Pulitzer Winner Stacy Schiff on Samuel Adams & American Independence

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This week on The Learning Curve, for our special July Fourth edition, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff explores the American revolutionary Samuel Adams. She discusses Adams’ background, religion, and formative intellectual development, including the influences that Greco-Roman history, the Bible, and Enlightenment thinkers had upon his life and political thought. Schiff discusses Adams’ rise to prominence in the 1760s and ‘70s, how he and fellow American revolutionaries viewed the British Crown’s policies, and how they transformed their conception of themselves and their country from subjects of Great Britain to independent citizens of an American republic. Schiff touches on Adams’ ideas about American independence, republicanism, and slavery, and what K-12 schoolchildren today should remember about a man who was a paragon of austere republican self-government based on principled civic virtue. Ms. Schiff closes the interview with a reading from her book, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams.

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the author most recently of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, which is a New York Times bestseller, and listed among the Best Books of 2022 by The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, “Barack Obama’s Favorite Books,” Oprah Daily, Los Angeles Times, TIME, and USA Today. Her award-winning and bestselling books include The Witches: Salem, 1692 and Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.

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The Learning Curve, Stacy Schiff, July 4, 2023

Jonathan: Hello, and welcome to The Learning Curve. I’m Jonathan Greenberg, the Director of Research and Strategy at the Jack Miller Family Foundation, guest hosting this week for Independence Day. Happy Birthday America, and Happy Independence Day to all of you. This week we’ll welcome Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the author of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams. Enjoy our conversation with Stacy Schiff.

[00:00:24] Jonathan: We’re pleased to welcome this week Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner. She’s the author most recently of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, which is a New York Times bestseller, as well as listed among the best books of 2022 by the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Barack Obama’s favorite books, Oprah Daily, the L.A. Times, Time, USA Today, and others. Her previous numerous award-winning and bestselling books include The Witches: Salem 1692 and Cleopatra: A Life. She’s the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. She’s written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the L.A. Times among many other publications. We are so glad to have you with us. Stacy Schiff, thank you for joining us.

[00:01:18] Stacy: I’m delighted to join you.

[00:01:20] Jonathan: Let’s start with this. You are the definitive biographer of Samuel Adams, the prime mover behind the American Revolution as we celebrate Independence Day. Could you talk about how you became interested in working on this Adams? And would you set the stage for us about what late eighteenth-century Colonial Boston was like on the eve of the American Revolution?

[00:01:41] Stacy: It was 2016 when I started to work on the book. And I think like many of us, I was wondering, we were thinking, we were talking a lot and I thinking a lot about the fundamentals of democracy and about what we actually meant when we said a republic or a patriot. And I think we’re all asking you where had the country come from, as we often are asking. But I think that was a particularly acute moment to be posing those questions. So, I went back to my Ben Franklin book and, there in the Franklin book was Samuel Adams, whom I had sort of not really noticed creeping into the pages. And I’m from Adams, Massachusetts, so you’d think I might have noticed.

[00:02:14] Stacy: And I started reading about him and I started, I sort of dove into his papers, and I was thunderstruck by how much all of his contemporaries agree that he was the father of the revolution, the prime mover, the apostle of liberty, as Jefferson says, the earliest, the most active, the most persevering of the Patriots. Ss a historian friend of mine put it, his name shouldn’t be on a beer, it should be on the revolution. And so, he’s that instrumental in the mind of his contemporaries, but it seems to have been thoroughly lost to us. So, the question I started asking was, how was that possible, and what did the other Founders know that we don’t know? Especially because their descriptions of him were so very different from, I think, the firebrand who has come down to us. And as for what Boston looked like in those days, it was pretty much the most restive town in the Colonies, thanks largely to Samuel Adams and his friends. It’s the colony from which, as one crown officer put it, all the smoke and flame and lava were to erupt. It’s in a state of semi-economic decline. It’s a colony too, with the most vigorous press, with five or six newspapers throughout these years, and a very high literacy rate, and that accounts for a great deal, as well. And it’s a colony with an especially independent government, which means that Adams and his friends can really get a grip on the levers of power. And it’s also — and this is no small piece of it, obviously — New England is — because it has this deep Puritan faith — is a region in which ideas of republicanism readily take hold.

[00:03:40] Stacy: So, really, the questions that begin to circulate are questions about American rights and privileges. You know, who is, who is in charge of us, who is in charge of our destiny? Are we in charge of our own destiny? And I think the last thing I would say on that issue is — and this is something we talk about relatively little — there’s a real discomfort, especially among the Adams men, in fact, among John and Samuel Adams, with income inequality, with this feeling that a very few rich families had their hands on every lever of power in Boston. And that explains in part why the Stamp Act protests, which take place throughout the Colonies, were most virulent in Boston, where the home of the lieutenant governor, for example, Thomas Hutchinson, is utterly pillaged.

[00:04:17] Jonathan: Fascinating. Thank you. I’m a big fan of Samuel Adams’ second cousin, John. But the truth is that when people think of the Revolutionary and Founding generations, they usually think about Virginians, Washington, and Jefferson. Maybe share with us some of Samuel Adams family background, religion, some of his formative intellectual development, including the influences of Greco-Roman history, Bible, Enlightenment thinkers. What impact did those have on his understanding of liberty?

[00:04:45] Stacy: One thing that his enemies — which is to say the crown officials in, Boston and New England in general — get wrong about Samuel Adams, is he’s a very poor man, and they think of him as a kind of bankrupt desperado who has nothing to lose, who of course wants to upset the government because, he has no property to salvage. But what they don’t understand, or they don’t seem to take into account, is that he grows up in a very wealthy household. He grows up in a beautiful estate overlooking the harbor with a very prosperous family. He’s very well educated. He goes to Harvard. He gets a master’s degree from Harvard. He’s a poor man who was not ever a poor boy. And that’s a very different creature from a poor man who had been born a poor man. And it means that, politically speaking, he’s very agile because he is able, as I think no other founder was able to do, he’s able to communicate with very different constituencies in Boston. He’s able to talk to the dock workers and he’s able to talk to the Massachusetts ministers with equal facility. He knows the bricklayers. He spends a few years as a tax collector. He knows the people in the streets of Boston. But he is very tight also with this sort of minor elite, and that means that he can build alliances in a way that no one else is in a position to do.

[00:05:58] Stacy: So that’s a real political gift. He goes to Harvard at 14, which was not unusual in those days. He’s not the youngest member of his class, in fact. In those years your rank at Harvard was something that everyone knew about you and that really mattered. And it says something of Adams’ background that he was sixth in his class. I think John Adams, who’s his second cousin, was 14th in his class. John was from a less distinguished family. At Harvard Adams is the class of 1740. He studied Euclidean syllogisms. He read his Homer. He was forced to take Hebrew, which was a class apparently all the undergraduates hated. But mostly he’s on very good terms very early on with the ideas of John Locke, and he seems to have just gulped down Lockean ideals, which will surface and resurface in his writing, but it’s a very classical education. He knew his Cicero, he knew his Livy, he knew his Homer. The only thing, two things I think that don’t figure on that Harvard curriculum interestingly, are, are history and politics. And his heroes were really the heroes of antiquity whom he will cite. Very liberally in his writings later and whose names he will use in his many pseudonyms over the years because he’ll go on to write under at least 30 or 32 pseudonyms. And much of that time he’s writing under the names of luminaries from antiquity or heroes from Roman history.

[00:07:10] Stacy: And he harps in those works on ideas that come that really fall directly out of Locke. The idea that civil government counts as a great blessing, that men have left to their own devices would invade each other’s lives and property, and that government existed, really, to keep them in check. And that the form of government, the ideal form of government was one in which prerogatives of power and the rights of individuals stood in perfect equilibrium and in Adam’s account, basically, that was the description in his mind of British government as it then existed, of English government as it then existed, and anyone who resisted a monarch under those conditions committed treason. But by the same logic, people owed allegiance to a ruler, they owed no allegiance to a ruler, if he trampled their rights. That was actually the question he addressed in his master’s thesis at Harvard was, do people owe their allegiance to a monarch if the republic is at risk? And it’s interesting, it becomes, obviously the question of his lifetime.

[00:08:08] Jonathan: So, as a recovering Jewish seminarian, I’m disappointed to hear that the Harvard men of the mid-eighteenth century didn’t like Hebrew. That’s a shame.

Stacy: They’re all very clear on that subject, yeah!

Jonathan: You mentioned in your first couple of answers about Adams’ relative lack of financial success until midlife. So, I was wondering if you would talk about James Otis’s famous writ of assistance speech in 1761, how the events in the 1760s and early 1770s, including the Boston Massacre, the Committees of Correspondence, the Boston Tea Party, how did those animate Adams’ life and career?

[00:08:39] Stacy: The writs of assistance were just essentially open-ended warrants that would’ve allowed crown officials to inspect a premises. They were issued because smuggling was a tremendously lucrative New England custom New England specialty, I guess I should say. There were any number of New England fortunes that were based on, you know, a great deal of smuggling. And James Otis, who is really Samuel Adams’ mentor, I guess one could say he’s the person to whom Adams looks during these early years for guidance, and who was a brilliant, brilliant logician and orator who later goes on to suffer some kind of mental illness, argues the case in court in an impassioned, in a very famous speech in 1761. He argues against the writs. He loses the case. He basically is arguing that they’re unconstitutional. But in the course of his argument, and it’s a doozy of an argument, he basically gives voice to a number of ideas that Adams would crystallize later, and that Adams would write about at great length later. Essentially, that Parliament had the right to regulate American trade, but it did not have the power to tax it, and that every man had a right. To his own life, liberty, and property. And this again, is Lockean logic without the intervention of the government, especially a government in which he wasn’t represented. And Adams would take that idea further. I mean, the two of them will part ways over the question of — Otis felt that if the Colonies were represented in London, that would be sufficient. Samuel Adams didn’t believe that would suffice because he didn’t see a way, practically speaking, for the colonies really to be adequately represented in London.

[00:10:13] Stacy: But really the question, and, and I can’t stress this enough, the question in those years wasn’t just the question of taxation. These are years in which Great Britain is really trying to codify a relationship that has been surprisingly vague, and much of the regulations over the next years — The Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, all the way through to the Tea Act — are often as much about clarifying the relationship between Colonies and mother country as they are about raising revenue. And for his part, Adams, like his associates, spend these years kind of chipping away at the question of parliamentary sovereignty.

[00:10:49] Stacy: And, and there he takes the question in a somewhat different direction from where Otis had left it. Parliament isn’t even mentioned in the Massachusetts Charter. And Adams really from the start seems eager to make clear that Parliament should not be shaping Massachusetts’ life. And he can be hilarious on this subject. At one point he writes the two governments are identical. So, doesn’t it make as much sense if we tax you as if you tax us? Or another point he says, the Colonists have as much power in Parliament as they do to choose the next emperor of China. So, you know, these people don’t represent us. How can they possibly be legislating for us?

[00:11:26] Stacy: All of that dissatisfaction over the legislation will express itself in unrest and that unrest, which is often street protests, it’s often harassment, it’s the sacking of Thomas Hutchinson’s house, it’s the hanging of effigies, it’s the terrorizing customs officials. All of that unrest will produce, will bring several regiments of troops to Boston in 1768 to calm the town. and that’s a very difficult decision. It’s very hard for the royal governor at that point to demand troops because he knows, if he demands them, he’ll be exaggerating the unrest and he’ll be in trouble with the local populace, but he’s very afraid of what’s going to happen next.

[00:12:03] Stacy: The soldiers arrive in 1768 and, and needless to say, the situation deteriorates quite rapidly in terms of the relationship between the civilians and, the troops in their midst. And from, those tensions will come the Boston Massacre, at which five Bostonians die. And Adams really that evening really comes down to us packaged by Samuel Adams. He puts together the narrative. He gives that evening. He names the Boston Massacre. He colludes to some degree with Paul Revere on the famous engraving that we all know of the massacre, which doesn’t, which in very few details corresponds to what actually happened that night.

[00:12:39] Stacy: Adams is instrumental in arranging for the representation of the officer of the soldiers of the trial. He visits Captain Preston, the presiding officer in jail. He arranges for the troops, pressures Thomas Hutchinson to get the troops out of Boston. Most of all, he founds this astonishing thing, which is the massacre oration, which was an annual, very solemn, very sentimental event that, and I should probably say this in the context of July 4th, was celebrated every year until 1783 when that holiday essentially was replaced by the 4th of July. But the oration was a major event in Boston, and the oration itself was published and distributed throughout the Colonies. And it was a kind of account of, a rethinking and a reassessing of the martyrdom of the Bostonians who died that day, always in very exaggerated, very hyperbolic, and very lachrymose terms.

[00:13:32] Stacy: And the Committees of Correspondence about which you asked, those are Adams’ really kind of ingenious attempt to bind the Colonies together in their grievances, to see that the Colonies have a shared vocabulary and to bind them together in common cause so that by the time the tea lands in Boston Harbor in 1773, the word goes out via those committees with extraordinary speed, and for the most part produces extraordinary unanimity in response. So, it’s as if Adams has wired the continent for rebellion, and that becomes particularly clear later when, in punishment for the destruction of the tea, Boston’s harbor is closed.

[00:14:13] Stacy: And as far as the Boston Tea Party, as we today call it, goes, Adams is very much there in the background. He’s at the meetings that precede the destruction of the tea, though he’s very conspicuously not on the wharf that evening. He stays behind as do John Hancock and Dr. Warren and some of their other close associates. But thousands of Bostonians are on the wharf that evening as the teeth lands in the harbor, he does hint that something like this is about to happen. In the letter to London, he says, I’m going to be writing you. He writes to a friend about a, a rather non-trifling matter soon, and he afterward we’ll call this destruction of, he will call it a noble defense of liberties as opposed to a lawless destruction of property.

[00:14:56] Stacy: And he said to be in his great glory by Thomas Hutchinson, who’s by then Royal Governor. So, he really does — we know from people who were deposed in London later — he really does run those meetings that lead up to the destruction of the tea. And that was something that people would seem only to admit in London, nobody who remained in Boston confessed to having seen a thing, but the people who were deposed later in London all point to Samuel Adams as sort of the chief conspirator behind those meetings.

[00:15:21] Jonathan: Thank you. As you noted in the Smithsonian in 2022, a friend reduced Samuel Adams’ politics to two maxims: Rulers should have little, the people much, and privilege should make way for genius and industry. Would you talk about Adam’s political philosophy and how he used his statecraft and writings to advance the American cause of independence and democratic ideals about talent and virtue?

[00:15:44] Stacy: This really goes back to that discomfort with income inequality and what Adam’s always wrote off as he called it, the odious hereditary distinction of families. Samuel Adams leaves us the account of the sort of initial encounter between the two cousins and it’s right around the time of the Sugar and Stamp acts and they bond very early on over this, shared aversion to Thomas Hutchinson, who then is who Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice, and holds a number of other offices and who will ultimately acquire this kind of bouquet of offices, some of them in the executive, some in the legislative, and some in the judicial branches, which Adams points out rightly is, this plural office holding was really a problem. It just left power in the hands of so few people. It’s important to notice that of the six people in the East India Company tea is entrusted to, two are Thomas Hutchinson’s sons, and two are his relatives, and two are his close friends.

[00:16:38] Stacy: So, there’s really a very tight hold here on power by this oligarchy which Adam spends so much time conveying against and the flip side of that is the emphasis that he puts on the men in the street, on how important it is for every individual to have a voice in his government. And I guess the best illustration of that is that shortly after Adams is elected to the Massachusetts House, he and friends arrange for a gallery to be built in the Massachusetts House so that the people can essentially watch and hear their futures being decided by their elected representatives. As he says, this is the representatives who are able to look up to the people who elected them. And of course, this leaves Crown officers just wringing their hands, because they feel that he’s turned a State House into a sort of theater. And it doesn’t help that he sort of issues private invitations to his friends to sit in the gallery, but there really is that sense of making government more transparent and making people feel that they actually participate in their own government and are not being legislated for by a distant power or by a small circle of elite representatives.

[00:17:43] Stacy: And that question of the elite is something that he and John Adams will kind of come to blows about later in life. There’s a really interesting correspondence after the revolution when John tries to convince Samuel that there really is a hierarchy among men and that, you know, elitism is sort of essential to proper government and Samuel Adams, who so much less hierarchical, writes him back and says, I only admit to one kind of nobility. And that can be found among people of all ranks in all conditions, the well born was the man or woman who perfected his or her mind, he issues ode after ode to education, to basically universal free education.

[00:18:25] Stacy: Because to his mind that is more essential to a republic even than our laws. This is something that is as a constant in his writing, this insistence that there are two pillars to democracy. One is essentially having a moral backbone and the other is having a fine education. And he’s very forward thinking in that he even extends that educational franchise to women.

[00:18:47] Jonathan: The British historian Andrew Roberts recently authored a new biography of George III, and he makes the argument that the King’s reputation as a bungling tyrant was unjustly shaped by rabble-rousing American propagandists like our protagonist. Could you discuss how Adams and the Revolutionary generation viewed the various acts and policies of the Crown, its ministers and royal governors? Anybody who’s read the Declaration of Independence knows there’s that catalog of grievances. How do they view those various acts?

[00:19:17] Stacy: Yeah. There’s such, I mean, that it is such a sort of list of, deep crimes, isn’t it? And so many of those crimes in the Declaration, by the way, harked back to things that Adams will have been essentially yelping about for a decade or at least a decade earlier. So, they view the crown with, with great, not the crown Parliament, with great suspicion. And always in the sense that there is a sort of plot against America, which is really interesting because we’re still talking about plots against America. And this is, in a way, the original plot against America. But there was something else there I think, too, that really stuck in the craw and that you see a, a lot, not just in the works of Adams, but in the writings of pretty much everyone else at the time, which is a real sense that the Colonies realize the condescension with which they’re viewed in London. They’re very aware of the fact that they are thought of as second-class citizens. As they often say that we’re second-class citizens like the Scots or the Irish. It very much bothers them. They realize that they’re being treated as if they are children or primitives, that they’re often this world that no one in London can even really locate on the map. And they’re right about that. When the chancellor of Exchequer, George Granville, goes to formulate the Sugar Act, he can’t find anyone who can write it because no one in London seems to understand Colonial laws efficiently to be able to do it. And there are just masses of unopened dispatches that have come in from the Colonies that no one has bothered to look at because no one really cared for the longest time. And there’s immense confusion even about the geography of the colonies where, you know, it was Boston and the East Indies, or was Boston located in the West Indies.

[00:20:50] Stacy: So, the whole relationship was muddled even to the men who administered it. And there’s a real, I mean, understandably, there’s a real sensitivity to that I think on the part of the Colonists. They’ve now come into their own, they’re beginning to feel that they are mature in some way, and yet they’re still being treated as children by the crown. And that makes for a very, for anyone who’s raised adolescents, it makes for a very familiar dynamic because the colonies will begin to seem disobedient. And the disobedience just makes London clamp down on them even more, which then of course makes them more disobedient. So that, for example, there was great dissatisfaction in London that, after the Stamp Act had been repealed — it’s law for five months, it’s never enforced, it’s repealed — there should have been great gratitude for this act of benevolence and there isn’t any. And there’s the sticks in the craw in London. And that goes for the Townsend Act, which is essentially another act to do virtually the same thing.

[00:21:46] Stacy: And so, the question that Adams kept asking was if we agree to this piece of legislation, if we agree to this demand on, on the part of the crown, what will they hit us with next? And the question that London kept asking, or at least that King George asked, is if we agree to do what they want this time, if we agree to repeal this, what will they demand next? So, you see, it’s like a very, it’s a very familiar sort of parent child dynamic there, with both sides feeling bruised along the way.

[00:22:13] Jonathan: Samuel Adams and the other Founders were born, raised, and educated as Englishmen. And if you look at the notes that Jefferson took on the debates at the Continental Congress, they thought of themselves as Englishmen. Can you talk about how they dramatically transformed their conception of themselves and the country from of Great Britain to independent citizens of an American republic?

[00:22:34] Stacy: that’s really the miracle here. I mean, it’s, it’s almost a dizzying miracle because it happens so quickly and that’s what John Adams terms, the real revolution, the revolution in thinking that preceded the revolution in fighting. How did thousands of people go from spotlessly loyal to the crown to what the British saw as stark raving mad in the course of a dozen years? And some of that redefinition, some of that obviously precedes these attempts at regulation and the Colonies really had come into their own and people had begun to think of themselves, to call themselves Americans even.

[00:23:10] Stacy: But obviously there’s still one country and to a great extent, it’s Samuel Adams who begins to transform the vocabulary and then not just the vocabulary, but ultimately the grammar. And he does that subtly and sometimes less subtly. He urges words like inalienable rights and unconstitutional into mass circulation. He writes at great length in every possible context about liberty, reminding people what their rights and privileges are in a way that they had not thought about, to the point where at one point a solicitor general in, in London yelps at the fact that Adams had introduced Americans to a thousand grievances they had never felt and a thousand rights that they had never considered before. At one point, Adams slips a very sort of cheeky two countries into a petition when of course it we were still one country at that moment. And he changes the definition of a patriot from a person who was loyal to the empire to a person who was loyal to Colonial rights, and he praises, he does all these things, he praises to the skies in a whole series of newspaper pieces, the women who are weaving their own cloth and, making skeins of yarn, rather than buying British goods, he logs these women as the saviors of American liberty.

[00:24:24] Stacy: He says they’re doing more for the country than other husbands, even, in their devotion to American, to the American economy. he will hijack whole meetings at institutions essentially replacing Massachusetts assembly with extra-legal assemblies and all of that at this kind of dizzying speed. All of that really between the, the passage of the Sugar and Stamp acts in 1776. So obviously not entirely on his own, but in a way that very much accelerates all of those machinations and accelerates all that thinking. I mean, really, he’s able to reach, through his newspaper work, through his committees of correspondence, through his persistence well beyond Boston and ultimately well beyond New England as well.

[00:25:07] Jonathan: No discussion of the Founding generation is complete without understanding the country’s original sin in the African slave trade in chattel slavery. New England was the home port to most of the American slave ships benefiting from trading in enslaved Africans. Would you talk about Samuel Adam’s views of slavery and how he dealt with New Englanders being such central players in the triangular trade, in human cargo?

[00:25:28] Stacy: Probably the best indication we have of Adams and slavery is what we know about his second marriage. His first wife dies but he marries years later for the second time. His first mother-in-law attempts to bestow upon the couple, as was not unusual at the time, a slave whom she sends to live in their house. And Adams will balk at the suggestion and say that he will accept the woman whose name was Surry, if first he can buy her freedom — and she can come into his home under no other circumstances. And in fact, she does come to live with him, which she does for something like 50 years.

[00:26:04] Stacy: He’s involved in the 1760s a little bit later than the marriage in an attempt to outlaw the slave trade in Massachusetts. Obviously, an attempt that comes to nothing. And we know too, that he will hesitate later to sign the Constitution because he believes that it’s imperfect in many ways. And one of the clauses that he feels is missing, he feels there should be a bill of rights of some kind, and one of the clauses on which he insists is a clause which outlaws the slave trade completely. It is because it is missing that he very much hesitates to sign that document.

[00:26:36] Jonathan: Finally, toward the end of his life, and due to ill health, Samuel Adams’ reputation slipped into obscurity. He seemed somewhat old-fashioned and out of step with the increasingly individualistic and commercially driven young republic. What should schoolchildren, especially K through 12 schoolchildren, remember most about Samuel Adams and his example of austere Republican self-government based on principled civic virtue?

[00:26:59] Stacy: It’s hard for me to think of any other kind of single individual who out of just sheer tenacity and just a really idealistic frame of mind made this much of a difference. I mean, a single — I think the lesson of the life in many ways is that one man, pure and committed, one man or woman, pure and committed, can make an essential difference. And part of that is that he is equipped with qualities that are somewhat quaint sounding, but I like to think still with us today, like integrity and tenacity and selflessness. I mean, he really is a selfless public servant, which is one of the reasons we remember him so little today, is that he does very little to promote himself. He’s really much more interested in the fate of America than he is in the reputation of Samuel Adams. And most of all, as I said, I think his conviction that democracy rests on two pillars, and that without virtue and without education, which should be open to everyone, we are lost. It was his belief that a moral people would elect moral leaders. And as he put it, if you have a villainous ruler imposed upon you it was a misfortune, but to elect him yourself was a disgrace. So, he really had a great deal of confidence in everyone essentially making an educated choice in his own government.

[00:28:15] Jonathan: Wonderful. Thank you. Would you close out our interview by reading a passage from book, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams?

[00:28:27] Stacy: I would be delighted to. So, these are the last paragraphs of the book, which is essentially it’s 1800, Thomas Jefferson has just won the presidential election and he’s writing to Adams: “At the end of the year after the ugliest of elections, Jefferson defeated John Adams to become the third president of the United States. For the first time in American history, one political party prepared to hand power to another. In his inaugural address, Jefferson aimed at reconciliation. It was time to banish intolerance and come together with one heart and one mind. America remained, he argued, the world’s best hope. Its government was the only one where every man at the call of the law would fly to the standard of the law and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Differences of opinion should not be construed as differences of principle. No one would have guessed that Samuel Adams, that old Machiavelli of chaos, stood behind those honeyed notes, but there he was. Though delivered to the people of the United States, Jefferson addressed his remarks directly to his venerable colleague. The new president had done his best, he confided, to channel him. Adams should read his address as a private letter. Is this exactly in the spirit of the patriarch of liberty, Samuel Adams, Jefferson had asked himself again and again, is it as he would express it, will he approve of it? He reached for the essence of Republicanism toward a pure expression of the founding ideals. He hoped he might also solicit the council of the man. He considered the earliest, most active, and most persevering of the revolution. Adams brushed off the compliments. Indeed, they had survived a mighty storm. It would be some time before prejudice receded, and men returned to their senses. He too looked forward to a restoration of harmony to the triumphs of truth and virtue. As for Jefferson’s request for guidance, he demure old men diluted themselves when they dredged up lessons from a past. They only dimly remembered he could volunteer no advice. Samuel Adams offered his blessing.

[00:30:28] Jonathan: Wonderful. Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Revolutionary, Samuel Adams, thank you so much for joining us.

[00:30:34] Stacy: Delighted to join you. Thanks so much.

[00:30:55] Jonathan: That was a great conversation. Thank you to Stacy Schiff and thanks to all of you for joining us here on The Learning Curve. Next week we’ll welcome David Steiner, the Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and the author of A Nation of Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America’s Schools. For all of us here, have a great Independence Day and thank you for joining us.