Shared history

Sam Adams’ insights remain relevant today

By Pamela H. Sacks

Ira Stoll took advice from one of the country’s top biographers when he decided to tackle the subject of Samuel Adams.

Mr. Stoll, who grew up in Paxton, was at a party at the home of Peter Jennings, the late TV news anchor. The conversation turned to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin and David McCullough’s take on John Adams.

“The Adams I like is Sam,” Mr. Stoll told the people gathered around the dinner table. They laughed. “They thought I was talking about the beer,” he said.

Mr. Stoll explained that he was in fact referring to the 18th-century patriot, prompting Mr. Isaacson to suggest he write a biography.

Mr. Stoll accepted the challenge, and late last year his book, “Samuel Adams: A Life,” was published by Free Press.

Mr. Stoll’s respect for Adams proved to be a strong motivator as he worked his way through several years of research. Adams was a fiery newspaper editor who used the Committee of Correspondence network to disseminate revolutionary news throughout the colonies.

After the Boston Massacre, Adams helped plan and instigate the Boston Tea Party. He and John Hancock were the colonists the British most feared and reviled. In 1775, when the British offered an amnesty to revolutionaries who would lay down their arms, Adams and Hancock were excluded. If caught, they would have been headed to the gallows.

Adams, who was among the first patriots to call for independence from Great Britain, was a deeply religious Christian who believed that God was on America’s side so long as its citizens maintained civic virtue.

Later, he assisted his cousin, John Adams, in writing the Massachusetts Constitution, which was used as a model for the U.S. Constitution.

“I felt Sam Adams was an undervalued Founding Father,” Mr. Stoll said.

Mr. Stoll, 36, has a longstanding interest in the past. After graduating from Worcester Academy, he attended Harvard College, where he majored in history. He also served as president of the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. He went on to pursue a career in journalism, initially as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

In 2002, Mr. Stoll became one of the founders of The New York Sun, a conservative daily. The Sun closed last September, a victim of the struggling newspaper industry and the country’s economic woes. Editorials in other New York City newspapers extolled its high quality and lamented its end.

For six years, Mr. Stoll had juggled his historical project with his job as the managing editor of the Sun. During that time, he and his wife, Aliza, became the parents of twin girls, Hannah and Naomi.

“I really had my hands full,” Mr. Stoll said.

Mr. Stoll came away from his first biography with a good deal of admiration for its subject. As the economy tanked in December, he wrote an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe in which he pointed out that Adams was often dirt poor, yet had no envy of the wealthy. He wrote that Adams “measured his success in other ways.”

“Samuel Adams had an insight that seems especially worth recalling at this moment: There are things like freedom and equality and family and faith and country that are more important than money,” Mr. Stoll concluded.