Stacy Schiff is one of our finest biographers, able to explore and illuminate lives as diverse as those of Cleopatra and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography. Her latest subject is Sam Adams, second cousin to John Adams and the least well chronicled of our Founding Fathers. That was partly by his design, and partly because the young country chose to forget him. Now, as it turns out, he is best known as the name on one of the country’s most popular craft beers, but after reading Schiff’s book The Revolutionary, you will wonder why his face is not also on one of the bills we use to buy that beer.
JIM KELLY: Your new book, about Samuel Adams, is an exhilarating read, bringing to life a man often overshadowed by other Founding Fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Here is the man who helped engineer the Boston Tea Party, the man whom Jefferson himself called “the earliest, most active, and persevering man of the Revolution,” the man so wanted by the enemy that when Paul Revere rode to Lexington in 1775, he was doing so to warn Adams that the British were coming. And yet he has been largely unsung. Why is that?
STACY SCHIFF: For several reasons. First of all, Adams was committing sedition—if not actively fomenting revolution. He heard over and over that he was to be arrested and shipped to Great Britain. For his own security and that of friends, he worked in the shadows.
For the same reason, he destroyed papers—there is no account the biographer reads with as much discomfort as the one of Adams, at the Continental Congress, cutting bundles of letters to shreds and scattering the confetti from his Philadelphia window. When the British occupied Boston, a loyal friend stopped at Adams’s house and quietly carried off his remaining papers—the trail is again obscured. By nature, Adams was a team player. Entirely without vanity, he was most comfortable pulling levers behind the scenes, urging others to center stage.
And lastly, after the revolution, Adams was out of step with the new nation, fixated still on virtue, religion, education. The country moved on without him.
J.K.: His story is all the more remarkable given his first 40 years, during which he had been, as you put it, “a perfect failure.” Or, as an observer of his put it, “he read theology and abandoned the ministry, read law and abandoned the bar, entered business and lost a thousand pounds.”
An older second cousin of John Adams’s, our second president, Samuel Adams was born into a more prominent branch of the family than his relative, yet as a youth he displayed few if any of the qualities that he so abundantly manifested later. But he did seem blessed with an amiable temperament that served him well, and he had no patience for pomp. That said, was there a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment for him that turned him into a firebrand, or was it a much more gradual reckoning with his destiny?
S.S.: While he was a student at Harvard, Adams’s well-off family was bankrupted by a harsh piece of British legislation. It made London look intrusive, brutal, and arbitrary. In the commotion that followed, a group of Massachusetts men for the first time discussed defying an act of Parliament.
Decades later, Adams was still fending off sheriffs who attempted to repossess what remained of the estate. He left only one reference to the humiliation, so it’s difficult to establish a straight line. I would hate to extrapolate a whole life from anyone’s college thesis, but I think it’s possible to say with some certainty that—after the age of 22—Adams was particularly attuned to imperial overreach and to the sanctity of American rights. He thought it a citizen’s business, if not his obligation, to inquire into “the mysteries of state.”
J.K.: As you so deftly point out, breaking with London took the colonies several torturous years, with many fits and starts. And then came along the Tea Act passed by Parliament in 1773, giving the East India Company a monopoly to export tea directly to America, thereby undercutting other merchants.
Your description of the subsequent drama that led up to 342 chests of tea on the three ships mysteriously getting dumped directly into Boston Harbor itself reads like a first-class heist tale. The Boston Tea Party, of course, galvanized the colonies and sped them to independence. It has always been a bit unclear whether Adams was the true ringleader or not. Your thoughts?
S.S.: Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the destruction of the tea is how many people were on hand that evening—estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000—and how few accounts surfaced. When Boston wanted to go silent, Boston went silent.
No contemporary ever mentioned what historians would later claim: that Samuel Adams had issued the preconcerted signal for the violence. That said, 12 men who had watched the tea sail overboard were deposed, under oath, weeks later, by the London authorities. In their testimony Adams is, in the days before the vandalism, the most vocal party. The owner of the first tea ship, who came in for the roughest treatment from the town meeting, named him first among the prime movers.
Adams made a conspicuous effort not to be on the wharf that night, which you might say speaks volumes. And the stunt certainly sounds like him; it was a masterpiece of actor-free drama. But short of an 18th-century memoir suddenly surfacing, I think we’re unable to say more about precise orchestration.
J.K.: Adams remained contentious to the end, fearful that the Constitution, if ratified, would centralize power (he did eventually approve it) and believed Washington overly fond of honors. He succeeded John Hancock (who considered Adams his enemy) as governor of Massachusetts in 1793, retired a few years later, and died in 1803 at age 81. His age, of course, did not make it possible, but do you think Samuel Adams would have made a good president?
S.S.: He would have been terrible! And miserable too; he had no patience for ceremony or the trappings of office. One of the fascinations of his life is how perfectly Adams and his moment fit together. As [the historian] Joseph Ellis once said to me, Adams’s name should not be on a beer; it should be on the revolution. For a dozen years, he did what no one else could see or think to do: articulating first principles, pointing up inequities, galvanizing and uniting the colonies. With the Declaration he had outlived his usefulness, particularly poignant, as he lived another 27 years.
J.K.: Your final chapter begins with this wonderful quote from Hilary Mantel: “History’s what people are trying to hide from you, not what they’re trying to show you.” Mantel, who died last month, brought Thomas Cromwell to life in her trilogy of novels in ways that a biographer could not. Nonetheless, have you learned anything from Mantel’s technique, and have you ever wished you could write about a historical character as fiction?
S.S.: I am so passionate a Hilary Mantel fan that I developed a stutter on the one occasion on which we met. (I sat directly behind her at a Broadway performance of Wolf Hall, which I can report she thoroughly enjoyed.) Her Reith Lectures offer multiple lessons in biography (and humility).
In the first she talks about history as a method “of organizing our ignorance of the past,” about distinguishing between facts and truth, knowledge and information. And she says something that often came to mind as I lived with Samuel Adams: She talks about how it took her years to get to the Tudors; she had been writing for years about the marginal. Finally she “decided to march on to the middle ground of English history and plant a flag”; it was territory for which no one was going to fight her. “Change the viewpoint,” she adds, “and the story is new.”
J.K.: The range of your work is quite astounding, from the wife of Vladimir Nabokov to a children’s book author, to Cleopatra. A biographer sometimes says she does not pick the subject, the subject picks her. Does that hold any truth for you in these three cases?
S.S.: All evolved from flirtation to obsession, though not necessarily in a linear way. With Véra I kept trying to make sense of a few disparate facts: nearly every one of Nabokov’s books is dedicated to her; she accompanied him to every class he taught at Cornell; she typed most of his pages; and she carried a gun. His biographers wrote that she was central to the work but steadfastly refused to say much about her. It became a sort of loose tooth; I couldn’t stop wondering who this nonperson was.
Cleopatra fell out of a dinner-table conversation about women and power. But also: What did the queen of Egypt do all day? I assumed answering that question was impossible given the lack of material. Then I spent five years writing about Ben Franklin and realized that material, however mountainous, can fail to resolve essential questions. Weirdly, it turns out that we can get a sense—from accounts of other Hellenistic sovereigns and from scraps of papyri—of what Cleopatra did all day.
This book fell out of questions we were all asking anew about American democracy. It was also most like Véra: Who was this person hiding in plain sight?
J.K.: Were you especially drawn to biographies as a young reader, and are there two or three writers that especially influenced you?
S.S.: Among my prize possessions as a child were a few of those “Childhood of Famous Americans” books, though I’m not sure you should jump to any conclusions—also among my favorite possessions was a set of plastic troll dolls. Somewhere between Harold Nicolson’s Some People and Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love I slid down a rabbit hole which led, years later, to a book contract. I have not yet recovered.
J.K.: Finally, and my apologies, but I must ask on behalf of AIR MAIL readers: When you finished your latest book, did you celebrate with a cold bottle of a certain beer?
S.S.: It was 11 A.M. Which seemed too early for a Sam Adams, though by no means too early for a hot-fudge sundae.
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, by Stacy Schiff, will be published on October 25 by Little, Brown
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL