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Happy Birthday Samuel Adams

September 27 marks the 1722 birth of a Patriot known by the present generation primarily as a brewer of beer. But Samuel Adams was a central actor in the American Revolution, as illustrated by John Adams' 1778 visit to Paris, during which Parisians were disappointed that he was not "the famous Adams."Samuel Adams helped organize the Committees of Correspondence, which mustered support for the patriot cause. He was the author of "The Rights of Colonists," distributed by the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence. He was the founder of The Sons of Liberty and the principle organizer of the Boston Tea Party, and as a result, he was a target of the British government for treason a year before the Declaration of Independence. He was the source of the battle cry "no taxation without representation." He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of the First and Second Continental Congress, before turning his attention back to his beloved Massachusetts as Lieutenant Governor and Governor. Samuel Adams' most important contribution to America's cause, however, was that, as described by John Adams, he was the man who had "the most thorough understanding of liberty." In that role, his arguments for liberty were primary sparks in the creation of what has been called the first country ever founded on a good idea, which we still benefit from. Given the threats to liberty we face today, it is worth recalling the some of the words that inspired our founding.
  • Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: first, a right to life; secondly, to liberty; thirdly to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.
  • Men's rights are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation...
  • The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.
  • Thou shall do no injury to thy neighbor, is the voice of nature and reason...every man has an equal right by honest means to acquire property, and to enjoy it; in general to pursue his own happiness, and none can consistently control or interrupt him in the pursuit...the unalienable rights of nature are held sacred...the doctrine of liberty and equality is an article in the political creed of the United States...without liberty and equality [under the law], there cannot exist that tranquility of mind, which results from the assurance of this to every citizen, that his own personal safety and rights are secure...it is the end and design of all free and lawful Governments.
  • The right to freedom being the gift of Almighty God, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift...
  • ...it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential rights, or the means of preserving those rights.
  • All might be free if they valued freedom, and valued it as they should.
  • Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.
  • Our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.
  • The most glorious legacy we can bequeath to posterity is Liberty...the only true security is Liberty!
  • Our unalterable resolution would be to be free.
  • A general dissolution of the principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy...While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.
  • ...while a people retain a just sense of Liberty...the insolence of power will forever be despised...
  • No people will tamely surrender their liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffused and virtue is preserved. On the contrary, when people are universally ignorant, and debauched in their manners, they will sink under their own weight without the aid of foreign invaders.
  • Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.
  • There is a degree of watchfulness over all men possessed of power or influence upon which the liberties of mankind must depend. It is necessary to guard against the infirmities of the best as well as the wickedness of the worst of men. Such is the weakness of human nature that tyranny has oftener sprung from that than any other source. It is this that unravels the mystery of millions being enslaved by a few.
  • It is a tremendously important and never-ending problem for the self-governing American people to be not only adequately informed but ever alert and vigorously active in forestalling whenever possible, and combating wherever necessary, any and all threats to Individual Liberty and to its supporting system of constitutionally limited government.
  • If I have a wish...it is that these American States may never cease to be free and independent!
Perhaps the best summary of Samuel Adams' thought may be from a 1771 essay he wrote for the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym of "Candidus":
If the liberties of America are ever completely ruined, of which in my opinion there is now the utmost danger, it will in all probability be the consequence of a mistaken notion of prudence, which leads men to acquiesce in measures of the most destructive tendency for the sake of present ease. When designs are formed to raze the very foundation of a free government, those few who are to erect their grandeur and fortunes on the general ruin, will employ every art to soothe the devoted people into a sense of indolence, inattention, and security, which is forever the forerunner of slavery...They are alarmed at nothing so much as attempts to awaken the people to jealousy and watchfulness... The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending at all hazards; and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks...It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation...if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, of be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men...Let us contemplate our forefathers, and posterity, and resolve to maintain the rights bequeathed to us from the former for the sake of the latter...Let us remember that if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom. It is a very serious consideration that millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers of the event. The tragedy of American freedom, it is to be feared, is nearly complete. A tyranny seems to be at the very door. It is to little purpose, then, to go about coolly to rehearse the gradual steps that have been taken, the means that have been used, and the instruments employed to encompass the ruin of the public liberty. We know them and we detest them. But what will this avail, if we have not the courage and resolution to prevent the completion of their system?
That Boston Gazette essay makes clear the reason for Samuel Adams' most famous quote:
If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and like the hands that feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.
Samuel Adams wanted to "...renovate the age, by...instructing [men] in the art of self-government," so that Americans would be capable of "assuming that freedom of thought and dignity of self-direction which [God] bestowed..." In an era of sharply constricting limits on how much we are allowed to govern ourselves, we need to be reminded of his devotion to our liberty no less today than we needed them at our founding.

Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.