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Not that Samuel Adams! -- Chasing a Revolutionary Patriot across Boston (Part II)

As we learned in last week’s post, Samuel Adams bounced from job to job, but his engagement with radical politics was a constant in his life and his political inclinations likely influenced his steady resolve to preserve the flag. Adams always involved himself in local politics and was an outspoken fixture at town meetings. He supported Thomas Jefferson and the Whigs, and he was written about on one occasion as a great orator of Boston. He was a regular attendee at the anniversary celebrations of Thomas Paine’s birthday, where he made toasts decrying political and religious tyranny. Like Thomas Paine, he was an atheist. In his later years he became a radical abolitionist, allying himself with men like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Liberty Tree, Boston Common.  1983.0003.011.144

In the 1850s, newspapers recognized him as one of the last surviving “relics” of the Revolutionary period and reported that he had an incredible memory of those times. At the 75th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1851, he was one of three Revolutionary veterans riding in a carriage for the procession. By his own account, he witnessed the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British departure from the town, and Washington’s entrance into Boston. He claimed to have been one of the “Boston boys,” young men who acted as sentinels for the Sons of Liberty when they had their secret meetings, and that he even served as the confidential messenger of the patriot Samuel Adams. He stated that he served as a privateer during the Revolution. Thus far it is difficult to confirm these impressive stories.

Adams began displaying the flag for various public occasions in the 1850s, including the anniversary celebration of Thomas Paine’s birthday in 1851 and a meeting of the Free Soil Club in 1852. He evidently wished that the flag continue to be used to support radical politics. In his will, he left it to his granddaughter, and then intended it to pass to Abby Folsom, another abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. He called it the “Flag of Freedom of yore hoisted over Liberty Tree so called in Boston,” though one wishes that he might have mentioned how he came to own it. This question still remains to be answered.

The impression that emerges from the details of Adams’s life is that of a man who lived through an incredible period of American history: from the last years of British colonial rule to the years leading up to the Civil War. He preserved the Liberty Tree Flag as a living emblem of the radical politics he was caught up in as a young man, and of the reforms he still hoped to bring about. In this effort he had a strong sense of history, evinced by his remarks at Boston’s last town meeting before it became a city:

“ ‘Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.’ ”

By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern

Not that Samuel Adams! -- Chasing a Revolutionary Patriot across Boston (Part I)

The Bostonian Society has on display at the Old State House what at first appears to be a rather unassuming textile. Unfurled, however, it is an enormous flag (8’ by 13’) with nine red and white stripes, and it came into the collections with a remarkable story: that it hung from the great Liberty Tree in the early days of the Revolution, and even a few years before, when the Sons of Liberty began opposing British rule in Boston.

Liberty Tree Flag, 1893.0093

Before coming to the Old State House, the flag was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. When Bostonian John C. Fernald donated the flag to the Society in 1894, it was noted that the flag had first belonged to Mr. Samuel Adams, a Boston wire-worker, who died in 1855 at age 96. For decades very little was known about this Samuel Adams or how he came into possession of the flag; sources often only repeated his name and occupation.

The flag is currently being prepared for an exhibition about the Liberty Tree, so I have been researching Adams to learn more about him and the flag. Following a centuries-old paper trail, I have tried to connect the dots between the appearance of a flag on the Liberty Tree (documented in Boston newspapers in the 1760s and 1770s) and the death of Adams in 1855. Why did an obscure wire-worker hold fast to the flag for more than seven decades? What did it mean to him?

I found a man who, far from being an anonymous Bostonian, was a well-known local character and who led a very long and interesting life. Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.

Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).

The story of Samuel Adams and the Liberty Tree Flag will continue next week . . .

By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern