Sam Adams: A Life

SamAdamsALifeSuggested by Timothy Lane • This is a must-buy for anyone who loved McCullough’s John Adams or Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. Ira Stoll puts Sam Adams back where he belongs, front and center with the great founding fathers. But “Samuel Adams, A Life” is not merely a work of history, it is a powerful argument about the ideas that made America and still, to this day, shape the nation.
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10 Responses to Sam Adams: A Life

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The first review of this book at Amazon (at least as my cookies display the website…and as excerpted above) are good. I’ve downloaded a sample to my Kindle.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I’m just in the first chapter, but already I’ve learned that Sam’s grandmother was Cotton Mather’s sister. (Increase Mather had married the daughter of John Cotton, an early Puritan preacher and leader, which explains where his son got his name.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I just finished the Kindle sample portion. It sounds like a good book on another facet of American history. I’ll post some choice quotes when I’m back to my desktop…one is a real thrasher of libertarians.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          An anti-slavery man who based his politics on religious freedom (even if he interpreted it a little selfishly) and the right to property . . . Samuel Adams is a lot more than an inspiration for a brand of beer (though it is nice to see some people pay suitable homage to our founders).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This mission statement of the Independent Advertiser, which Samuel Adams founded in 1748, would make an appropriate mission statement for this place. It promised…

    “a most welcome reception to whatsoever may be adapted to state and defend the rights and liberties of mankind, to advance useful knowledge and the cause of virtue.”

    And I thought the following was an outstanding quote, clearly delineating the boundary between the statist/amoral Libertarian from the conservative or traditional American philosophy:

    Adams cautioned in this essay that there is a difference between talking about liberty and acting with respect for it. “It is not unfrequent,” he wrote, “to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it than their own liberty,—to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all those who are poorer or weaker than themselves.”

    In many of my conversations with Libertarians, they find a great statist villain in Abraham Lincoln. But see no such villain in those who oppressed the slaves. Liberty for one, but not for the other.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      It has been pointed out by many (I first came across the idea in an article by Bruce Catton a few decades ago) that both sides in the War of the Rebellion fought for liberty: the North for liberty in the abstract, the South for their personal liberty (especially their liberty to keep slaves). If you think about it, this is still a key difference between conservatives and liberals.

      Some more good points by Adams, in the early 1770s, were his notion that an unchecked governor would inevitably become a tyrant (this foreshadowed somewhat Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) and his observation (on page 96) that tyrants are unable to rule “where Virtue and Knowledge prevail” (which explains a great deal about liberal notions of culture and education), and thus that tyrants seek to poison the morals of the populace.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        the North for liberty in the abstract, the South for their personal liberty (especially their liberty to keep slaves).

        I’d rather thought it would be much the reverse. The Libertarians tend to think of liberty in the abstract, disconnected from reality. They don’t think through the implications. It’s simplistic. They believe their “Don’t restrain me” has the same derivation as “Don’t tread on me.”

        What is remarkable about Sam Adams (and I may purchase and read further into this book) is that he does not appear to be a one-note thinker. He was religious, but as the author of this book notes, not overly pious or otherworldly. He was a defender of material prosperity and private property as well. He had concerns that were both worldly and otherworldly.

        And he stressed the centrality of ethics. He was no libertarian kook running around thinking that the problems of the world were the result of the inherent limitations upon human liberty as imposed by government. Any normal person knows that such limitations are absolutely vital. It’s simply a matter of how much and for what purpose. Libertarians do not recognize limits to their appetites.

        For the libertarians, everything is reduced to supposedly free-will contracts between parties. And that sounds fine until you get to the reality beneath the simplistic thinking. What about contracts between two parties to buy and sell a slave? No libertarian that I have ever met has expressed anything but outrage over Lincoln and not a word against the horrendous institution of slavery as practiced in the Old South. The Southern states are simply (simple-mindedly) portrayed as victims.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Liberals think of freedom purely in terms of personal freedom. Think of smoking bans in restaurants. Liberals who don’t smoke love them, and don’t seem to consider them a restriction on freedom; conservatives who don’t smoke oppose them because they realize that they are in fact restricting the freedom of smokers. I think this is why so many liberals fail to see that Castroite Cuba and Chavezite Venezuela are hostile freedom. After all, what liberal would want to criticize either? So the fact that they wouldn’t be allowed to is irrelevant to them.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Moshe has a good comment regarding liberty at the bottom of McCarthy’s current article at NRO:

            President Abraham Lincoln, in his address at a fair in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 18, 1864, observed that “the world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.” The need for such an understanding is even more acute today than it was in the time of Lincoln.

            “We all declare for liberty,” continued Lincoln in relation to the North and South, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.” Whereas President Lincoln was referencing the deceptive language of the Confederacy in cloaking the sin of slavery in the vocabulary of freedom, today’s Democratic Party has turned the tables on Lincoln.

            Liberty pertains to respect for individual rights — irrespective of background, race, religion, or projected group identification. Shame on those in the mainstream media who call for short-circuiting the American system of justice in an effort to transform an individual (whether a “White Hispanic” in Florida or “White cop” in Missouri) into mere symbols without rights but evocative of grievance. To those who advocate that due process be circumvented in any one individual case to placate the rage of a “community,” I urge reflection on the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln and the power of language to corrupt rather than to illuminate.

            As the fourth year of the Civil War began, President Lincoln presciently observed: “Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.” These keen insights anticipated the fierce and sanguinary struggles of the 20th Century and their tragic resonances in our own time.

            One can perhaps see why libertarians do not like Lincoln, for he undresses them.

            For some (particularly libertarians), “Liberty” is s shrill narrow-spectrum word which means “No restraints upon me.” This is why they are so often rightly called libertines and why I so rightly refer to them as simplistic thinkers despite their deluded vision of themselves being guided by a superior “reason.”

            But true liberty, as the Founders understood it, was more like the complex harmonics produced by a piano key. In this Founders’ view of liberty there is self-restraint, duty (to a higher power or otherwise), the restraints necessary to produce a civil society worth living in, and liberty itself. It’s all in a harmonious and complex mix with various competing values held in creative tension.

            As for the smoking issue and the Left, there are facets of this that are little more than Liberal Fascism. Hitler and his ilk tended to be health nuts. They were the kinds of monsters of the Left who could love the idea of health while hating humanity and assigning them to the gas chamber (or to abortions). They should not be taken at face value. And as with the modern Left, we know that underneath the hatred of tobacco lies the hatred of all business in general. Tobacco just supplies an excuse for the Left to advance their cause.

            Another aspect of the smoking issue is very old-style in a sense. It’s not wrong that standards change. Being around cigarette smoke can be very annoying, just as it can be annoying to be surrounded by dope fiends or crack heads. There are standards that a civil society can and should enforce. And these standards will necessarily impinge on one’s liberty. The calculation we must make as a civil society is in gauging whether the trade-offs are worth it and whether the movement toward such changed standards is too Puritanical and Draconian. I, for one, have no problem letting this play itself out by choice, allowing some restaurants to ban smoking as they will, and others to allow it.

            But what about places such as the workplace where one is a captive to some respect? There a better case can be made for the intrusion of laws that no more allow second-hand smoke into the workplace then you would allow carbon monoxide. And not because second-hand smoke is dangerous (apparently it is nearly completely innocuous) but because to a non-smoker second-hand smoke is about as pleasant to be around as someone else’s fart. It’s not wrong for the assumption of non-fouled air (again, within sensible reason) to be the default.

            Standards change. Conservatism doesn’t mean things stay they way they are right now forever. But it does mean we (hopefully) take a measured and rational approach to such change. A conservative should never go off half-cocked as the Left does unless it is in opposition to half-cockedness (shades of the philosophy of Barry Goldwater regarding extremism in the defense of liberty, which I am sympathetic too).

            One of the reasons we are losing so many of our liberties is not because there are not enough Libertarians (who tend to be so foolish that they are useless in any extended cause) but because the hard-charging Left has not been opposed by rational, reasonable, and decent people. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and conservatives and others need to learn how to squeak more. But howling at the moon as Libertarians are wont to do is not a correction to the excesses of the Left. As Mr. Kung and others have well shown, Libertarians simply tend to be another type of liberal. Like the Left, they are good at tearing things down in the name of some grand word (Utopia! Liberty!), but not very good at constructing a sane, civil, and good society.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              There’s a reason some of us refer to the “Health Nazis”. Anyone who considers this just another violation of the Godwin rule is invited to read Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War Against Cancer. Their approach to tobacco was in fact very similar to the nanny state approach today.

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