust of wind revealed pistols under their heavy blue overcoats. British officers did not saunter about the New England countryside, armed, after sundown, without reason. Given the frequent threats, the immediate assumption was of “some evil design” against Adams and Hancock. The local militia sergeant assigned a 10- or 12-man guard to the Clarke parsonage.

If Dr. Warren’s informer and most of the Massachusetts countryside that evening believed Gage poised to apprehend Adams and Hancock, there was additional cause for suspicion: His orders were to do precisely that. London had long believed Colonial unrest a localized affair. The American contest could be reduced to a few malcontents on the one side “and the whole people of England on the other.” Gage’s instructions were explicit. “The first and essential step,” Lord Dartmouth, secretary of state for the Colonies, enjoined him, was “to arrest and imprison the principal actors and abettors.” Adams’s name figured first on that list as well.

The order would recur in every communication from Dartmouth, who made no mention of rounding up military stores, at least until a dispatch that reached Gage long after April 1775. The sole question seemed to be whether, once captured, Adams and Hancock should be transported to London for trial or hanged in Boston.

Few understood Gage’s hesitation. Why, vented one of his officers in February, had they not already seized the “impudent rascals”? It could easily be done. It begged to be done. A lieutenant colonel dropped hint after hint. It was time to pursue harsher measures, in particular “against that most artful clever fellow Adams, who has nothing to lose.” Standing the radicals before firing squads— or suspending them from trees— was the only corrective now. If a respectable force could be assembled, the most subversive individuals seized and the rest pardoned, Colonial order could surely be restored, the sovereignty of Parliament upheld.

By 1775 the reality was very different. To apprehend the popular leaders was by spring to trigger hostilities, something Gage intended at all costs to avoid. An arrest would prove Great Britain the aggressor and make martyrs of the Colonists. The optics mattered, as Adams understood better than anyone. “I would wish,” he asserted, “to have all the impartial and reasonable world on our side.”

It was too late for Gage to attempt arrests. As he glumly conceded, Adams and his accomplices trusted in their immunity. They scoffed at deportation threats. They made it their business to menace, provoke, and wear Gage down. He explained to Lord Dartmouth that his hands were tied. Should he arrest Adams, “that would be the last letter they would ever receive from him, for he should be knocked on the head.”

In New England it had been clear for months that the time for reconciliation between the mother country and North America had passed. Good will had evaporated, outrage congealed. Massachusetts had endured what it believed was a decade of affronts. The two sides glowered at each other, incomprehension heaped upon incivility. British regulars could barely contain their disdain for the ragtag Colonists. “Such a parcel of poor mad Quixotes were surely never scraped together since the time of the Crusades,” one sneered. The redcoats came in for similar treatment. One newspaper contributor wrote the regulars off as “mercenary, hackneyed, tattered regiments patched up by the most abandoned and debauched of mankind, the scum of the nation, the dregs of Irish and Scottish desperadoes.”

On the other hand, posturing went a long way. As late as March 1775, outright confrontation struck most as unthinkable. Which left Gage and the patriot leaders at a standoff, refusing to relinquish ground while sidestepping any measure that might detonate a crisis. As former governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote in London, days before Revere flew to Lexington: “I cannot yet believe Mr. Adams will be able to persuade our people to so irrational a step as to form themselves into a body to oppose the King’s troops.”

Here it became difficult to pry eerie prophecy from artful planning. “One cannot foresee events,” Adams had written an intimate in November 1773, “but from all the observation I am able to make, my next letter will not be upon a trifling subject.” Within weeks, a smile playing on his words, he submitted a remarkable report: In under four hours, 342 chests of tea had slipped into Boston Harbor. For at least a decade, whenever the British used the loaded word “preconcerted” in connection with American affairs, fingers pointed directly at Adams.

Paul Revere clattered up to the parsonage around 12:30 a.m. He had not yet attained legendary status; the guards around the house barred his way. Might their muddy visitor create a bit less commotion? The reverend, his wife, eight of their 10 children, Adams, Hancock, Hancock’s fiancé, and his elderly aunt had retired for the night. They were trying to sleep.

A bluff man cradling a time bomb, Revere was not easily deterred. “Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long,” he reportedly huffed, adding, “The regulars are coming out,” the closest he came to announcing that the British were coming. The Lexington guard relented; Revere banged on the parsonage door.

From an upstairs window Reverend Clarke called down. Who was this late-night caller? Without identifying himself, Revere asked for Hancock. Clarke was some way into a speech about preferring not to receive strangers in the middle of the night when Adams and Hancock appeared at the downstairs window. “That is Revere; you need not be afraid of him,” Hancock assured their host. Clarke descended his handsomely carved staircase to greet Revere, who, after delivering his message, presumably to a household in nightclothes, asked if they had heard from Warren’s earlier messenger. Though he had a two-hour lead, he had not yet been seen. Revere feared that William Dawes — intrepid enough to have recently smuggled two cannons from Boston — had also met with, but not managed to outride, a British patrol.

Dawes materialized a half-hour later, when refreshments appeared. The men then walked to the nearby tavern to concert a plan of action. If indeed Gage had dispatched several hundred soldiers, he did not intend merely to arrest Hancock and Adams. There was some discussion with the town militia, immediately on guard, though the regulars were at that moment still shivering, soaked, and miserable, in the briny Cambridge cold, their officers arranging them into formation by company and seniority.

At least on paper, Gage ordered his men to destroy the Concord munitions, something London had not yet mentioned. Emphatic and specific, the most recent instructions he had received also carried a note of reproach. The king’s patience was exhausted. Even if Gage could not prosecute the troublemakers, they would stir up less mischief from prison. He was to proceed immediately, taking every precaution to keep his mission secret. “You can hardly fail,” the British secretary of state assured him, “and you should be able to accomplish this without bloodshed.”

Of the commotion at the parsonage we have only a later account; we can be more certain of the degree to which Revere set Eastern Massachusetts in motion. Shortly after leaving the parsonage, midway between Lexington and Concord, Revere, Dawes, and their companions rode into an ambush. “Goddamn you! Stop! If you go an inch further you are a dead man,” shouted a British officer, maneuvering the riders into a pasture. Revere attempted to escape into a nearby wood; from it emerged six additional officers, pistols pointed at his chest. One seized his bridle. Another asked his name. The answer caused much consternation. Unlike the Lexington militia, the British officers knew precisely who Paul Revere was. The appearance in Lexington of the best patriot messenger confirmed that Adams and Hancock were in the vicinity. It also suggested that someone was expecting them.

The officers peppered Revere with questions: What time had he left Boston? Where exactly were Adams and Hancock? Between questions, his captors discharged insults, which made it difficult for coolheaded Revere to resist informing them that their troops sat stalled in Cambridge. He had guessed their mission. They would not succeed. He attempted too a marvelous bluff: The regulars should expect 500 Americans to descend upon them any moment.

Taken aback, the ranking officer rode off to confer with his commander, who galloped down to examine the prisoner himself. Clapping a pistol to Revere’s head, the major announced that he was going to pose a few questions. Revere replied that he did not need to be threatened to speak the truth. Ordered to dismount, he was frisked. He carried no gun.

More specific questions followed from a less even-tempered interrogator. Revere was then returned to his horse, its reins entrusted to a British officer. “We are now going towards your friends,” he was informed, “and if you attempt to run, or we are insulted, we will blow your brains out.” The redcoats formed a tight circle around him, reminding Revere, as they rode, that he was “in a damned critical situation.” He admitted that he had noticed.

As they neared the Lexington meetinghouse, a volley of guns sounded, a blast that seemed to confirm Revere’s warnings. He was asked to interpret. Paul Revere thought every bit as swiftly as he rode; he assured his escort that they had just heard an alert to the countryside. A companion merrily chimed in. The British, he added, were all dead men. To the ominous tolling of the Lexington church bell the officers conferred. How far was it to Cambridge? Was there any other road? Minutes later they galloped off, a sergeant astride Revere’s horse, a particularly fine one, never to be seen again.

John HancockFrom the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Revere hurried by foot through pastures and a cemetery to Reverend Clarke’s. He had tangled with the British officers nearly a half-mile from the parsonage. The wind was up; the night had turned raw. It was nearly 2:30 a.m. The Lexington militia had mustered; as no redcoats had appeared, they had been dismissed, to reassemble at the beat of a drum. Several men now dozed in their chairs at the tavern at the edge of the Lexington Common.

Revere met with a livelier scene at the parsonage, where it would have been difficult to say who was more surprised to see whom. Though thrice urged to flee, Adams and Hancock had not budged. Elegant Hancock had been aflutter since Revere’s departure, “cleaning his gun and putting his accoutrements in order.” He seemed intent on impressing his fiancé and on personally facing down the regulars. At least once he headed out to the Common on a reconnoitering mission. It was dark. There was not a redcoat in sight.

By candlelight Adams labored to impress upon his younger colleague that their place was not on the battlefield. One account has Adams clapping a hand on Hancock’s thin shoulder as he reminded him: “That is not our business; we belong to the Cabinet.” The two remained at loggerheads; under any circumstances they made for a study in contrasts. Excitable Hancock was given to the grand gesture. Imperturbable, Adams preferred to set the stage for others to occupy. He was rarely present even in his own version of events. It was easier to gauge his presence by the temperature of a room, which reliably rose when he entered. Their middle-of-the-night debate raged amid a panic-stricken household. Hancock’s aunt wrung her hands. His fiancé helped the Reverend Clarke to bury the family valuables in the potato patch.

It was by now close to 3 a.m. The regulars had begun their march past stone fences and rolling pastures, square-toed boots beating a regular rhythm on unpacked ground. They advanced through the starry night as well to the faint clang of country bells. It looked increasingly unlikely that Gage’s covert mission would be accomplished under cover of darkness. Disconcerted officers had already sent word to Boston: They would not surprise anyone. Reinforcements would be necessary.

With Revere’s return came an end to the parsonage tug-of-war. He could after all report that British officers had stood, pistols loaded, within striking distance of Adams and Hancock. In Hancock’s heavy coach the two rattled toward Woburn, some 5 miles away, Hancock complaining that it was not his style to turn his back on the enemy.

By 4:30 a.m. streaks of orange and pink glinted in the east. Still there was no sign of any regiment. Hancock profited from the quiet to send to Lexington for his aunt and fiancé. Might they bring with them the excellent salmon on which he hoped to breakfast? It was the first of the season. If Revere’s intelligence could be believed, the redcoats were hopelessly late. Indeed, they had squandered four hours; Adams must have doubted they were actually coming. He would be spared the sight, as dawn broke, of a gleaming quarter-mile ribbon of redcoats, snow-white linen flashing, a short distance from Lexington and moving through the pale morning light, in perfect order, at an impressively brisk pace.

Revere was sent to Lexington a third time that evening to retrieve Hancock’s trunk of papers. By the time he arrived on the village green it was daylight. From the rooms above the tavern he watched the regulars approach at a near-run. Downstairs he and Hancock’s secretary, the leather trunk between them, passed through the fifty-odd militiamen. Their commanding officer ordered them to let the redcoats pass peaceably unless they fired first.

Yards from the meetinghouse, Revere spotted a British officer on horseback. Minutes later he heard — but did not see — the “continual roar of musketry.”

The two Woburn fugitives sat down to their salmon breakfast just as a frantic Lexington farmer arrived with word that regulars approached, bayonets gleaming. The coach was hastily stashed. Adams and Hancock dived into a swamp, where they remained for some time.

After a hike through the woods, they breakfasted finally, several towns north, on salt pork and potatoes. They neither heard a shot nor caught the peppery bite of gunpowder in the Lexington air. It would be some time before either man knew precisely what had happened.

Neither would know — as no one ever will — who fired first that morning, a question with which Adams would contend later. Facts were facts but could always stand a little polish. Of the weight of events he had no doubt. He believed independence should have been declared that bright spring day; for his purposes it essentially had been. At some point in those harried hours, despite having spent a damp night outdoors, unguarded and under- dressed, his spirits swelled. “O! What a glorious morning is this!” he exulted. Mistaking his meaning, John Hancock looked searchingly to the sky — or so Adams, or an Adams friend, later recalled.

Of the three, Paul Revere alone wound up with a pistol aimed at his head on April 19. He would wait 23 years to reveal the full story of his arrest. For their own reasons, General Gage and Samuel Adams left only cursory accounts of the most written-about day in American history. At some point before Reverend Clarke found seven bodies of his parishioners slumped on the ground, before he discovered that a cannonball had punctured his meetinghouse, as the column of redcoats thudded toward Concord, amid the “confusion and distress,” as Clarke had it, Adams did something else at which he was expert: The most conspicuous man in Massachusetts vanished from the scene, slipping through Gage’s fingers and out of a picture he had done as much as anyone to compose.

A native of Adams, Massachusetts, Stacy Schiff is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Witches: Salem, 1692″, and “Cleopatra: A Life,” among other best-selling books. This story was adapted from the forthcoming “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams” by Stacy Schiff. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.