With our foamy little coffees, Stacy Schiff and I have set up at a small round metal table under the trees of Bryant Park, the great green oasis that shares a block of midtown Manhattan with the New York Public Library. It’s in that grand building at the other end of the block. Or so one assumes.
“We’re sitting on the stacks,” Schiff announces, with a smile and a nod toward the ground. She’s serious. Beneath the walkways and the grass and the squirrels—all the things that make a park—is most of what makes a library. “I’ve been down there twice,” she says. “Crazy. It’s this amazing warren of books. It’s just like miles and miles.” This is not only a genuine secret of New York, it’s one Schiff imparts with a particular kind of arch humor, a pleasure gathered from the information being shared. These are qualities familiar to readers of her best-selling, award-winning, really good biographies, the latest of which, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, she spent many months researching at the other end of the block.
It wasn’t easy. Samuel was the Adams who did not save his papers—partly because he cared so little whether he was remembered. In this he differed, Schiff notes, with his cousin John, who like many of the founders turns out to have been deeply preoccupied with what today would be called brand but was known at the time as posterity. “The John Hancocks of this world, the John Adamses of this world, they’re always the people who succeed because they seem to let everyone know they succeed,” she says.
The other reason Samuel Adams is so hard to capture is the reason to try: more than anyone, he led the effort to break the American colonies free of Britain. Much of that work was done in secret, and an effective conspirator takes pains to hide what he’s doing while he’s doing it. The Revolutionary includes a scene of Samuel Adams scissoring incriminating letters to scatter like confetti out a window, “sparing his associates if stopping the biographer’s heart.”
He is the hole in the center of the nation’s origin story. Every schoolchild remembers Paul Revere’s midnight ride. But who recalls whom he galloped to warn—the man the British were coming for? Not even Schiff, who (“so embarrassing”) grew up in Adams, Mass., a town named for him, began her project with much more than a glimpse of the fellow.
“If you read his contemporaries, everybody else says he was the most active, the earliest, the most persevering man of the Revolution—the Father of the Revolution,” she says. “And he’s … gone. So what did the founders know that we don’t? That’s just pretty much the question I was trying to answer.”
As a biographer, she is drawn to the underdocumented. Her 2000 Pulitzer Prize was for Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), all of whose letters were “lost.” In Cleopatra: A Life, Schiff revivified the most powerful ruler of her era by drawing from the likes of images on coins and a text written 100 years after her death. After her last book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, she found herself craving “someone noble, someone who I could admire, someone who stood up for what he believed in … someone who could fairly be said rerouted history. And that’s not that many people.”
But Samuel Adams filled the bill.
About the beer. The real Samuel Adams was not a brewer. He drove the family malt business into the ground and, Schiff writes, “was called many names in his life, but one thing he was never called was Sam.”
He was a downwardly mobile yet powerfully driven man, animated by idealism, liberty, and a Puritan sense of righteous justice. If we don’t always know what Samuel Adams did (the Boston Tea Party almost certainly belongs on his résumé, but was never put there), it was never hard to see what he thought. He published constantly, if pseudonymously, in the colonial Massachusetts newspapers that drove the Crown’s men batty. “The officials are often saying, How do you govern a colony with five newspapers?” Schiff says. “And it’s not unlike today, where everyone is tweeting, and everybody’s on social media. What does that do to government stability? There’s this question of how much does revolution, or at least an upsurge in thinking, coincide with an explosion of new media?”
The author raises her voice to be heard above the thudder of construction equipment installing the Bryant Park ice rink. “There are a lot of resonances,” she says, meaning between the 1770s and the 2020s: “The feeling that people have that their rights are not being attended to. The whole idea that the elite is deaf to everyone else.” She pauses. “It seems like it’s that same kind of crease in history, when some of us are thinking: When is the world going to go back to normal? But it’s already changed. You don’t realize that the evolution has already been done.”
Samuel Adams has something for every modern patriot. His passion for personal liberty chimes for conservatives. Liberals can hark to his calls for activism. But the man had no truck for insurrection. The revolt he led by, as Schiff puts it, taking “ambient ideas” and “wrestling them on the page” was against an overseas despot. When, in 1787, former soldiers attacked courthouses and other government properties in the newly minted United States, Adams urged hanging for the ringleaders of Shays’ Rebellion. His view, Schiff says, came down to legitimacy: “Once it is the government that you yourself have established, there’s a legitimate means of redress, and that is called elections.”
If he’d kept his letters, Schiff might have been able to put her finger on what she considers the central question. “What is the moment at which resistance melts for him into revolution?” she asks. Instead, she’s fashioned Adams’ story from the accounts of others, often his enemies. “You’re having to piece together, you know, who’s creating a loophole, who’s lunging through the loophole, and then there’s covering up the loophole after that,” she says. “So it is a book of skulduggery, in a way.”
But the hero is finally drawn into the light, having found a biographer who also writes in longhand, and can make fresh the history we all thought we knew already. At about the midpoint of the book, Schiff describes the relationship between the English King and the Massachusetts colony in the mid-1760s. “A dangerous dance, familiar to every adolescent, had begun: hints of refractory behavior produced assertions of authority, which produced refractory behavior.”
When I ask Schiff what counts as a good day, she lights up. “This is the best thing for me about writing ever, ever, ever,” she says. “You sit down and you have a thought you didn’t know you had. Suddenly there’s this explosion on the page. And you didn’t see it coming. And only as you’re writing your way past do you even realize it’s happening. And, like, you’re so excited that you can barely sit to write the next line.
“My thinking gets done as I’m writing, which is perhaps why I write longhand. But that’s something that you hope the reader is coming to the same way you’re coming to it, fresh and unexpectedly.”