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Stacy Schiff takes on a hero of the American Revolution in her new book


Years ago, a friend told me I had to read a book. It was a biography of Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt in ancient Roman times. Stacy Schiff wrote that book, even though the record contained few reliable facts about Cleopatra's life and even gave conflicting versions of her death.

STACY SCHIFF: And so instead of trying to get out in front of it or trying to even make the two accounts tally in some way, I had her die twice - once by one account, once by the other account - trying to communicate to the reader that, in fact, both of these accounts are very likely, at least in part, fictitious.

INSKEEP: We debate history with such certainty, as if we have the answers when, in truth, it's more of a detective story. Schiff has been drawn more than once to people whose stories are partly hidden.

SCHIFF: I think there's a romance there of some kind. Why did these people go missing? How did they go missing? Who was covering up what and why?

INSKEEP: Her latest book seeks out a hero of the American Revolution, Samuel Adams of Boston. He's famous. You see his picture on Sam Adams beer. But unlike other revolutionaries, say his second cousin, John Adams, it is hard to say just what Samuel Adams did. He was apparently a writer, a propagandist, dramatizing resistance to the British crown in the 1700s. Maybe he had something to do with the Boston Tea Party, where revolutionaries threw British tea in the Boston Harbor. He was a downscale guy from a formerly wealthy family who organized people behind the scenes.

SCHIFF: He somewhat writes himself out of the history. He's very much aware - in a way that Benjamin Franklin wished he were - of not too much claiming the limelight. And he's much more comfortable pushing other people into the spotlight, which is part of his nature. It's very much part of where he comes from. But he also was trying to cover the trail because fomenting revolution is never something you mean to advertise, at least before the revolution. We have a sort of heart-rending account of John Adams' in which Samuel Adams is feeding papers to the fire - to his fire in his room in Philadelphia. And John says to Samuel, don't you think you're maybe overreacting a little bit here? And Samuel replies that he doesn't want any of their friends to suffer for his negligence. So there's a real attempt to sort of cover the trail.

INSKEEP: He believed he would be more effective if he were less noticed. Is that it?

SCHIFF: I think it was very useful to him. People wrote under pseudonyms for the most part in those days. And he's writing under something like 30, or at least 30 that we have counted, which makes him seem more effective because, of course, there's this entire legion of people. There's this whole community of people writing, all of them who happen to be Samuel Adams.

INSKEEP: Because you don't have a lot of his own words that are confirmed to be his own words, you seem to go to extraordinary lengths to illuminate the world around him - for example, Samuel Adams, Boston, Mass., in the 1700s. Can you tell me about one thing that you did to bring that time and that place to light? You seem to have gone through all the master's theses written by Harvard University students in the 1700s. What did you find?

SCHIFF: I just thought that was an interesting way to get a sense of the pulse of Boston. So Harvard graduates who were essentially sitting for their masters were able to pick a thesis that they intended to argue, either for or against. And the questions that they choose seem to provide something of an X-ray of what was going on in the minds of people at the time. Can slavery be in any way justified? Do the ends justify the means? And then there were kind of what seemed to us insane questions, you know, about the existence of angels or the religious questions which we would no longer consider today. And the question which Adams chooses is whether the loyalty to the crown should be sustained if a people's rights have been invaded.

INSKEEP: This is decades before the American Revolution. What was it that put this on his mind?

SCHIFF: One of the things that drew me to the book - because there is this long launch time, which I think we forget. I think we tend to think of the revolution as having been this kind of steady march to revolution. And I wanted to inject in it that accidental quality. It happens in fits and start, and sometimes, it sputters out completely. What had happened in the early 1740s is that a land bank, which was founded by a group of Massachusetts men, had been very peremptorily shut down by the crown in London. And Samuel Adams' father had been one of the directors of that bank, had invested a great deal in it. In the abolishing of the bank, he was effectively ruined financially. And Samuel Adams, our Samuel Adams, would spend much of the next years, in fact, fending off creditors because he would be responsible after his father's death for the debt incurred by the land bank and attempting to make sure that his house was not repossessed. So from a very early point, there is this sense that his rights have somehow been violated or that the crown has somehow overreached.

INSKEEP: Did that drive him, then, for all the years that followed?

SCHIFF: This is where the evidence fails us. I think you can draw a perforated line between those two things. I don't think I would ever want to say that that is why he is so much sensitive to liberties invaded over the years that follow. It is certainly what propels him. By all accounts, it is what propels him to centre stage politically.

INSKEEP: You note that his fellow revolutionaries gave headlines of this guy, said that he was great and important but then didn't say why. Do you think that you figured out what it was that he did that made him important?

SCHIFF: I think that if there is a driving force over the years between, say, the Stamp Act and the declaration, Samuel Adams is behind it. And I think that if you return him to those years, the revolution looks very different. And if you want to see how street protests will build into this much larger movement, if you want to understand what the man in the street was thinking, Samuel Adams will illuminate all of those things for you. He struck me in many ways as a man from another time in his austerity and in his integrity. And these are - many of the qualities that he demonstrates, I think, are qualities that have to us today become qualities which are more military than civilian. But that sense of promoting other people's careers, being the person in the background, shepherding other people to center stage, very much the way he operated and partly what made him so effective. He's an extraordinary recruiter of men - one of his contemporaries would say that, for that reason alone, he should go down in history - but also remarkably good at changing men's minds. I mean, these were the years - John Adams will say that these are the - this was the real revolution. The revolution that precedes the actual fighting, this is the revolution in thinking. And in changing those hearts and minds, Adams is really at the forefront.

INSKEEP: The latest book by Stacy Schiff is "The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams." Thanks so much.

SCHIFF: Thanks so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.