What did Sam know that we do not know?
Sam knew that when your opponent does wrong this is not the time to despair, it is the time to use their wrong by exposing it and rallying the People against them. Sam knew that it was always best to provoke your opponent into doing wrong by forcing them in the open than to despair of ever being able to effect their decisions.
When the Sugar Act was initially announced in Boston, placing a tax on many items including sugar, most of the colonists were not concerned, the taxes were not that great, the cost was buried in the price of the items, and the total price was still reasonable.
Samuel Adams saw in this tax the seeds of something much more sinister. Adams saw in this the seeds of endless taxation and of endless violations of the original charter from 1690 which granted autonomy for the Massachusetts Colony, which in one form or another all 13 colonies had enjoyed, and he was appalled at the apathy of the People.
In April of 1764 the Sugar Act was passed and what could a man like Sam do? Sam had nothing to recommend himself as a political player: he was a failed businessman, he was a tax collector who was in arrears because he was loath to force people to pay their taxes, he knew nobody in the Court, in the House of Commons, or in the House of Lords over in London, he was merely a committee member for various committees assigned by the Town Meeting (all Freeholders attended, there was no city council or mayor) and of some political clubs called Caucuses.
He was, essentially, a nobody, and while he was fairly well known in Boston, he had little political power in his Colony, he had no connections to London, and the people in his own town were apathetic to the extreme: they just did not care very much.
Have you ever seen an act by government that alarms you or have you ever felt alarmed at a certain candidate’s election to office but had a hard time rallying people to your cause?
Sam knew how to rouse the people and, by the way, at the end of our story you will see that Sam was able to force the British to back down on the Sugar Act but beyond this, Sam was able to single handedly spark the fires of independence in America. As early as 1743, when he wrote a college thesis asking whether it was prudent to resist the authorities when it seemed that this was the only way to preserve the commonwealth (he had concluded that it WAS prudent) he understood that “independency” was the right path, although nobody else seems to have agred with him.
Rather than weigh his odds and focus on what he lacked, he chose to focus on what he had. In the movie “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” Queen Elizabeth is shown saying that while she understand what is possible, the impossible is much more interesting and Will and Ariel Durant once wrote, and I am paraphrasing, that the occurrence of unlikely and impossible things was one of the “humors of history.” On that score, Sam was an interesting humor of history and he has shown us how to make the impossible possible by starting with what you have.
What did Sam have?
Sam had the power to compel elected officials to act as delegates of the People- he had a People Powered local government!
Adams knew that he could control his own elected members of the House, who as delegates received instructions from the Town Meeting that had elected them, he knew that he could control what instructions they received, he knew he had the means of getting his information out through newspapers he was friendly with and he knew he could speak directly to the People at the next Town Meeting.
His basic strategy was to put his opponents in the wrong and keep them there.
How did he do this?
He exposed the reasoning behind their acts, the logical possibilities that their acts envisioned (if they could tax sugar without your consent, could they not also your land, your personal income, etc.), and he took measures to force his opponents out into the open, for instance sending petitions he knew would be ignored or would be refused, going to court, knowing he would lose but forcing the court to show whose side it was on, and using peaceful acts of civil disobedience to force his opponents to behave badly.
Sam knew that you had to identify your opponent, identify the logic and possible intentions behind their acts, identify the possible logical conclusions or results of their acts, expose their wrongness and keep them in the wrong, and use whatever resources you had to reach an audience and rally them around your cause against the opposition.
In the case of the Sugar Act, Sam identified the weak spot in the enemy’s armor. He could not go and lobby London for repeal of the Sugar Act but he knew how to create an army of lobbyists for his cause by hitting them where it hurts. You see, the London Merchants were America’s source of manufactured goods because American colonies were not allowed to manufacture their own goods. Sam decided that he would instigate a Boycott of all impost from England: Americans would be asked, in Boston first, to make do without these goods, to make what they needed or repair what they had, and to especially refrain from buying luxury goods and non-necessities.
How did he rally his people?
What Sam needed was to unify the 13 colonies behind this boycott (the word did not exist and Sam was the FIRST person in human history to use such a strategy on a systematic basis for political ends) but even this would be difficult, it had NEVER been done before.
Sam started with what he had and he built on that, he did not wait until things were more favorable or focus on what he lacked.
At the Town Meeting, Sam used his oratory skills, which he had learned listening to great preachers like John Edwards and many others who passed through his church, and like a fire and brimstone preacher he laid out his argument. He argued that their freedom rested on the autonomy of their colony, he argued that self taxing and self governing were the vital ingredients of that freedom, and that if an outside power could lay direct taxes on the people, without them having any say, then what else other than sugar could be taxed? Sure, these taxes were not that heavy and hard to bear, and indeed if the Massachusetts Assembly had passed such taxes this would not be an issue.
The issue was not the cost of the tax but the ideas behind it: the idea that the original Charter was now to be ignored in this area, the idea that Parliament had unlimited power over the colony, and the idea that the wishes of the People were irrelevant. If the tax on Sugar was not resisted then, in short order, the whole colony would be reduced to a miserable state.
He also spoke to the English themselves. One of the ideas behind the taxes was that during the late 7 Year’s War the English had accrued a national debt of 140 Pounds Sterling and they wished to recoup part of this cost from the Colonies, arguing that the colonies must bear part of the cost of their own defense. Of course the colonies had born the cost in manpower and money, in the millions, and the fact was that the war itself was an English war against a European power and would not have been fought in America at all if America was not part of Britain.
Sam told the English merchants that the true value of the colonies was not taxes they might pay, which would never be that much of a benefit to the English treasury, but the amount of trade: the colonies purchased hundreds of millions of pounds sterling in English goods every year. Why would the English jeopardize this trade with such taxes?
Sam was the first person, presaging Adams Smith by 12 years, to posit the idea that higher taxes would actually decrease revenue and cause a decrease in trade, something that the economists and political leaders of the day were completely ignorant of.
Now Sam turned his quill to the people of his city, and to the colonies, in addressing them.
Could the people go to the Admiralty Courts, the highest courts in the land, and appeal to them? Sure, they could do this, but these Courts were themselves a violation of the rights of self government because they did not answer in any way to the People and were completely beholden to the Crown.
No, the People would have to take other measures.
The People would have participate in a non-importation agreement and forego all English goods until the Stamp Act was passed and until Parliament disavowed its claim to be have the authority to tax the colonies directly.
Sam invoked a principle that was embodies in the Magna Charta but that was ignored and not much mentioned in his day, that there could be no taxation without representation and that it was impossible for the colonies to be represented in Parliament by reason of the distance (how could they instruct their delegates, as was their custom in their own colonial assemblies, from such a distance?) The idea of virtual representation was also refuted: the English believed that their Parliament represented all Englishmen in a “virtual” way even though not all could participate in election.
Sam exposed these ideas as nonsense, he invoked the principle of no taxation without representation, he exposed the logic behind the Act, that Parliament could tax the colonies at will, and he exposed the possible intentions or results of the Act, that if a small tax on a few items could be levied then taxes on things the colonists deemed un-taxable, their lands, their homes, the tools of their trade, and their personal income, would soon follow.
Sam used his voice in rallying his own Town Meeting, he used what outlets to the people he had, the newspapers, and he was able to get the Town Meeting to approve instructions to their delegates to urge the passage of a resolution by the House that would call for all 13 colonies to adopt a common, united plan to resist these unjust taxes in a lawful and peaceful manner, namely his non-importation agreement.
There were many machinations and tricks by the other side, for instance governors adjourning legislators to prevent them from passing any resolutions in agreement with this call for a non-importation agreement. he instructions he had given to the delegates from Boston, which were passed, went out to the colonies and one man, Patrick Henry from Virginia, was thereby inspired to join the cause of the rights of the Colonists.
Words well spoken and well written inspire people when they are actually placed in front of them.
Sam knew that you had to use what you had, you had to build on that to control whatever you could control by your words, you had to put your opponent in the wrong and keep them by exposing the ideas behind their acts and the possible results of those acts, by overcoming your own weakness, and that you could overcome apathy by making an appeal based on real needs, fears, and concerns and by presenting the best possible approach to defeating the opponent, namely finding the weak link in their chain and going after it.
In the case of the Sugar Act, Sam had the ability to control his own delegates, he had the power to get his message into the public through newspapers and speaking, he could build on that by winning the day in the colonial legislator, he exposed the fact that these Acts violated the principle of no taxation without representation and the idea that Parliament now thought it could tax anything, he exposed the potential for the Parliament to tax everything, he identified the disunity of the colonies as their weakness and proposed a a unified plan of action, the non-importation agreement, and he identified the English merchants as the weak link and therefore a non-importation agreement as a unified act of peaceful protest as the best form of resistance.
He did not stop there. He started the boycott, again the word was not in use at the time (it was invented in 1880 in Ireland when tenants boycotted an “Estate Agent” named Charles Boycott), in Boston first, even as he was working to get the colonies to participate in the boycott, which they began to do all over New England. He was active in going to all the political clubs and merchant’s clubs and urging them to each endorse his plan and help to enforce it. These clubs would provide people who would go to all the stores in Boston and look for any goods that had been imported, these people would observe ships brining goods and spy on where they were going, and the newspapers they controlled would actually print the NAMES of those merchants who were violating the agreement urging readers to not patronize those merchants.
A boycott does not work if it cannot be supported. Sam knew that he had to show the rest of the colonies that this non-importation agreement could be maintained and enforced. True, a boycott by the people of Boston may have little effect on the British by itself, but a boycott that was enforceable there could be used as proof of concept.
The Sugar Act was followed by the Stamp Act, which required stamps to be used for printing and various kinds of business or to be stamped onto goods for the sake of getting more revenue from the taxes. Initially, it seemed that Sam was failing, while he was getting support all over the colonies, the process was being hindered by the governors who were suspending legislators in order to prevent them from moving on the call for a congress. Clearly, the enemy then, as now, was seeking to divide and conquer.
The congress did eventually convene as The Stamp Act Congress and both the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act were repealed, although Parliament still claimed the RIGHT to tax the colonies and still clung to their idea of virtual representation.
During the next 10 years, from 1765 to 1775, Sam was to go through many ups and downs, many successes and failures, and often he found himself as a lone voice. When in 1772 he was trying to launch his idea of the Committees of Correspondence, which is the root idea behind our own “Information Committees”, he was again met with apathy.
To say that Samuel Adams dragged the country kicking and screaming into the path of Independence is a most accurate statement.
Sam knew what many did not know, he knew what all these new British policies were intending, that eventually the colonies would be reduced to total serfdom, but rather than complaining about the apathy, he sought to overcome it.
In the case of the Committees of Correspondence, which he saw as a way of getting around the Royal governors who constantly suspended legislatures whenever they opposed the King’s policy, Sam decided to make his opponent demonstrate the NEED that the people did not currently see, for some means by which the People could directly communicate with one another to plan united actions for peaceful resistance.
Sam went back to his Town Meeting and asked them to vote to approve a petition to the Governor to call the legislature into session. In the past, under the Charter of 1690, the Governor would receive the petition from a Town for calling the legislature in session and would generally agree to the petition or respond by offering a different time or, at least, he might request more information.
The Governor would not, back when the Charter was followed, before the new policies of the past 20 years, deny that Town Meetings had a right to ask for such a session, indeed part of the inherent power of Town Meetings was their ability to make such a petition.
Sam knew that the present governor would not be so amenable, that the petition he had seemingly innocently had the Town Meeting pass, would be treated with contempt. It would, in short, fail.
Why did Sam push for this petition knowing that it would be denied, knowing that it would thereby fail?
Same knew that if you want to keep your opponent in the wrong, you had to force them to do wrong publicly. If your opponent had a certain belief, force them to act in a public ways that will make it clear to all what their beliefs are.
The Governor did respond by denying the petition and saying that Town Meetings had no authority at all to make such a request but only the Governor and the King.
Sam knew this was the only possible response and when he had it published far and wide he explained, ever so patiently, even gleefully, that the Governor had just demonstrated what Samuel Adams had long said was true but that too few had understood, that the British and their appointed officials in America were hell bent on eliminating all forms of representative government and reducing the colonists to mere “subjects” who would be powerless before the might of the British Empire.
It was time for the People to create new agencies for communication and united action, it was time to institute a means by which local people could list grievances, compare notes with other communities, and communicate between communities to devise united plans of resistance.
The Town Meeting, aroused by the Governor’s letter, passed the proposal and a 21 member Committee of Correspondence was created. This Committee sent letters to other towns in the Colony and asked them to set up their own Committees to communicate regularly with Boston and other towns. These committees soon spread all over the 13 colonies, sharing information, comparing notes, sharing strategies, maintaining a line of communication that was independent of the Royal authorities, and devising unified actions at the regional level, on the level of the Colony, amongst groups of Colonies, and throughout the whole united 13 colonies.
Sam knew that when the people do not see the need for independent organizations that can serve as an alternative to organizations controlled by the opposition you have to force the opposition to demonstrate how those existing organizations cannot be trusted or used.
Sam was the original blogger, he and a group of friends formed what we would call an information committee and started a newspaper, the Public Advertiser, which was the first, in 1748, to publicly talk about the need to resist the Royal authorities while calling on united actions by all 13 colonies.
Sam knew that time was on his side: his opponents would act in ways that would prove the validity of his suspicions, while most Americans were appeasers, wanting just to get along, they had limits to their tolerance and they would stand up and fight when it became clear that the other side was never going to be satisfied with anything other than abject surrender, and he knew that he could get the truth out, that he could start with just a few people, and eventually, even if it took time, the people were with him in spirit and would eventually follow his warnings and his advice.ADVERTISEMENT
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