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Elizabeth Wells Adams

Wife of Samuel Adams

Far removed from the brilliant social circle of which Dorothy Hancock was the bright particular star, and inferior intellectually to Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Wells, second wife of Samuel Adams, was yet a woman of most excellent qualities and well worthy of being the helpmeet of that patriot and statesman during the most trying period of his life.

Samuel Adams's characterization of Benjamin Franklin as being "a great philosopher but a poor politician" might be paraphrased as applied to himself as being "a great politician but a very improvident family man." His whole life was practically given up to public affairs, while private interests, business, and family matters were neglected in a way that would have driven a woman less loyal and even-tempered than Elizabeth Adams to bitter complaint, if not open rebellion. Yet always we find her cheerful and sympathetic; always a faithful and loving wife to Samuel Adams and a tender mother to his motherless children. His business might be going to ruin through neglect while he talked politics with his neighbors on the street corners, his leaky roof go unshingled while he made patriots of the workmen of the sail-lofts and shipyards of Boston, but not one word of complaint or fault-finding do we hear from his family.

Politics came as natural to Samuel Adams as the air he breathed--not the petty politics that plots and plans for place or patronage, but the great politics that is the practical side of states-manship; the politics that began by teaching a crude and simple-minded people their inherent rights as freeborn men and women, and building up a spirit of opposition to any encroachments upon those rights, whether foreign or domestic; the politics that finally wrenched a handful of straggling Colonies from a great and powerful monarchy and welded them together into a compact and harmonious republic. Such was the politics of Samuel Adams, and the very thesis that won for him from Harvard College, in 1743, his Master of Arts degree, "Whether it be lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved," shows, not only the bent of his mind, but also, that however much other leaders of revolutionary sentiment may have looked forward to reconciliation with the mother country, on a basis of justice to the Colonies, Samuel Adams, almost from the first, saw nothing ahead but independence.

Samuel Adams was forty-two years old when he married Elizabeth Wells, fifth daughter of his intimate friend, Francis Wells, an English merchant who came to Boston with his family in 1723. She was twenty-nine years old at the time of the marriage. He was not a successful man according to the standard of most of his thrifty neighbors, though looked upon as one of strict integrity and blameless morality. He could not make money and, what was more to his discredit in their eyes, he seemed to have no desire to accumulate property. His father had left him a fairly profitable malting business, a comfortable house on Purchase Street, and one thousand pounds in money. Half the money he had loaned to a friend who never repaid him. The malt business was neglected and mismanaged so that it did not pay expenses. But always and ever, "Sam" Adams, as he was generally known, was talking politics, writing for the newspapers, debating some measure before the town meeting, or framing up some act for the Assembly calculated to strengthen the rights of the people or to awaken opposition to British encroachment.

Boston at that time was a city of about 18,000 inhabitants and noted already as a "reading town." Education was general. Nearly every person read some one of the five newspapers that were published there and they carried columns of announcements from the booksellers. Of news and impersonal articles, such as go to make up the newspapers of our day, there was little. But letters from the people championing various lines of thought, letters that argued, letters that pleaded, letters of vehement invective and insinuating sophistry, letters signed by the writers and letters signed by nom-de-plume, filled the columns of the papers and exercised a vast influence on public opinion. Samuel Adams was an indefatigable writer for the newspapers, appearing under many pen names, but always in advocacy of some measure that he was preparing to have the town meeting endorse or the Assembly put through. A Tory writer of the clay is quoted as saying: "The town meeting of Boston is the hotbed of sedition. It is there that all their dangerous insurrections are engendered; it is there that the flame of discord and rebellion is lighted up and disseminated over the Province."

"In the year 1764," says Hosmer, his biographer,* "Samuel Adams had reached the age of forty-two. Even now his hair was becoming grey, and a peculiar tremulousness of the head and hands made it seem as if he were already on the threshold of old age. His constitution, nevertheless, was remarkably sound. His frame of about medium stature was muscular and well knit. His eyes were a clear steel grey, his nose prominent, the lower part of his face capable of great sternness, but in ordinary intercourse wearing a genial expression. Life had brought him much of hardship. In 1757 his wife had died.... Misfortune had followed him in business. The malt house had been an utter failure; his patrimony had vanished little by little, so that beyond the mansion on Purchase Street, with its pleasant harbour view, little else remained. His house was becoming rusty through want of means to keep it in repair. On the sixth of December of this year he married for his second wife Elizabeth Wells, a woman of efficiency and cheerful fortitude, who, through the forty years of hard and hazardous life that remained to him, walked sturdily at his side. It required indeed no common virtue to do this, for while Samuel Adams superintended the birth of the child Independence, he was quite careless how the table at home was spread, and as to the condition of his own children's clothes and shoes. More than once the family would have become objects of charity if the hands of his wife had not been ready and skilful."

In the present day Samuel Adams would have been called a political "boss." Boston was as absolutely ruled by its "town meeting" as any city of today is governed by its mayor and council, and "Town-meeting Sam" Adams was absolute in his direction and control of the town meeting. It was he who outlined policies, made up slates, and saw that they were put through. Always he held some minor office, generally one without a salary attached and entirely out of keeping with his services and the power he exercised. For "Sam" Adams as a boss had his limitations which would have been laughed at by the political bosses of later days.

He remained as poor as ever. No shadow of corruption ever fell across his path. No political job ever left the taint of graft on his hands. He was a collector of taxes for years. Times were hard, money woefully scarce, and the collections became sadly in arrears. Adams's enemies raised the cry of defalcation. Then it came out that Sam Adams had refused to sell out the last cow or pig or the last sack of potatoes or corn meal or the scant furniture of a poor man to secure his taxes. He had told his superiors in authority that the town did not need the taxes as badly as most of these poor people needed their little belongings and that he would rather lose his office than force such collections. It was, of course, a poor showing for an official, but it put Sam Adams and the plain people of Boston so closely together that they were ready, ever after, to elect him to any office that he would accept.

Writing of Adams in 1769, Hosmer says: "For years now, Samuel Adams had laid aside all pretence of private business and was devoted simply and solely to public affairs. The house on Purchase Street still afforded the family a home. His sole source of income was the small salary (one hundred pounds) he received as clerk of the Assembly. His wife, like himself, was contented with poverty; through good management, in spite of their narrow means, a comfortable home life was maintained in which the children grew up happy and in every way well trained and cared for. John Adams tells of a drive taken by these two kinsmen on a beautiful June day, not far from this time, in the neighbourhood of Boston. Then as from the first and ever after there was an affectionate intimacy between them. They often called one another brother, though the relationship was only that of second cousin. 'My brother, Samuel Adams, says he never looked forward in his life; never planned, laid a scheme or formed a design of laying up anything for himself or others after him.' The case of Samuel Adams is almost without a parallel as an instance of enthusiastic, unswerving devotion to public service throughout a long life."

It is not our purpose in these pages to give, even in outline, a history of the great work that Samuel Adams did for the cause of American independence. But in order to gain insight into the character of Elizabeth Adams and show what the wife had to contend with, the utter devotion of her husband to the public business and his singular unselfishness, so far as that business was concerned, must be dwelt upon. It is easy enough at this time to see the great stakes for which Samuel Adams was playing; to understand his carefully laid plans and to sympathize with his disinterested patriotism. But we must remember that Elizabeth Adams, doing needlework and kitchen gardening to eke out the scant allowance she had to furnish a livelihood for herself and family, was looking at the fabric from the wrong side. What is to us a strong, harmonious, and beautiful pattern, must have been to her a motley collection of ragged ends, thrown together without rhyme or reason--something dull, distorted, and indescribably ugly. Yet we hear of no complaining---no chiding because of his thriftless waste of time and talent working for other people without compensation and neglecting his own affairs and family. Always she and his children seemed to think that whatever he thought or whatever he did must be right.

During the summer of 1774, Samuel Adams was a busy man. He was making preparations to attend the Congress that was to be held in Philadelphia, and was at the head of several committees devoted to the relief of Boston. Owing to the closing of the port, the city was in sadly straitened circumstances. Donations were coming from far and near and were distributed by one of the committees of which Adams was chairman. Another of his committees laid out public works, opening streets and wharves and furnishing work for many citizens. Hosmer, writing of Samuel Adams at this time, says:

"He still occupied the house in Purchase Street, the estate connected with which had, as time went forward, through the carelessness of its preoccupied owner, become narrowed to a scanty tract .... Shortly before this time he had been able, probably with the help of friends, to put his home in good order, and managed to be hospitable. For apparently, life went forward in his home, if frugally, not parsimoniously, his admirable wife making it possible for him, from his small income as clerk of the House, to maintain a decent housekeeping. His son, now twenty-two years old, a young man for whom much could be hoped, was studying medicine with Dr. Warren, after a course at Harvard. His daughter (Hannah Adams) was a promising girl of seventeen. With the young people and their intimates the father was cordial and genial. He had an ear for music and a pleasant voice in singing, a practice which he much enjoyed. The house was strictly religious; grace was said at each meal, and the Bible is still preserved from which some member read aloud each night. Old Surry, a slave woman given to Mrs. Adams in 1765, and who was freed upon coming into her possession, lived in the family nearly fifty years, showing devoted attachment. When slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, papers of manumission were made out for her in due form; but these she threw into the fire in anger, saying she had lived too long to be trifled with. The servant boy whom Samuel Adams carefully and kindly reared, became afterwards a mechanic of character and worked efficiently in his former master's behalf when at length, in his old age, Adams was proposed for Governor. Nor must Queue be forgotten, the big intelligent Newfoundland dog, who appreciated perfectly what was his due as the dog of Sam Adams. He had a vast antipathy to the British uniform. He was cut and shot in several places by soldiers, in retaliation for his own sharp attacks, for the patriotic Queue anticipated the 'embattled farmers' of Concord Bridge in inaugurating hostilities, and bore to his grave honourable scars from his fierce encounters."

"Until his fifty-third year, Samuel Adams had never left his native town except for places a few miles distant. The expenses of the journey and the sojourn in Philadelphia were arranged for by the legislative appropriation. But the critical society of a prosperous town and the picked men of the Thirteen Colonies were to be encountered. A certain sumptuousness in living and apparel would be not only fitting but necessary in the deputies, that the great Province which they represented might suffer no dishonour. Samuel Adams himself probably would have been quite satisfied to appear in the old red coat of 1770 in which he had been painted by Copley** and which his wife's careful darning doubtless still held together; but his townsmen arranged it differently."

How this arrangement was brought about is told in a private letter written August 11, 1774: "The ultimate wish and desire of the high government party is to get Sam Adams out of the way, when they think they may accomplish everyone of their plans; but however some may despise him, he has certainly very many friends. For, not long since, some persons (their names unknown) sent and asked his permission to build him a new barn, the old one being decayed, which was executed in a few days. A second sent to ask leave to repair his house, which was thoroughly effected soon. A third sent to beg the favour of him to call at a tailor's shop and be measured for a suit of clothes and chose his cloth, which was finished and sent home for his acceptance. A fourth presented him with a new wig, a fifth with a new hat, a sixth with six pairs of the best silk hose, a seventh with six pairs of fine thread ditto, an eighth with six pairs of shoes, and a ninth modestly inquired of him whether his finances were not rather low than otherwise. He replied it was true that was the case but he was very indifferent about these matters, so that his poor abilities were of any service to the public; upon which the gentleman obliged him to accept of a purse containing about fifteen or twenty Johannes."

The next glimpse we get of the family relations of Samuel and Elizabeth Adams was in a letter that has been preserved, which he wrote from Philadelphia, June 28, 1775, nearly a year after his friends had bought him new raiment and filled his purse in Boston to attend the first Continental Congress. Governor Gage had just made his proclamation offering pardon "to all persons who shall forthwith lay down their Arms and return to the Duties of peaceable Subjects, excepting only from the benefit of such pardon Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose Offences were of too flagitious a Nature to admit of any other Consideration than that of condign Punishment." The Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought and Dr. Joseph Warren had been killed. The letter was as follows

"My Dearest Betsy, yesterday I received Letters from some of our Friends at the Camp informing me of the Engagement between the American troops and the Rebel Army at Charlestown. I cannot but be greatly rejoiced at the tryed Valour of our Countrymen who by all Accounts behaved with an intrepidity becoming those who fought for their Liberties against the mercenary Soldiers of a Tyrant. It is painful to me to reflect on the Terror I suppose you were under, on hearing the Noise of War so near. Favour me, my dear, with an Account of your Apprehensions at that time, under your own hand. I pray God to cover the heads of our Countrymen in every day of Battle and ever to protect you from Injury in these distracted times. The Death of our truly amiable and worthy Friend Dr. Warren is greatly afflicting; the language of Friendship is, how shall we resign him; but it is our Duty to submit to the Dispensations of Heaven 'whose ways are ever gracious and just.' He fell in the glorious Struggle for publick Liberty. Mr. Pitts and Dr. Church inform me that my dear son has at length escaped from the Prison at Boston .... Remember me to my dear Hannah and sister Polly and to all Friends. Let me know where good old Surry is. Gage has made me respectable by naming me first among those who are to receive no favour from him. I thoroughly despise him and his proclamation.. The Clock is now striking twelve. I therefore wish you good Night.

"Yours most affectionately,


Early in August, Samuel Adams and the other delegates from Massachusetts hurried home. Congress had adjourned from August Ist until September 5th, and when Adams arrived from Philadelphia, he found the "General Assembly of the Territory of Massachusetts Bay" in session and himself entitled to sit as one of the eighteen councillors. The delegation had in charge five hundred thousand dollars for the use of Washington's army. Samuel Adams was at once elected Secretary of State. Mrs. Adams, who had been forced to leave Boston, was living with her daughter at the home of her aged father in Cambridge, and Samuel Adams, Jr., held an appointment as surgeon in Washington's army. Friends were looking after all of them. Mr. Adams's visit with his family was a short one, and on September I2th, he started on his return to Philadelphia, travelling on horseback, on a horse loaned him by John Adams. An interesting letter is still preserved, written by Mrs. Adams to her husband during this Congress. It is as follows:

Cambridge, Feb. 19, 1775.

MY DEAR--I received your affectionate Letter by Fesenton and I thank you for your kind Concern for my Health and Safty. I beg you Would not give yourself any pain on our being so Near the Camp; the place I am in is so Situated, that if the Regulars should ever take Prospect Hill, which God forbid, I should be able to make an Escape, as I am Within a few stones casts of a Back Road, Which Leads to the Most Retired part of Newtown .... I beg you to Excuse the very poor Writing as My paper is Bad and my pen made with Scissars. I should be glad (My dear), if you shouldn't come down soon, you would Write me Word Who to apply to for some Monney, for I am low in Cash and Every thing is very dear.

May I subscribe myself yours,


The closing years of Mrs. Adams's life brought more of peace and comfort than had been her portion during the Revolution or the years leading up to it from her marriage in 1754. After the British evacuated Boston she and her family returned to the city to live. Sometimes they were "low in cash," as she naively put it, but with her fine sewing and Hannah's "exquisite embroidery," they managed to live in comfort. Samuel Adams retired from Congress in 1781, but was constantly in office in Massachusetts, the salary of which, while he did not much consider it, must have been of great help to her. During Hancock's incumbency of the gubernatorial chair Adams was Lieutenant-Governor, and upon the death of Hancock in 1793, Adams succeeded him as the chief executive of the State and was re-elected Governor in 1795 and '96, declining re-election because of failing health.. The death of Dr. Samuel Adams in 1788, was a great blow to the father, which was somewhat ameliorated by his satisfaction at the happy marriage of his daughter Hannah, who had become the wife of Captain Thomas Wells, a younger brother of Mrs. Adams, her stepmother. They lived in a comfortable home on Winter Street. The last days of the aged pair were made comfortable by his son who, dying, left claims against the government which yielded about six thousand dollars. This sum fortunately invested sufficed for the simple wants of the old patriot and his wife. Samuel Adams died in 1803 and his wife followed him five years later.
Source: Wives of the Signers: The Women Behind the Declaration of Independence, by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1997). Orignaly Published in 1912 as volume 3 of The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons). Pages 62-80. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)

* [from pg. 150] American Statesman series.

** [from pg. 150] John Hancock had Copley, the artist, paint Samuel Adams's picture for him as he appeared before Governor Hutchinson after the Boston Massacre. The picture hung for many years in the Hancock mansion in Beacon Street, Boston, and is now in the Art Museum alongside that of John Hancock, painted by the same artist.


Designed and Edited by John Vinci
Last modified January 5, 2004