Saturday, October 28, 2006

Book Review: "Samuel Adams, Father of the American Revolution"

We are in sore need of a good modern biography of Sam Adams. Unfortunately, Mark Puls' new Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution (2006, Palgrave Macmillan) comes nowhere close to filling the bill.

While Puls' thesis (that Sam Adams played a vital role in bringing about the Revolution from a philosophical and public relations standpoint) is fundamentally sound and deserves a great deal of attention, his book contains multiple serious flaws which fatally undermine its entire structure.

Let me begin with what I view as one of the more substantial problems: sources. Puls' footnotes lead back, nearly all the time, to books which can hardly be described as at the forefront of modern historical scholarship. George Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent was published in 1882, while William Jackman's History of the American Nation came along in 1911. Both are cited repeatedly, as are Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People (1931) and the immediate post-Revolutionary histories of Mercy Otis Warren and William Gordon. All these are interesting in their own rights, it's true, but not exactly current. Puls' main sources for Adams' life appear to be the 1904 four-volume edition of his writings edited by Harry Alonzo Cushing and two earlier biographies (those of William Wells, published in 1865 and James Hosmer, which first appeared in 1884). Not once is a mention made of the Samuel Adams Papers which are mainly held by the New York Public Library. If Mr. Puls did any actual archival research at all, he certainly didn't make that fact particularly evident.

Of the 100 sources included in Puls' bibliography, exactly half were published prior to 1950. Excusing the published primary document collections which one would expect to see used here, such as Eliot's Debates and the collections of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, we are still left with an astonishingly high number of sources that are more than sixty years old, among them those which Puls cites most often. The scholarship of Bernard Bailyn, Robert Middlekauff, Pauline Maier, Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood and many others cannot and should not be so casually cast aside - their omission here is frankly stunning (I should note that while some of their works are included in the bibliography they are rarely if ever cited in the text, and Puls seems to have made little effort to incorporate their views). Also, Puls' only source for quotes by and about Benjamin Franklin appears to be the 1982 The Real Benjamin Franklin, published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies and which seems rather suspect to me (there are many good Franklin biographies out there, it probably goes without saying).

If it'd been only the sources that I had trouble with, I would have minded some but probably would have gotten over it. Alas, there's much more. The book is afflicted with a staggering number of errors, ranging from the factual to the typographical. In the strangely-titled "Who is Who" section which precedes the text, Puls lists John Burgoyne as "British general who defeated American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga" (when of course it was the other way round, which Puls does manage to note correctly in both the entries on Gates and in the text). Richard Fifield is titled "Adam's father-in-law"; he was actually Sam's maternal grandfather. William Franklin (Ben's son) suddenly finds himself the royal governor of Pennsylvania rather than New Jersey.

On page 37, Puls inaccurately describes the procedure for smallpox inoculation used in the pre-Revolutionary period; on page 49 he writes "The English planned to encourage immigration to the interior regions of the continent," when actually the Proclamation of 1763 expressly limited such settlement except under certain approved conditions. The dates given for the repeal of the Townshend Duties and the Evacuation of Boston are incorrect, and Puls' depiction of the revisions of Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence at the hands of Congress as "minor editing" is almost unbelievable. The British captain who was tried for his role in the Boston Massacre is alternately named Preston (his actual name), then Prescott, and then finally is back to his correct name by the time of his trial. Historian Benjamin Woods Labaree, author of the definitive work on the Boston Tea Party, is named Larabee throughout the text and the bibliography. And these are just the most serious mistakes which I happened to see; I have not mentioned the various spelling and other grammatical/typographical mistakes which ought to have been caught in the editing process.

Perhaps most galling of all is the lack of any sort of meaningful analysis of what is the key question about Adams in the years leading up to the Revolution: just what was his role in bringing about the Boston Massacre? Was there a secret plot to foment such an act, or was it simply a surprise event? Puls completely misses the ball on this question, failing even to discuss the various possible answers.

A final matter with which I must take exception is Puls' frustrating use of "Samuel Adams" throughout the book. The only time the word "Sam" ever appears is to note that's how Adams signed the Declaration of Independence. For the humble Adams, "Sam" seems to fit so much more nicely - Puls might have put it to good use.

While writing a biography of Sam Adams is trickier than for many of the other Framers (who never met a scrap of paper they didn't save), he deserves a cleaner and much more complete treatment than he's gotten from Mark Puls. I am unable to recommend this book in its current form.

No comments: