How Samuel Adams Fought for Independence—Anonymously
Stacy Schiff on the Journalistic Pseudonyms of an American Revolutionary
Enlisting an army of alter egos, Adams took the quarrel to paper. In the feather bed on Purchase Street, the world hushed all around, Betsy fell asleep to “the incessant motion of the pen in the next room.” She could just make out her husband in the glow of candlelight surrounding his desk. A friend who regularly passed the household after midnight looked to the light in the second-floor window. No matter the hour, he assured himself that “Samuel Adams was hard at work writing against the Tories.”
Adams scratched out paragraph after paragraph, losing track of time until he heard the watchman outside. In swift, unedited bursts, the pages flew from his pen. One is left with the impression of a sleepless man, flooding the zone. Words came easily to Adams, who could churn a small grievance into an unpardonable insult before others had arrived at the end of a sentence. He was most at ease on paper. Here he and his moment embraced.
It was a golden age for the printed word; with six Boston papers, New England dominated the news. Adams did not think in terms of pamphlets, looking instead to the Gazette, published every Monday. Instinctively he grasped what Tocqueville was to articulate several generations later and would remain true for many more: when you mean to rally a group of people to a common cause, your best friend is the newspaper, “the only way of being able to place the same thought at the same moment into a thousand minds.”
It helped that the Gazette was the most widely read paper in and out of Boston; at least eleven other publications reprinted its pieces. As committed to ordinary citizens understanding their rights as to delivering up hair-raising accounts from an occupied town, Adams had no rival as a contributor. Tireless, he employed an assortment of pseudonyms, most with distinct agendas.
As Candidus he launched ad hominem attacks on customs officials, newly returned to town. As Vindex he icily thanked them for having invited troops. A military force might elsewhere separate men from their senses, but it would “never awe a sensible American tamely to surrender his liberty.” Adams was Populus when defending freedom of the press; TZ when disputing taxation with a writer in another paper; Shippen when inveighing against British bad faith. It was just as likely, Shippen pointed out, that loyal subjects of the king “intended to bring on an insurrection” as it was that a military force “secretly intended to introduce a general massacre.”
Critics reported the continent to be on the eve of rebellion. Vindex challenged anyone to prove it. Boston had demonstrated only “unspotted loyalty to their sovereign.” In myriad ways and in any number of guises, Adams asked the same question: Are we—or is someone else—in charge of our destiny?
Through 1769 he adopted a new pseudonym at a regular rate of about one a month, molting, between February and May, from “EA” to “Urbanus” to “A Layman” to “A Bostonian” to “A Tory.” He was not above a bit of expert character assassination, conducted, for reasons lost to us, as “Alfred.” He was “EA” when—five months after the arrival of troops—he offered a little Blackstone-citing history lesson.
Not only did English subjects enjoy the right to petition their king for redress, they enjoyed the right to possess and employ arms for self-defense. What cynic had transformed a basic constitutional right into “a secret intention to oppose the landing of the King’s troops”? He was “A Bostonian” when defending the town against the unfounded claim that it was without government. As “A Tory,” he offered an acerbic note of congratulations to Bernard on his being named a baronet, an honor partly bestowed to bolster Bernard’s stature in America.
The news arrived a month after the town petitioned for his removal, an effort that proved unnecessary. Two days before Adams took his swipe at the newly minted Baronet of Nettleham, Bernard read the happy news: rerouted from Virginia, he was to return to London.
Pseudonyms were the style of the day, Boston’s version of a masked ball. They skewed classical. If you read only the essays in the papers you might reasonably conclude that ancient Romans peopled eighteenth-century New England. The pseudonyms conferred a seal of intellectual approval; it was difficult to argue with Cato, Cicero, and Sallust. Adams did not overthink his, resorting neither to the waggishness of Benjamin Franklin nor the faux-rustic cadences of John Adams. He left it to someone else to sign himself “Locke.” He never attempted a female disguise.
He rarely engaged in the petty tugs-of-war that left “Whole Truth” one-upping “Plain Truth.” At times he opted not to sign a piece at all. (The 1769 essay that inquired whether guards would soon turn up before church doors, to prevent mobbing when services let out, was anonymous.) He seemed most naturally to inhabit Vindex and Candidus, the two longest-lived alter egos, one a Roman governor who rebelled against Nero, the other a second-century Roman general.Pseudonyms were the style of the day, Boston’s version of a masked ball.
On at least one occasion, Vindex wrote about Samuel Adams in the third person. Adams recruited Candidus to warn that “It is dangerous to be silent.” In 1770 he would add “A Chatterer,” “Valerius Poplicolo,” “An American,” “A Son of Liberty,” and “Cotton Mather” to the repertoire. He was not above recycling, especially when it came to noting that a few well-placed men in America seemed intent on “having their own prophecies fulfilled, their misrepresentations successful, and their malevolence gratified.” Vindex and Shippen borrowed most liberally from the Journal of Occurrences. In the last weeks of 1768, Adams published at least eight pieces over three different signatures. There would be no fewer than thirty pseudonyms in all.
The impersonations allowed him to stretch the truth in various directions. Without fear of reprisal, he could audition ideas and venture out on limbs. He could provoke, contradict, and disavow. The masquerade suggested too that discontent was general. Adams spoke not only for the community but as one. He seemed single-handedly to populate the “union of writers” he had proposed after the Stamp Act.
He appeared on the same day under different names in different papers; in 1773 he quite literally ran the gamut from “A” to “Z.” The Massachusetts Spy might print a “Letter from the Country” by an author who—though “situated at a great distance”—was eager to register his solidarity with Boston. Its author, in town, was Samuel Adams. He joined an infectious optimism with vivid descriptions of the evils at hand, issuing regular reminders of virtue and anthems to liberty. There were dissonant chords and mini-fugues. A one-man multitude, he could be silken, glowering, stabbing, melodramatic.
Adams had plenty of company in the pages of the Gazette, which printed nearly as much political material as the Virginia Gazette and the New York Journal combined. It found an eager audience. To Hutchinson’s dismay, seven-eighths of Boston read nothing but that “infamous paper.” It set the temper of the town. Andrew Oliver cursed its influence; if a reader did not share the convictions of the odious publication before he picked it up, he was a convert afterward.
Adams spent his Sunday evenings setting type with the Gazette printers, an arduous labor conducted amid noxious fumes and below rafters tented with wet pages. Newspapering was far from a gentleman’s profession. It could take an eye-straining day and most of a night—and copious quantities of beer—to produce four sheets. Poorly printed and expensive though they were, the papers were read aloud and passed enthusiastically from hand to hand, by men and women. You might head out to your neighbor’s after dark to borrow his copy, or pick one up at the tavern.
How easily did Boston penetrate Adams’s army of identities? Some were open secrets. “Discerning readers,” Bernard informed London, “pretend to distinguish the different styles of several writers, and do it with great exactness.” The newspaper-collecting Harbottle Dorr kept an eye out for Adams, among his heroes. Hutchinson dispatched a clutch of essays to London, noting that they were “generally supposed” to be the work of Adams. John was far from alone in failing to recognize his camouflaged cousin; Hutchinson did not initially recognize Vindex. The pseudonyms tormented him. Were Adams and his friends only required to sign their pieces, their arguments would be blown to bits!
Adams routinely got credit for essays he did not write; plenty of other Bostonians railed against the insidious designs to deprive the colonies of “freedom and property and all that is worth living for on earth.” (That piece was signed “Fervidus.”) The prodigious output did not seem possible. A spring 1770 parody eviscerated each of the most vocal Whigs in turn. Adams merited a paragraph for his sins. Determinatus, idol of the vulgar, merited a second. Bernard felt he could identify Adams’s voice, singular for “bare-faced chicanery and falsity.” He got to know it better than he liked. With his closet of disguises, Adams seemed to lurk around every corner.
Along with the chicanery came a great deal of creativity. Adams meant not only to unseat Bernard. He repeatedly promised—inaccurately—that the king would replace a governor whom Massachusetts disliked. He meant to rouse a people to their rights; to fold as many as he could into the political process; to forge a common cause; to elevate stout virtue over superficial luxury. Across the board he deployed the command of detail he had failed to summon for bookkeeping and tax-collecting. As Hutchinson tartly observed: “Mr. Adams’s attention to the cause in which he was engaged would not suffer him to neglect even small circumstances which could be made subservient to it.”
He ambushed language itself, demoting some institutions and promoting others. He knew that to alter thinking one must alter meaning. He renamed the Town House the “State House.” The “province laws” became the “laws of the land,” the “debates of the Assembly” the “parliamentary debates.” He slipped a flippant “both countries” into one petition. Hutchinson found he had no choice but to adopt the neologisms or face fresh abuse. He would object when a 1773 set of House bills appeared in English rather than Latin, demanding they be resubmitted. What was so extraordinary, the House challenged Hutchinson, about plain English? Urging words like “inalienable” and “unconstitutional” into circulation, Adams turned others on their heads.
By the late 1760s, a “patriot” was an individual loyal not to the British Empire, but to American rights. And a new entity emerged, which Adams largely juggled into being and for which he regularly spoke. “The body of the people” included even those who had insufficient property to vote at a town meeting. It was an entity to which, complained Hutchinson, “anything with the appearance of a man is admitted without scrutiny.” You could call those assemblies whatever you like, he sniffed, but they more resembled a mob than a government. He dismissed them as general meetings of “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”
Excerpted from The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff. Copyright © 2022. Available from Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.