Founders and the Constitution

Samuel Adams (1722-1803)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of Samuel Adams. They will learn about his role as a leader in the American opposition to British tyranny, his hopes for a new American government, and his methods of persuasion for the Revolutionary cause.

Founding Principles

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


Of how much importance is it, that the utmost pains be taken by the public to have the principles of virtue early inculcated on the minds even of children, and the moral sense kept alive. - Samuel Adams (1775)


Though his name today is most often associated with a modern brand of beer, Samuel Adams was a prime actor in the American independence movement. A leader of the Patriot movement in Boston, Adams was instrumental in convincing other colonies to join Massachusetts in its resistance to British rule. A master propagandist and organizer, Adams stirred the hearts of his Boston readers through his writing and sparked them to take to the streets. A revolutionary in spirit, Adams was also an architect of government, having a role in the writing of the Articles of Confederation and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. But he played no role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for he feared that strengthening the central government would result in the diminution of the people’s liberty. Adams did, however, support the Constitution after the Bill of Rights was added.

Adams was perhaps the archetype of the “old republican” of the Revolutionary era. A Puritan, he believed deeply in private virtue, which he defined in the political world as self-denial for the common good. Convinced that virtue was the key to American victory over the British, Adams advocated boycotts of British “fopperies” and “baubles,” which had the pleasant double effect of aiding Americans morally and hurting the British economically. Adams himself lived out the Puritan-republican ideal, often wearing the same rumpled suit and dilapidated powdered wig. So disheveled did he appear that anonymous friends bought him a new suit to wear to the Continental Congress so as to not embarrass himself and Massachusetts. John Adams described his second cousin as a man who had “the most thorough understanding of liberty.” Though Adams’s vision of a nation of ascetic, self-sacrificing republican citizens was slipping away even before he died, his legacy of American independence and liberty would endure.

Relevant Thematic Essays


In this lesson, students will learn about Samuel Adams. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Samuel Adams (1722–1803) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Samuel Adams and Resistance to Tyranny in which Adams calls his fellow colonists to unify against British tyranny. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.

There are Follow-Up Homework Options, which ask students to write their own “Circular Letters,” or reflect further on Adams’s opinions on self-denial for the public good. Extensions asks students to read persuasive speeches from various historical periods and compare the rhetorical strategies they find to those used by Adams.


Students will:

  • appreciate Adams’s role as a leader in the American opposition to British tyranny.
  • understand Adams’s hopes for the new American government.
  • identify rhetorical strategies and their goals.
  • compare historical methods of persuasion to modern examples.
  • analyze Adams’s methods of persuasion for the Revolutionary cause.


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—Samuel Adams (1722–1803)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: Samuel Adams and Resistance to Tyranny
  • Loaded word/phrases cards

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—Samuel Adams (1722–1803) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Samuel Adams.

    Samuel Adams could be called the “Father of the American Revolution.” He formed the Sons of Liberty, organized the Boston Tea Party, and mobilized independence efforts in Massachusetts and other colonies. He signed the Declaration of Independence, helped write the Articles of Confederation, and served as governor of Massachusetts.

Context 5 min.

Explain to students that the British had imposed the Coercive Acts as punishment for the colonists’ actions at the Boston Tea Party—which Samuel Adams had instigated. Adams countered with a letter to all the American colonies, calling for unity against the British.

In His Own Words 20 min.

  1. Before class, copy and cut out enough of the loaded word/phrases cards so that there are approximately double the number of cards as students in the class.
  2. Divide students into groups of four and give each group eight “loaded word” cards and a dictionary.
  3. Ask students to define the terms and then put the words into categories based on their intended effect on the audience. Students should decide on their own categories by discussing how each term or phrase makes them feel.

    Suggested categories: Designed to provoke anger; to elicit sympathy; to produce indignation; to motivate action; to create feelings of unity and solidarity.

  4. When students have finished, ask a spokesperson from each group to report their words and categories to the class. Write the chosen categories on the board.
  5. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: Samuel Adams and Resistance to Tyranny.
  6. Still working in their groups, have students read Handout C and complete Handout B.
  7. Once everyone has finished, ask students to underline examples of individual word choices and phrases Adams uses to rouse his audience’s emotions.
  8. Put a transparency of Handout C on the overhead, and have each group in turn report one example of emotionally charged speech. Underline the example on the overhead for the class.
  9. Continue with all groups until all examples have been reported.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

Reconvene the class and ask students if they believe Adams’s writing achieved his goal of stirring his audience’s emotions. (Compare to the student-chosen categories written on the board from the activity.) Why or why not? Ask the class to brainstorm instances in their own lives in which they could encounter emotionally charged rhetoric. Is it important to be aware of the techniques speakers and writers use?

Suggested examples of emotionally charged speech: Announcers talking before a sporting event; politicians on the campaign trail; lawmakers convincing citizens of the need for a certain policy; activists protesting a law or an organization; union members calling for a strike; friends imposing peer pressure to those who do not want to follow the crowd.

Follow-Up Homework Options

  1. Have students choose a topic that is important to them and write their own “Circular Letter” to spur others to action, using at least four of the loaded words and phrases from the class activity. They should underline the other terms and techniques they use specifically to arouse emotion.
  2. Samuel Adams was a strong advocate of private virtue and self-denial for the common good. Have students keep a journal for twenty-four hours, making note of each time they deny themselves an immediate desire for the sake of others. Have them address their findings in a personal narrative, in which they also address the question: Do you believe our society encourages self-denial for the common good? Why or why not?


Have students read at least two famous speeches from various periods of American history: students may choose Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech to the citizens of Virginia; Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech, or others of similar caliber. What rhetorical strategies are used most often? How have these techniques to arouse emotion changed, and how have they remained the same? Speeches can be found using the links below.

Patrick Henry <>.
Martin Luther King, Jr. <>.
Ronald Reagan <>.


Alexander, John K. Samuel Adams: America’s Revolutionary Politician. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Beach, Stewart. Samuel Adams: The Fateful Years, 1764–1776. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1965.
Cushing, Harry Alonzo. The Writings of Samuel Adams. New York: The Free Press, 2003.
Maier, Pauline. The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. Reprint. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
Miller, John C. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Reprint. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1994.

“Circular Letter of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, May 13, 1774.”The Avalon Project at Yale University. <>.
“Samuel Adams, 1722–1803.” <>.
“Resolutions of the Boston Town Meeting; September 13, 1768.” The Avalon Project at Yale University. <>.
“Speech Delivered at the State House in Philadelphia, August 1, 1776.” Boston History and Architecture. <>.
“The Rights of the Colonists.” <>.

Selected Works

By Samuel Adams

  • Massachusetts Circular Letter (1768)
  • Resolutions of the Boston Town Meeting (1768)
  • The Rights of the Colonists (1772)
  • Circular Letter of the Boston Committee of Correspondence (1774)

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